The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which displayed the wonders of the British Empire to the world.
At that time it was known as the Museum of Manufacturers, and its directors intended its displays of applied art and science to help boost the productivity of the empire. This practical focus set it apart from the “high art” of the National Gallery and the scholarship of the British Museum. In its role as educator of the nation, the V&A even experimented with late night opening “to ascertain what hours are most convenient to the working classes”.
But by the end of the 20th century, with British manufacturing in decline and a general questioning of the role of museums, the V&A was subjected to a fundamental rethink. Spurred on by New Labour’s abolition of entry charges in 2001, which led to a doubling of visitor numbers, the V&A invested £150 million in a ten-year project – the Future Plan – to radically remodel its galleries.
The most spectacular phase of this plan was unveiled last December. An entire wing was gutted, rebuilt and re-imagined as the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. It has been met with ecstatic reviews from most critics, and with good reason. What was once an outmoded Victorian maze that often hid its wonders rather than display them has become an inspiring example of what a 21st century museum should be.
I never imagined a refit could do so much to transform a museum and its exhibits. With this new approach, not only do the exhibits seem more beautiful and more comprehensible, but the visitor is also encouraged to reconsider what they think they know about the period.
The curators are keen to emphasise some of the cultural connections that have previously been downplayed or denied. The review in the Times newspaper describes the galleries as revolutionary, because they reassert continuity between the (supposedly dark and ignorant) Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The galleries are also keen to demonstrate the links between medieval Europe and its trading partners, showing how “European civilisation” was in a constant dialogue with “outside” influences. We see how Japanese finery influenced Italian finery, and how Portuguese bronzes inspired the artists of Benin.
The V&A tries its best to bring the exhibits back to life. You can walk out onto the balcony of a Renaissance palace and gaze down at the crowds below, you can listen to the music of an illuminated choir book, and you can turn the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks (virtually).
One question I’ve been unable to answer is why the government chose to fund such an undertaking. Although a number of governments around the world, inspired by the example of the Bilbao Guggenheim, have invested millions in building modern art museums as vehicles for “urban regeneration”, it is far rarer to see similar funds made available to other kinds of museum. In the eyes of planners, modern art evokes dynamism and progress in a way that 15th century tapestries do not.
Perhaps the refit reflects one new reality of the museum economy. Now that looting other countries for their cultural riches is frowned upon, it becomes much more expensive to acquire such objects, as one must pay for them on the open market. Therefore, when faced with a question of how to salvage an ailing museum, a redesign, often engaging flamboyant architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry (the former was meant to work on the Future Plan but dropped out), becomes a very attractive proposition.
I’d encourage everyone to go and visit the V&A’s extraordinary new galleries the next time they’re in London. But given the probability of a Tory victory in the general election – and their promise to reintroduce entry charges soon afterwards – you’d better hurry.
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