Mark Jones, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, has told The Art Newspaper that he is “optimistic” that the second phase of the museum’s rolling programme of redisplay, or “Future Plan”, will go ahead despite the “difficult” funding climate. The budget is projected to be about £120m, with a ten-year timescale once it has begun. Around 30% of the South Kensington museum’s spaces await redisplay, among them the Cast Court, which Jones calls “one of the great glories of the V&A”. Also on the museum’s to-do list are: new furniture galleries; the completion of the ceramics study gallery; new temporary exhibition galleries along the Exhibition Road wing, and Europe 1600 to 1800 galleries—“our next big capital project”, says Jones. A textile research centre is planned at the museum’s off-site store in Blythe House, west London.
Jones was speaking as the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries, which opened on 2 December, are being hailed an aesthetic and intellectual success. The way the galleries shed new light on medieval art, conveying its often religious dimension, has received special praise (The Art Newspaper, December 2009, p29) as has their revision of the popular image that a so-called “dark age” followed the fall of the Roman empire.
Seven years in the making, covering 35,000 sq. ft (most of the east wing of the museum), costing £31.75m and boasting around 1,800 works of art and decorative objects, the galleries’ size, scope and statistics recalls the spirit of the Victorian founding father of the V&A. Also impressive is the fact that these galleries are just one piece, albeit the largest, in the first phase of its modernisation costing £120m, underway since 2002. This has included the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, plus theatre, jewellery and sculpture galleries as well as a redesigned courtyard garden, shop and café.
The Medieval and Renaissance galleries were funded by more than £20m in private donations and a £9.75m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Jones says that the museum will be looking to the HLF for continued support to fund its second phase of refurbishments and redisplays.
Among the treats in the newly opened galleries is a working fountain surrounded by garden statuary including Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, made in 1560-62 for the Medicis, as well as a statue of Narcissus gazing into his reflection, by Valerio Cioli (around 1560). A further coup de théâtre in the space evoking Renaissance-era palaces and villas is the addition of a balcony overlooking the gallery that incorporates late 15th-century fragments from a palazzo in Treviso.
Peta Motture, the chief curator of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, says that one aim was to get “an outdoor feel” through such placements and improved lighting. Another was for visitors to “feel” spaces, “usually very difficult to put across when you have only got fragments”. An example of this is the high altar from the convent chapel of Santa Chiara, Florence (1494-1500). New tiled flooring allows visitors to stand before the austere altarpiece where Poor Clare nuns once worshipped. Where there were storerooms are now two dramatically lit side “chapels”. One contains reliquaries and chalices, the other religious vestments and a late 14th-century crosier carved in ivory.
Motture says that the galleries also aim to show clearly the close links between the Italian Renaissance and art and design made by northern Europeans.
By interlinking formerly separate spaces, the museum has created ten sequential rooms over three levels, working with London-based architect-designers Muma (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects). A “floating” concrete staircase in a narrow glazed courtyard is a nod to the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. When complete, the stairs will lead to the museum’s upper floors, as will a new glass lift. Nearby is a study centre.
Touch-screen displays with short, silent films as well as period “style guides” and 14 audio points, often integrated into bench seating, enhance the interpretation of key objects, such as The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt, woven in the Netherlands (around 1425-30). As colourful is the array of stained-glass panels, including examples of the high gothic of the mid-13th century from Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, displayed along with sculpture, on a screen of back-lit alabaster in the medieval rooms.
The international breadth of the galleries is exemplified by a Japanese screen, 1600-30, showing a Portuguese trading vessel, made after the first arrival in the east of “southern Barbarians”. Nearby is a 1480 portrait of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II by the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, on loan from the National Gallery. Slave traders’ manillas (metal bracelets) on loan from the British Museum, are tokens of the human cost of European expansion.
The flowering of Islamic visual culture in medieval Spain under Moorish rule, the Alhambra in Granada for example, receives much less attention than the glories of Christian art, however