With a Sunday to spare and a new camera to play with, I thought I would undertake a bit of a review of the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s new medieval and Renaissance galleries, down in South Kensington, London.

Grand Entrance to V&A's ground floor gallery

First things first. The V&A on a Sunday is full of almost insufferably posh people. The kind who talk in haughty voices, walk very slowly in front of you and bring small boys to look at Venetian sculpture. That said, it is rather wonderful to look at and actually has a reasonably low child quotient. Which is a relief considering the V&A’s position in child-museum central.

Now, what you are clearly supposed to do upon entering the main doors of the V&A is turn immediately right and down the steps to Rooms 8 to 10. This is where the new galleries begin: on ‘level 0’  as the V&A refer to, happily for our North American friends.

Of course, this isn’t what I did. I did what any self respecting tourist would do, once they had fought their way past the new ubiquitous London phenomena of bored looking security guards taking a cursory peek into ever bag that enters the main gate – I turned right at the information desk and gawped at the long gallery full of famous statues. The one rather pretentiously referred to as the Grand Entrance on the map.

Level 1

Bronze of the Rape of Proserpina, cast in 1565
Bronze of Rape of Proserpina, cast 1565 by Rafaello Peri, Italy

Now, the new galleries are all ‘themed’. That means essentially that it’s not really chronological, and everything’s just dumped together under nebulous conceptual titles. The first room you hit, room 50a is entitled Cityscape and Villa, and is followed in rooms 50b-d by Inside the Church. Both have been created to recreate the atmosphere of those places. 50a does a good impression of a sculpture-filled villa garden; a bubbling fountain, ugly wall sculptures and large naked marble guys on plinths. It’s pretty dull unless you’re keen on sculpture from this period, and I’m not. The Greeks did it first and better. I’ve also always imagined a medieval to Renaissance cityscape would include a lot more rats, plague, poverty and crime and a lot less wall fountains.

Keep going through and you get to the church section. Nicely dark, good feel for a church, full of sultry virgins, doe-eyed martyrs and gold leaf. It probably has some great 16th century stained or painted glass panels, but it was impossible to tell as none of them were lit. So much for that – maybe I’m missing something but as far as I remember those glasses are relatively light stable just soluble as hell, so as long as no one chucks a bucket of water over them why shouldn’t they be illuminated? Otherwise the museum may as well have painted them in the same drab off-white as they seem to have done with all the walls on every bloody level of this new gallery set.

Level 0

Merode cup, around 1400, silver gilt and plique a jour enamel
Enamel, silver and gilt cup

Down some mostly finished stairs next to the definately unfinished lifts, and  you get to room 10, which apparently is where you should have started. In fact, you should have started in room 8, and walked through to room 10, so now you get the joy of doing the whole thing backwards. I wondered if this was some massive stupidity on my part (going to the Grand Entrance first, what foolishness!), but then I saw that everyone was doing this. So why the hell is it set up this way?

Anyway, down here it’s (back to front) Noble Living, Devotion and Display, The Rise of Gothic, and Faith and Empires. You’ve got more church stuff, beautiful tapestries and clothing, the usual crosses, maudlin Jesuses and some crowded unintelligible carved panels. This time the stained glass is lit, though it would have been nice to see a bit more interpretation panels on the embroideries with the original colours suggest – William Morris may have liked blue and green but the big white patches on these 500 year old embroideries suggest those guys had more imagination.

Room 10c is small, but it has a wide variety of ‘nobles objects’, and is pretty interesting, although obviously no attempt has been made to contextualise anything. But that’s not what you go to the V&A for, right? You go to look at a treasure chest of the decorative arts, not a museum in the modern sense of the word.

Room 8 gets going with a set of stone capitals on columns down the middle of the room which is very reminiscent of a church or temple, and is finished nicely with a set of arches at the end. The objects get a little more northern European and ‘early medieval’ (that would be Anglo-Saxon and Viking period to us). I personally hate the term ‘early medieval’, as it sets the whole 600 years out like some adjunct to the medieval period, when it involved a completely different ruling class, material culture and physical structures. But never mind, I feel that the V&A has a bit of a wider audience in mind than us Brits.

However the really, really offensive thing is that the entrance to Room 8 includes a small smattering of Roman period stuff. I assume this is to show ‘continuity’ or some such rubbish – or perhaps more likely that the curators were desperate to put the pieces somewhere and this was most convenient.  But really, Roman objects (early ones such as the bust of Tiberius) are not medieval or Renaissance. The medieval period did not begin in AD 300! I know it’s supposed to be about ideas of ’empire’, but frankly the contextualisation at the V&A is pretty superficial most of the time, why start doing it now, and in such an annoying way? I find the inclusion of the Tiberius piece particularly irritating as he was a couple of centuries before even the AD 300 date.

Level 2

Gallery 64b

Next on the list were rooms 62-64b. The first (62) is ‘splendour and society’. Lots of domestic objects, enough dark brown wooden furniture pieces to bore. The collection of the Holy Roman Emporer Rudolph II was particularly good – great objects and really nice to see them displayed together (context – yes!). Room 64 is actually a reclaimed area. It’s hard to explain, but essentially it was the space between two separate buildings, which has now been roofed over and given floors. This is my favourite part of the galleries. It’s just a beautiful space, complete with massive architectural fragments from now-demolished buildings, is light and airy and even has comfy seats. Don’t get me wrong, it’s marred by the spotlight problem again – stand directly in front of one of the pieces and you will get blinded – but it’s lovely and makes a great gallery area. A definate success, modern and sympathetic and has a lovely gallery feel.

Labels

Map of the V&As medieval and Renaissance galleries
Gold-leafed map showing the galleries

On the whole information provided is satisfactory. However the repeated use of gold leaf as a background for the labels is terrible in the low light that predominates across the galleries – in the bright areas the spotlights cause awful reflections that force you to bob and weave in an attempt to escape the glare and actually read the labels. I admit it gives the galleries a certain sumptuous look, it’s just a little impractical in the terrible lighting.

The large-print label books in little boxes near the entrances to the galleries are a good touch, but I think the curators underestimated how much they would be needed – they were almost always in use when. I would also say that frequently the labels in the cases are too small and too low down – on several occasions I overheard people complaining and it was particularly difficult for the elderly or frankly anyone whose eyesight isn’t perfect.

I would personally have liked books with further information on the objects to be available, but that’s because I actually want to learn things in museums, rather than just gawp open-mouthed at the beauty as if I were watching HDTV. I think museums should be a taste of something greater, an interaction and experience, but hey, that’s just me. As an archaeologist I understand I’m not the kind of person most museums are aiming to attract!

Just look at those shadows!

Lighting

This is terrible. I mean seriously, awfully terrible. It seems to be dominated by top-down spots, pointed down from the ceiling into the cases. I don’t know if they invested in anti-reflecting glass, but if they did it isn’t working. In addition each object often has multiple shadows, which is very irritating.

Far worse is the face that the spot light is often behind the visitor, which means your shadow falls on the object, obscuring it and its label. Another consequence of this is that when you turn around, to move away from the case, you are immediately blinded. It’s really hard to enjoy a gallery when you are being required to alternately peer and crouch down over small dark objects and squint as a spotlight blinds you.

After three hours in the galleries, this had given me a headache. A more diffuse, subtler light might not have been so impressive looking, but frankly it would have been a lot more comfortable to move around in. I understand that no one wants to light cases from the inside, particularly in the case of ivory, bone and wood objects, but a little more dispersed light and a higher emphasis on ‘natural’ spectra rather than artificial yellow spots would have been a relief.

Conclusion

Get your filthy hands off the Roman period! The ‘medieval’ period doesn’t begin in AD 300, not in Britain and particularly not in Europe! What are the arbitrary dates (AD 300-1500) about anyway? It’s not my specialist period (well, except for the first hundred years or so) but that date bracket doesn’t seem to make any sense.

The answer might be to stick to the themes, but these felt a bit tenuous. The one on noble living was good, as was the cityscape and villa, but I have to admit that I didn’t notice the others until I was finishing the tour. Mostly I just noticed a very heavy Christian feel to the whole thing – the exhibition is very firmly routed in western European objects (not really Britain either), so I guess that’s what you expect.

In general the mixture of small objects, large sculpture, architecture and larger pieces is very good (excluding of course the level 0 galleries which are all a bit sculptural. The churchiness might be expected, considering the geographical and chronological areas of the exhibition. I’d miss the showy ground floor gallery unless you have a particular passion for later copies of Romano-Greek works. But definately have a look at the upper galleries, especially 64b which was really beautiful.

Exit to the V&A museum seen from inside

2 thoughts on “V&A – newly reopened medieval and Renaissance galleries

  1. I am appalled by this incredibly ungenerous review of what, to me, is the most wonderful part of any museum I have ever been to.
    To anyone reading this – don’t be put off from visiting this remarkable collection which provides incredible insight into what formed our civilisation. I have so far visited 4 times and spent at least 10 hours there, and yet I feel I have but scratched the surface. I couldn’t even begin to list what impressed me most as there is just so much to absorb and admire.

    1. This review is from an archaeologists perspective – I assume the reader knows that there are a multitude of objects to admire and much beauty to absorb and doesn’t need me to tell them that this is one of the most important collections in the world. I am not criticising the objects nor do I disagree that they can give us great insight into our past and present lives.
      It is the importance of this collection that lead to my dissapointment with the actual museum context. I believe that the lighting, the display techniques, the materials used, the labels and the layout are very dissapointing and inhibit the enjoyment and understanding of the object rather than facilitating them.

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