By Melanie Vandenbrouck-Przybylski
First opened in 1873 at the heart of the building, the V&A’s Cast Courts are two gigantic day-lit galleries, separated by a corridor and filled with copies of some of Europe’s most famous sculptures and monuments. Housed in a dramatic space, these objects have come to speak to each other in unrivalled ways, while their illustrious originals are spread across cities and continents. Threatened with closure in the 1920s, today these are certainly among the best-loved spaces in the Museum, where generations of artists, students, children, tourists and Londoners have come for the awe-inspiring spectacle, or simply to learn about the history of Western art.
Some may think, however, that the beautiful Courts have in later years been somewhat neglected, as other gallery projects were taking place. They may seem tired-looking compared to the shiny new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, the stunning Jewellery Gallery, the funky Theatre and Performance galleries or the wondrous Ceramic galleries, all opened in the last three years to great acclaim.
Well, Visitor, lament no more: the time has come for the Cast Courts to get a revamp, for the first time since they were gloriously reopened in the early 1980s. Just over a year ago, in 2010, a project team was formed with the goal of reviving the galleries: restoring them to their Victorian grandeur by recreating some of the original atmosphere, while instilling more coherence into these spaces.
The refurbishment will take place in two phases. While one side of the two Courts remains open during the first phase, work has started in earnest in the Italian side of the Cast Courts (known in V&A as ‘Room 46B’), which had in recent years been used as a working space during the Medieval & Renaissance galleries project. The dust resulting from the building works, as well as the shuffling around of objects (which disrupted the display’s original coherence), meant that this space was in greater need of attention than the adjacent gallery. After having transformed the central corridor between the Courts into a tightly packed store, our highly-skilled team of technicians shifted small-to-medium size freestanding objects, as we commissioned contractors to lift the linoleum, revealing the beautiful tiled floor beneath. Pushed to one end of the room, Michelangelo’s famous figures soon looked like a row of naughty schoolchildren sent to the back of their classroom.
Small reliefs - but also, a feat in itself, the huge copy of Raphael’s School of Athens by Anton Raphael Mengs – were removed from the walls in preparation for the building works.
Our Construction Project Manager Graham Saffill and Project Coordinator Reena Suleman are now working closely with the architects and designers Julian Harrap, Metaphor and MUMA to devise the next stage of the works. Meanwhile, conservation has started and both object selection and display narratives are being finalised. In the next posts, my colleagues and I will be giving you a fuller update on how the project has progressed so far, and some of the exciting discoveries we’ve made along the way.