The new presentation of the British Galleries was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s most ambitious renovation project in the past 50 years. The collection to be displayed ranged from rings to period rooms, and included fine art, textiles, furniture, glass, ceramics and architecture from 1500 to 1900 – all to be chronologically arranged in 15 rooms on two floors and focused on four main themes with interactive features
Exhibition design: Dinah Casson, Jon Williams, Casson Mann, London
The key parameters that the V&A considered for the award of the contract were: design, functionality, value for money and the likely ability of the contractors to be able to deliver a very complex installation on time and on budget. They were also looking for a supplier that could develop, fabricate and install many of the interior fixtures and fittings.
The V&A and their designers were looking for as near as possible uninterrupted views of objects to be displayed inside cases; the ideal would have been cases made entirely of glass with no supporting framework at all. Since it is not possible to have this, the V&A sought the minimum possible framework that would not compromise the function and security.
The project was a huge undertaking calling for 170 unique display cases. A range of different sizes from very small to extremely large was required to accommodate the great diversity of objects and to make the best possible use of the available space within the building – much of it irregular. In addition to the requirement for the cases to provide a secure, stable, dust – free environment, only passive materials, that would not interact chemically with exhibits placed inside, were to be used. The cases were to have the greatest possible clear opening and be safe in operation.
We worked intensively with the V&A Exhibition designers and the museum project team to refine the designs. A substantial degree of re-working of these was carried out through drawings, trial mechanism and prototype cases in order to arrive at ‘families’ of showcases based on seven different opening mechanisms, some of which would be entirely new.
One of the exhibition designer’s fundamental aims was to create large glass showcases that, as well as protecting the objects, offered them up for clear inspection with unconstrained visibility. One of the most innovative solutions was designed and engineered as a large glass "box" that opens by releasing the seals between the glass bonnet and the case plinth, allowing the entire bonnet to rotate out of the way on specially machined guides, thereby giving curators unfettered access to its contents. To make the 120 meters of primary gallery display cases, Goppion had to use numerous juxtaposed doors without intermediate uprights. Many of these, especially those of the lateral display cases, had to be able to be opened in relatively small spaces. Specially configured seals were used for the pull & slide opening systems to assure airtight security.
In addition, Goppion engineered several distinct types of exhibition drawer systems to meet varied display requirements. Those that open and close manually are fitted with hydraulic end-stop dampers; others, housing particularly delicate and fragile objects, use electric motors to ensure fluid and uniform operation.
Designing, building, and installing the cases required 5,000 technical drawings and 40,000 detailed construction specifications. Materials included over 1,600 square meters of glass shelving, over 200 machined slate slabs, nearly 100 pieces of honed pietra serena (sandstone), and 22 different types of fabric. Installation took 100,000 man hours.
Goppion and the V&A chronicled this complex, collaborative project in a joint publication, Creating the British Galleries (2004), Volume 4 of the Annals of the Laboratorio Museotecnico.
The museum won the European Museum of the Year Award 2003.
Exhibition area: 3,400 m2; display units: 170; length of the exhibit fronts: 396 m