When viewed against the rise in the public’s fascination with fine art, old and new, the decorative arts have been in the doldrums for the last 20 years or so, to such an extent that some museums have almost given up on them. The Musèe des Arts Decoratifs in Paris has been semi-closed for nearly a generation. The Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna has put most of its collections into “visible storage”, commissioned artists such as Sol LeWitt to make installations of the rest, and turned most of the space into galleries of contemporary fine art. English regional museums, have tended to demote the items to mere illustrations of social history, considered so much more accessible and relevant to the public.
Now the Victoria and Albert Museum, itself considered the Cinderella of London’s great museums in recent years (unjustifiably, of course, considering the outstanding quality of its collections), has pulled off a triumph in its British Galleries which should give great pleasure to the public and reinspire museums around the world.
It has been a long time coming, the project of redisplaying the galleries of British Art 1500-1900 dating back to 1994. The recently retired director Alan Borg gave the £31 million project to Christopher Wilk, the American head of the furniture department, who accepted on condition that he could choose his own interdisciplinary team from among the curators.
At times it looked as though this had got bogged down in committee-itis as ideas were debated and redebated. Museums the world round were visited to observe how to do it and how not to (Mr CWilk is too polite to name any of the bad ones, but says he was impressed by the Royal Ontario Museum). Visitors were trailed through the galleries as their behaviour and viewing patterns were noted. The psychology of wall panel reading was studied (our reading age declines when we read standing up, so 180 words is the best length) and various styles of label writing were tested on members of the public.
All this was just the prelude to choosing and interpreting the collections so that the visitor would linger, look and understand. Because the truth is, that even if you own Canova’s Three Graces, the hangings embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots herself, much of the greatest British furniture, silver and silks and so on in the world, for most visitors it all just adds up to “furnishing with antiques” unless the curators make a huge effort to imagine what it like not to know even the rudiments.
The new galleries are presented chronologically, but with four themes interweaving: “Who leads taste?” (the court; the aristocracy; the designer etc) “Fashionable living” (from formal to informal; tea drinking; public entertainment; the cult of domesticity etc) “What is new?” (skills from Europe; trade with the Indies; the invention of steam-powered machinery etc), and finally “Style”. And with the last, because most people do not know the difference between Baroque and Rococo, an acanthus leaf and strapwork, short films have been commissioned, which are shown discreetly throughout the galleries to lead the visitor’s eye around an object as these elements are being explained.
Christopher Wilk wanted to avoid the all-singing, all-dancing, multi-media dominated experience inflicted by many new museums: “I hate sound spill-over”, he says, so any music can be heard only on head phones. The screens are placed that you see them after the work of art, not before, and they always enlarge upon it: for example, a wonderfully garish, jewel-studded automaton clock by the eighteenth-century maker, Cox, is also shown on a nearby screen with its figures turning and banging their instruments while its tinkly little tunes play.
Within the chronology there are areas that focus on key figures, such as the architect Robert Adam, who was also a designer of interiors and of furniture and silver, or on the “upholder” who did so much more in the 18th century than just supply the hangings. And for the first time, textiles have their rightful place in these galleries as the most expensive items in any decorative scheme for most of the centuries in question. Thus, the V&A draws on its incomparable collection to show bolts of the Bizarre silks of the early 18th-century with their puzzlingly futuristic designs. For the first time also, wall-papers, architects’ sketches and books are displayed with the objects (my favourite is Joseph Paxton’s scribble of the Crystal Palace on the back of an envelope), and in drawers that can be pulled out under cases.
These drawers are intended to encourage the visitor to explore, and they are really rewarding: under the two enchanting, early 18th-century dolls called Lord and Lady Clapham, the drawers reveal that they had as big a wardrobe as Barbie doll, right down to tiny silver pennies in his purse.
The attention to detail in these galleries is exquisite and learned, with even the right kinds of floor boards in the various period rooms (scrubbed oak in one, stained and waxed deal in another), which now have all four walls, so that they are spaces which you enter, rather than open boxes like a doll’s house. In the case of the Norfolk House Music Room, at its time the grandest domestic space in London, the missing wall had to be recreated from fragments.
Advisor for these rooms was the historic decorator, David Mlinaric, and architectural historians John Cornforth and John Harris were also involved, together with Christopher Gibbs, dealer and collector.
Everywhere there are surprises to banish boredom, such as the re-creation to scale with etched glass of the engineering elements of the Crystal Palace, an area with fakes where you are encouraged to handle the pieces, or the challenge of guessing which of two identical porcelain figures is by Meissen and which by Bow (a flip label gives the answer, with explanation).
Above all, you are shown the works as never before. The cases, which are beautifully engineered by the Milanese firm of Goppion, help a great deal, as does the lighting: dozens of fibre-optic beams, whose source is hidden, but which reflect down from a transparent mirror film on the tops of the cases, so you can see parts of objects that previously were obscure.
The display, designed by Diana Casson to float within the museum’s mediocre 1900-ish architecture, also aims at an abstract presentation of the objects (no decorators’ clichés such as a commode flanked by two chairs, for example) which tells the viewer that an object is not just a furnishing, but something worthy of study.
Come to the Victoria and Albert Museum to understand the totality of the art of the past, not just the ahistorical fragment of it that you see in a picture gallery. If architecture is the mother of the arts—and there is plenty of architecture here—then this, for once, is the complete family. The galleries open on 22 November and there is a very readable big book by Michael Snodin and John Styles (V&A Publications, £45) which sums up the thought that went into them.
By the way, the museum is still short of £2.5 million to pay for these path-breaking galleries. Any offers?
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘If architecture is the mother of the arts then this is the whole family'