Friday 6 July 2018
I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the Victoria and Albert Museum is wonderful. But that doesn't mean there is no room for improvement and the furniture displays are a good case in point. Despite the excellence of the pieces on display, the way they're exhibited has, in the past, tended to be dark, dingy and cluttered, sometimes making it difficult to gain a proper appreciation of the aesthetic and structural qualities of individual pieces. Information displays often strike an unhappy compromise between the conflicting requirements of size, depth of information and proximity to the relevant piece. None of these things are particular to the V&A; they are perennial museum dilemmas.
Dr Susan Weber Gallery
Against this background, the opening of the V&A's new Dr Susan Weber Gallery is a truly exciting development and I was keen to see how these problems have been addressed. This new gallery is not a replacement for the museum's existing displays, but is its first gallery devoted entirely to furniture. I won't attempt to describe the displays in detail, photographs are much better at that, but it is worth exploring the objectives behind them. The aim of the gallery is to tell the story of furniture making through the way pieces were made and the people who made them and they do so via 200-plus pieces of British and European furniture – from the Middle Ages to the present day with examples from America and Asia.
The displays are themed around techniques of making rather than the more traditional geographical, chronological or style classifications. Techniques covered range from joinery, moulding, upholstery and digital manufacture, to carving, marquetry, gilding and lacquer. Displays are backed up by small collections of tools, cutaway exhibits and digital displays showing short films demonstrating techniques varying from cutting angled mortise and tenons for traditional chairs, to robotised production of an injection-moulded chair. Many of these techniques will be familiar to F&C readers, but for the uninitiated they provide a truly excellent introduction to how things are made.
Each display also has one or two digital labels – a term which definitely doesn't do them justice. These interactive touch screens have basic information and a picture of every piece with layers covering the designer/maker and context. They allow basic information to be absorbed very quickly, with the option to explore in much more depth at the touch of a finger – if that's what you want. They solve the problems of label clutter and remoteness from the piece described in an exceptionally neat and intuitive way.
One of the big differences a visitor will immediately notice is the lighting. This is always a balancing act for curators and display designers. On the one hand, designers want the best lighting possible so that visitors can best see the displays. On the other hand, curators must consider conservation and strong light degrades many materials, so the outcome has to be a compromise. The compromise here is a good one. Being on the museum's top floor, the gallery has rooflights which give a nice soft light supplemented by effective display lighting, all helped by pale walls. It is not as bright as it appears in photographs, but certainly significantly brighter than in many of the older galleries.
Reactions to the gallery have not been universally positive, with some critics saying the displays are insufficiently comprehensive to be representative. For me, that misses the point. This gallery is not huge and pieces have been chosen to show as broad a selection of techniques and periods as possible with enough space around pieces to allow them to be properly appreciated. The centre displays in this long and relatively narrow space allow many of the pieces to be viewed from pretty much any angle; a big advantage for furniture. No doubt every informed visitor will have their own quibbles – I would have liked to see more masterpieces from the Arts & Crafts and Art Deco periods – but overall, I believe the gallery is a considerable curatorial and design success. A must-see if you can find at least a couple of hours in London.
This gallery is part of the V&A's FuturePlan project, the Museum's continuous programme of transformation which started in 2001 with the aim of revitalising visitor facilities and redisplaying the collections using the best architects and designers. Clearly, the way in which this programme will be implemented will itself develop over the years as new ideas and technology become available, but judging by the Dr Susan Weber Gallery, the Museum can lookforward to a future where, even for the casual visitor, it's much more than an opportunity to view and learn a little about some of the most beautiful objects the world's civilisations
have produced. What it will also offer is easy access to insights into the making and context of these objects, which is surely what a museum should be all about. The downside, which will be immediately obvious to any visitor, is that FuturePlan is a very expensive process, so it will take many, many years to complete and this is where people like Dr Weber come in. In case you were wondering, Dr Weber is a New Yorker and former wife of immensely wealthy American financier and philanthropist, George Soros. She gained her doctorate from the Royal College of Arts – just up the road from the V&A – with a thesis on the furniture of E.W. Godwin – one of the early influences on the Arts & Crafts movement. No doubt she spent many happy and fruitful hours studying in the V&A.