News | February 24, 2023

David Bowie Handwritten Lyrics and Letters Get Permanent Home

© John Robert Rowlands/The David Bowie Archive

David Bowie as The Thin White Duke, Station to Station Tour, 1976

A major gift and donation has helped the V&A secure David Bowie’s archive for the nation, with more than 80,000 items spanning six decades of the cultural icon’s career to be made available to the public for the first time.

Spanning Bowie’s career, the archive features handwritten lyrics, letters, sheet music, original costumes, fashion, photography, film, music videos, set designs, Bowie’s own instruments, album artwork and awards. It also includes more intimate writings, thought processes and unrealised projects, the majority of which have never been seen in public before.

Highlights include handwritten lyrics for songs including Fame (1975), Heroes (1977) and Ashes to Ashes (1980), as well as examples of the 'cut up' method of writing introduced to Bowie by the writer William Burroughs. Additionally, the archive holds a series of intimate notebooks from every era of Bowie’s life and career.

The archive also includes a photo collage of film stills from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975-76), directed by Nicolas Roeg and featuring Bowie, and over 70,000 photographs, prints, negatives, large format transparencies, slides and contact sheets taken by some of the 20th century’s leading photographers from Terry O’Neill to Brian Duffy and Helmut Newton.

Cut up lyrics for ‘Blackout’ from “Heroes”, 1977
© The David Bowie Archive 2012/V&A Images

Cut up lyrics for Blackout from Heroes, 1977

Self portrait in pose also adopted for the album cover of “Heroes”, 1978
© The David Bowie Archive 2012/V&A Images

Self portrait in pose also adopted for the album cover of Heroes, 1978

Quilted two-piece suit, 1972 Designed by Freddie Burretti for the Ziggy Stardust tour
The David Bowie Archive

Quilted two-piece suit, 1972. Designed by Freddie Burretti for the Ziggy Stardust tour

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973 Design by Kansai Yamamoto Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita
© Sukita/The David Bowie Archive 2012

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita.

From 2025, it will be made available to the public through the creation of The David Bowie Centre for the Study of Performing Arts at V&A East Storehouse, in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. The acquisition and creation of The Centre has been made possible thanks to the David Bowie Estate and a generous donation of £10m from the Blavatnik Family Foundation and Warner Music Group.

The archive traces Bowie’s creative processes from his early career in the 1960s to his death in 2016. Alongside the creation of the new Centre, the gift will support the ongoing conservation, research, and study of the archive.

Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, said: “The V&A is thrilled to become custodians of his incredible archive, and to be able to open it up for the public. Bowie’s radical innovations across music, theatre, film, fashion, and style continue to influence design and visual culture and inspire creatives.

The archive also includes:

  • stage costumes such as Bowie’s breakthrough Ziggy Stardust ensembles designed by Freddie Burretti
  • Brian Eno’s EMS Synthesizer from Bowie’s seminal Low and Heroes albums
  • a stylophone, a gift from Marc Bolan in the late 1960’s, used on Bowie’s seminal Space Oddity recording

A spokesperson from the David Bowie Estate, said: “The David Bowie Centre for the Study of Performing Arts – and the behind the scenes access that V&A East Storehouse offers– will mean David’s work can be shared with the public in ways that haven’t been possible before, and we’re so pleased to be working closely with the V&A to continue to commemorate David’s enduring cultural influence.”

V&A East Storehouse will be a new type of museum experience which will enable unprecedented access to the nation’s collections in a new purpose-built home for over 250,000 objects, 350,000 books and 1,000 archives. It will bring together conservation labs, working stores, research and reading rooms with galleries, display and performance spaces and creative studios.

The acquisition follows the V&A’s ground-breaking 2013 exhibition, David Bowie Is..., which marked the first time a museum had been given unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive. The exhibition was seen by over two million people around the world as part of its international tour, becoming one of the V&A’s most popular exhibitions of all time.