Friday, September 17, 2010

In praise of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A has always been one of my favourite destinations in London ever since as a young furniture history student we used to pore over the rows of chests of drawers and chairs in the furniture galleries. By modern museological standards, such displays would be seen as inaccessible to most visitors and stultifyingly boring in design (somewhat over hyped in the latest Autumn 2010 edition of Bonham's magazine as " the long, doom laden corridors of South Kensington's own version of Gormenghast"), but we loved them.

With the opening of the British Galleries in the 2001, all that changed with the decorative arts collections now combining to tell the story of the development and evolution of British design. The galleries set an international benchmark in intelligent and accessible exhibition design, and visiting this week it was exhilarating to see the Museum continues to raise the bar. I had gone there specifically to see the highly acclaimed newly opened Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, but found myself re-discovering a range of other galleries. The Gilbert Silver Collection has now moved to the V&A from Somerset House and is so much better displayed, sitting alongside the impressively dense displays in the Whiteley Silver Galleries. The showcase, lighting supports and information design is all superb, and the extraordinary painted and tiled interiors of the V&A, not to mention the wonderful garden , are now used to maximum benefit rather than being boarded over.

I also discovered the substantial paintings collection that the Museum holds, including major works of Constable and Turner now in their own dedicated galleries. And if you are after a bit of muscle, the sculpture galleries depict the full story of the development of English sculpture, managing to slip into the story the fabulous Theseus and the Minotaur of Canova and Bernini's Neptune and Triton.

Much of the praise can be attributed to Sir Mark Jones who became director in 2001. At that time the V&A had broken the careers of a series of directors  ( Roy Strong, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, Alan Borg) who had been unable to conquer the eccentricities of either the staff or the maze of dark galleries ( see above), or even the diverse nature of the collection. "What is the V&A for?" asked UK Culture Secretary Chris Smith in 2004, which just about summed up common perceptions of the place. So it is great to see it back as a market leader again.
A couple of observations:

1) The US style of benefactor recognition is now slipping in with many of the galleries now personally named, e.g. the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Sculpture Gallery - doesn't worry me, especially if it allows such great results.

2) The provision of computers to allow visitors to access the wider collection was as far as I could see being completely ignored. I saw the same thing at the National Portrait Gallery later in the day. I believe such provision is missing the point. Visitors come to see the real thing and know they can access much of the collection on line so why bother during a visit. Let's ditch this idea.

And the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries? - mind blowing. Do make time to visit them for a wonderful museum experience when next you are in London.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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