The Victoria and Albert Museum is to try to raise £25 million for the most radical redesign of its galleries for nearly fifty years. Fifteen rooms of the British Galleries, covering the years 1500-1900, are to be completely refurbished.
An application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a substantial proportion of the costs will be submitted next month. The lottery decision is expected by the end of the year and, providing partnership funds can be raised, work on the galleries should start soon afterwards. The project will involve the total closure of all fifteen rooms for a four-year period, probably from the late summer of 1997 until 2001.
The long-overdue refurbishment of the British Art and Design Galleries is the personal initiative of new V&A director Dr Alan Borg, who took over last October. Previous directors had favoured piecemeal work on some of the rooms, but Dr Borg is convinced that it is only economic to tackle the complete project (an approach made feasible with the lottery).
The post-war reconstruction of the British Galleries was completed in 1952 and the rooms are now very shabby. They lack air-conditioning (making it impossible to display textiles, which represent some of the greatest decorative art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The largest of the rooms, room 56, has since the 1970s either been closed or most of it has been boarded up as a store.
Many consider it a national disgrace that British decorative art is now so badly displayed at the V&A, a situation which would have angered the founders of the South Kensington Museum, who saw it as a showcase for the country’s achievements. But the difficulty is that the V&A has, perhaps surprisingly, found it easier in recent years to raise funds for its foreign collections, such as the Toshiba, Nehru, Tsui and Frank Lloyd Wright galleries.
The British galleries are rooms 52 to 58 on the first floor (1500-1750) and 118 to 125 on the floor above (1750-1900). At present there are 3,000 works on show. Although this total is likely to be similar in the re-display, many of the objects will be different, with loans to fill important gaps, such as paintings of country houses. Air-conditioning will also make it possible to mount proper displays of tapestries and other textiles.
Christopher Wilk, a furniture specialist and curator in charge of the redesign of the British Galleries, argues that temporary closure of the rooms is necessary. “Piecemeal closure would mean that it would take considerably longer”, he says. Although the V&A could mount a temporary exhibition of masterpieces of British decorative art of touring shows elsewhere, this would require further funds (which are not available), and most of the collection is therefore likely to go into store for four years.
Wilk is convinced that the new galleries will be worth the wait. “The present display utterly fails to give a feel for British decorative art. We want to create galleries which will be ambitious intellectually, exciting visually, and evocative, giving visitors the atmosphere of the period”.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘V&A tackles Britain head-on'