Victoria and Albert Museum plans £150 million radical rethink of the displays

Among the first tasks to be tackled is the complete refurbishment of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.



The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is embarking on a £150 million plan, which will involve the most fundamental renewal of its building for over 50 years. The wider plan involves looking at the 12-acre museum as a city, which will divided into a series of “quarters” to make it easier for visitors to find their way around: these will be named Europe, Asia, Contemporary Design, Temporary Exhibitions, and Learning and Study Collections. Later aspects of the 10-year scheme involve the construction of the Daniel Libeskind Spiral and improved temporary exhibition galleries.

Museum director Mark Jones divides the V&A plan into three phases. The first will comprise no fewer than 28 separate projects—ranging from improved signage and labels to new upper floor galleries for sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and modern glass.

The most important part of Phase I will be new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries (800-1600 AD), and this will involve moving many of the displays from the present treasury and galleries surrounding the garden to other rooms nearer Cromwell Road. Overall there will be slightly more space, but, much more importantly, there will be the opportunity to modernise the presentation, as has been done so successfully with the new British Galleries.

The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries are likely to cost around £11 million, and £1 million has already been pledged by an anonymous donor. Malcolm Baker has been appointed the curator responsible and Luke Syson will be seconded from the British Museum to advise. Work in the galleries should start in 2004, and this will involve a rolling programme of short-term room closures, taking three years.

Moving objects from rooms around the garden, which also have to serve as walkways, will free this area to become a “welcoming” cloister. A shop is to be set up in rooms on the eastern side of the garden, a restaurant on the northern side (including the tiled Gamble Room), and a learning zone on the western side. The garden will be improved and the Italian cypresses, which cut out so much light, may go.

Consideration had been given to moving the National Art Library, either to outside premises or to the Henry Cole Wing. However, it has now been decided to keep its present location. The large gallery on the west side of the issuing library room (currently closed and used for offices and stacks) is likely to be opened up as a public information centre. Under the new plan, the Henry Cole Wing will be used just for study facilities, such as the prints and drawings room and the new architectural drawing centre which is being set up with the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Altogether Phase I will cost an estimated £30 million. An application for some of the individual projects is expected to be made to the Heritage Lottery Fund, other money will come from the museum’s annual grant-in-aid, and the rest from donors. Architect Eva Jiricna is overseeing this phase of the plan.

The second phase will be the Spiral, and Mr Jones has now decided that this controversial Libeskind building should definitely go ahead. “Conceptually the V&A has a choice, whether or not to engage with the contemporary—photography, architecture, design, fashion and craft,” he explained. Although the Contemporary Space provides a display gallery, only a new building on the Exhibition Road site will offer substantial extra space.

The Spiral will cost £75 million, and former director Dr Alan Borg raised pledges of £31 million. Mr Jones is now running a discreet fundraising campaign, focussing on large donors, until he has increased the sum to £50 million. He then hopes to go public and seek part of the final £25 million from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Work should begin on the Spiral late next year and it would then open in 2007.

The third phase of the V&A’s plan scheme involves renovating the temporary exhibition rooms, in the North and South Courts. Fashion displays would also be moved to this area, allowing the Octagon to be used to enlarge the present Indian gallery. This means that by 2012 at least 80% of all the museum’s galleries will have been renovated under the plan. The only major spaces not included will be the Cast galleries; three Asian galleries (Japan, China and Korea) and the new British Galleries.

The £150 million plan is more expensive than Tate Modern, which, until now, has been the UK’s largest museum or gallery project and cost £134 million (Tate Britain cost a further £32 million).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘All change at the Victoria and Albert Museum'