From the cabinets of curiosities to contemporary museums a lot has changed in the way western society collects, perceives, represents and displays its historical and cultural inheritance. Among the most established cultural institutions, the V&A is certainly one of those which even if attached to traditional forms of collecting and exhibiting has more than others engaged in a continuous re-development and innovation of its built and immaterial (internal departments, collections, etc.) structure.
In the past 13 years the museum has conducted a large programme of building works which has seen more than 50 projects completed and has transformed up to 40,000 square meters of its existing fabric. The same commitment has been pursued in the program of acquisitions and re-examination of the permanent collections and in the temporary exhibitions programme. The institution aims at making visible all the material of its collections and promotes its “openness” with free entrance to the permanent exhibitions for the visitors.
This policy has helped the V&A to attract record visitor numbers – 3,290,500 in 2013 – and makes it one of the most influential institutions in matter of cultural and knowledge production at international level.
A good example of the museum policy is the redevelopment of the front wing of the Kensington building and the upcoming opening in December 2014 of the new galleries “Europe 1600-1800”. These galleries will be the chronological prosecution of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries that opened in 2009 and will present in a new light some of the Baroque and Rococò pieces of the museum. Looking at the name of these new galleries – besides making available and visible some of the treasures hidden in storage space – it is clear that the museum aims a shaping a cultural discourse around the geo-political origins of Europe perhaps to give credit to an invention of recent times in a moment in which European economic area itself is at the centre of a large political debate. In addition, it will bring attention and rearrange the coordinates of a particular historical period looking at it through the lenses of the everyday life as well as through the historical framework of modernity.
Maybe purely coincidental, the historical period of the new Europe galleries covers most of the Georgian period in England recently celebrated by the exhibition Georgian Revealed at the British Library; even if not linked, the two events bring new attention to the early modern age underlying aspects of the everyday life of those times.
The galleries will display about 1100 objects and the curators, Leslie Miller and Johanna Norman, have arranged the visitor’s journey in the collections sub-dividing the space in three chronological sub-periods (1660-1720 with main focus on the rise of France as cultural and economic centre, 1720-1780 mainly focused on the new goods in Rococò style and 1760-1815 with the rise of neoclassicism). The narration will also be arranged by specific focuses on groups of objects and particular themes such as The Cabinet, The Salon, The Masquerade and John Jones: collector and benefactor. In this way the curators, focusing on specific activities of the early modern times, managed also to retrace some of the crucial moments in the history and the rise of the museum as institution.
The architectural project designed by the London based firm ZMMA – mainly specialized in visual arts and museum projects – works in complete harmony with the curatorial work. It brings back the front side of Aston Webb’s former building of the museum to its original splendor, dismantling the 70’s subdivision of its internal space and metaphorically expressing that idea of visibility of the collections through the use of natural daylight with the original windows (aided with new shutters blades), favoring a permeable relationship between outside and inside. The design of the interior exhibition spaces in arrangements of displays and colors is in accordance to the transition of periods and styles and key objects creates privileged points or views to highlight specific ensembles of objects. The galleries will also be equipped with innovative design features such as a LED artificial lights and an innovative low-energy environmental control system.
What are the political effects of the V&A’s policy of architectural “transparency” and total exposure of the material in its collections? What does it mean to display “Europe” as the main theme for the new galleries?