V&A Podcast - Engineering the Museum
Season 1, episode 12
In this episode, Moira Gemmill and Andy Sedgwick discuss the role of the engineer within museums. Moira is head of design, projects and estates at the V&A and Andy is director of building engineering at world-leading firm ARUP. He has worked on a vast amount of museum projects since he started at the company in 1983. Alongside Glenn Adamson, they discuss the crucial role of the engineer in the development of the museums gallery spaces. From the increasing use of natural light in the galleries to the building of whole new spaces within a Grade I listed site, the engineer plays a key role.
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes at the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about engineering the museum. Every major architectural project needs an engineer, that’s not just a matter of getting the building to stand up, engineering is an art form in itself which is considered in even the smallest details. The V&A is currently engaged in an ongoing renovation and extension of our galleries, a project we call FuturePlan. This has required extensive consultation with engineers and we have often turned to ARUP - the world’s largest and most well known firm in the field. Here to discuss engineering at the V&A are: Moira Gemmill, Director of Projects, Design and Estate at the V&A and Andy Sedgwick,Director of Building Engineering at ARUP, who has worked on many of our projects, including the medieval and renaissance galleries which opened in 2009. Moira, I thought we might start by talking about the concept of engineering and how it’s different from design. Everyone thinks of the V&A as a Design museum, but probably not that many people think of us as involved with engineering. What does this subject have to do with us?
MG: It has everything to do with us; I don’t see design and engineering being different in any way at all. It’s another very important discipline that makes up the skill set that we need in order to realise what we do, particularly through our capital redevelopment programme. If you think back to Francis Fowke, who designed a huge extent of the original V&A alongside architects, he was an engineer so back in the middle of the nineteenth century there was really no difference between architectural design and engineering.
GA: The Crystal Palace that was constructed in Hyde Park which pre-dated our museum and made it possible to create the V&A was also designed by an engineer Joseph Paxton.
MG: Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure what’s happened over the intervening years but I get the sense that engineering is re-emerging as a very important discipline; more and more engineers are becoming architects.
GA: So could you describe for us in general how we work with engineers at the V&A now? They’re part of these projects that we’re undertaking through FuturePlan that might be the most important thing.
MG: With all of our capital projects we pull together design teams that comprise of architects, engineers, lighting specialists, acoustics specialists, graphic designers, and many, many different disciplines, but the key in each of those projects is the architectural and engineering team. We use lots of different engineering services like structural and mechanical and electrical, those are the key disciplines within engineering, which we use for each of our gallery projects. When we’re designing and building, new architectural interventions that are perhaps making our buildings easier to navigate by putting in new lifts, new staircases and so on, we need structural engineers to work through the designs. But, we also need structural engineers to look at designs for our display cases, some of our display cases are huge, for example the Ardabil Carpet show case in the Islamic gallery. We couldn’t have achieved that without the services of very clever engineering.
GA: This is one of the largest and most precious carpets in existence in this extraordinary huge case which is almost like a little building in its own right.
MG: Exactly right! The footprint of that case is bigger than the house I live in and it moves up and down on a sort-of hydraulic system, which is very, very clever so that we can have access to the carpet underneath. There are also mechanical and electrical services that we need to build in to each of our projects so that we can create the right environments for our collections on display. We push our engineers quite hard I think to look at new and interesting and perhaps more passive means to create the environments that we need so that’s why we choose to work with engineers of the calibre of ARUP because we feel that they’re able to take this initiative for us and really push the boundaries of engineering to create something that is sustainable.
GA: ARUP is indeed a firm that we turn to very frequently in our work and we’re lucky to be joined today by Andy Sedgwick from the company. Andy, perhaps you could begin by telling us about ARUP: its history and size, as it is indeed a very, very big operation.
AS: The firm was founded in the 1940s by Ove Arup who was originally of Danish extraction,which is why we have that name, but he started the firm here in the UK. Initially, it was a firm of consulting structural engineers and did a lot of work with some of the main architectural proponents of the modernist school, Lubetkinand others but really over the intervening period the firm has grown from that core base of structural engineering and now provides a very wide range of services here in the UK but also now across five different regions around the globe. We have offices in the Americas, Australasia, Asia and Europe as well. The scope of what we do now covers large infrastructure projects– bridges and highways and rail – as well as all types of buildings and as Moira said there’s so many technical disciplines which come together to make a modern building, particularly a museum. We’re pleased that we can provide most of those technical services in a coordinated way from within the firm. The size of the firm now is around ten thousand people, globally with approximately two thousand of those being in London.
GA: Andy, you’re only one of these people but you’ve been with the firm for quite some time.
AS: I joined in 1983 and started work immediately actually on some museum projects, the Menilcollection in Houston which is a well respected art museum by Renzo Piano, and really my career since then has been a series of museum projects but interspersed with a wide variety of other projects too. Some of what we do is informed by what we learn from doing airport projects or office projects, but I’ve always found the museum world a particularly fascinating place to work as a designer.
GA: So what makes working for a museum different for an engineer from working with any other kind of architectural project?
AS: One of the questions that I asked myself when I began was ‘why are all museums different?’ The technical problems are often, on the face of it, similar; they’re to do with climate control, and carrying the load of the objects, and providing the appropriate lighting arrangements, but the fascination is in the drivers that make it different. They are often to do with the site, the climate, but they’re very much to do with the collection and one of the key steps I think in designing any new space or refurbished space is a real in depth understanding of the objects that will be displayed, whether a permanent collection or a temporary space, and the technical requirements that those objects need. There’s the physical parameters that come from the collection and the site but then the other thing that’s always fascinating on museum projects are the range of people who are involved.
GA: Here you’re talking about not only people like Moira, who you’re working with as the head of our projects team, but you’re also talking about curators, conservators, those kind of people as well?
AS: Yes. The difference in curatorial approach from one museum to another can drive the design solution in very different directions.
GA: One thing listeners may be wondering is, while they can understand why that would be different for let’s say an exhibition designer, what difference would that make for an engineer? How would a curatorial approach mean a different experience or different requirements for the engineer?
AS: This is possibly an oversimplification, but you could describe the Northern European approach to displaying objects as being a relatively naturalistic one, often using natural light to create the setting for the objects and to create a well-lit room in which objects are then displayed,that will often lead to a series of roof lights, classical galleries we see in London, the National Gallery and so on. It’s very much in contrast to what’s sometimes called the North American approach which is very much more black box and the use of electric light to really focus the visitors’ attention on the object in a way that the curators set up. So it’s more mediated, it’s more determined by the curatorial view, the hierarchy of objects and so on.
MG: I think what Andy has said there is particularly relevant to the V&A. It’s been our ambition of the last ten to twelve years to bring more light into the V&A, more daylight. And many of our galleries were built with roof lights and some have been covered up over the years and we’ve been painstakingly reinstating them to allow light back in to the building. By doing so, making it a pleasant space for the visitor, but also having to modify things to an extent to create the right climate control and the right environment for the collections.
GA: I suppose daylight is one of these dynamics in a museum that has a huge positive aspect in that it’s so beautiful and that it’s so very attractive for the objects which of course in most cases were designed to be seen by daylight. But it’s also something that brings problems because when you have light exposure for certain types of objects like textiles or works on paper, then that can cause a lot of damage over relatively short periods of times of exposure. So, how do we balance that dynamic at the V&A?
MG: Well I think that’s where the engineers and the architects and the in-house specialist teams need to work very closely together to recognise that it is crucial to bring daylight into the building but also to understand that we need to protect the collections. To design the spaces, to design the three dimensional interiors of those spaces that then physically display the collections to make sure that those collections are protected locally rather than just blocking out windows, looking at how they can be positioned within a gallery space so that they’re away from the source of daylight. So that we are filtering those rays out but without actually blocking out the daylight to the extent where our visitors have no idea what the weather is outside. We know that people find that really tiring and exhausting we want them to stay in the galleries, and it is a proven fact that when there is daylight people will stay in the spaces longer.
GA: That’s one of these classic examples isn’t it of if the visitors don’t quite notice all this fine detailed work you’ve done, then you know you’ve done a good job.
MG: Exactly right. And it’s very difficult I think for our architects and engineers because we have such an enormous site, we remain open, we have staff, we have visitors, we have priceless collections and we have grade I listed buildings to deal with.
GA: Andy you worked on the medieval and renaissance galleries, which we opened just a couple of years ago, which of course have a lot of daylight in them, can you tell us from your perspective as a specialist in this field how you achieved the maximum results in those spaces in particular?
AS: The objects within medieval and renaissance do vary enormously in their capability of taking light. From very sensitive textiles through to some of the sculptural objects in the city part of medieval and renaissance that are made of stone and have been outside often so there’s absolutely no sensitivity to light there at all.
GA: This is part of the gallery where you almost feel like you’re walking through a renaissance piazza with big sculptures around you and architectural fragments.
AS: Yes, that’s right with the balcony looking down into that almost street like space or piazza. What I’d like to think we’ve achieved is a variation of daylight through those galleries that is actually quite pronounced in terms of light levels they vary, on a bright day the piazza might be a hundred times brighter than some of the darker corners of the perimeter galleries.
GA: Moira, what do we say at the museum about our status as a green institution? I know that’s quite a conscious thing for most organisations at the moment. How do we think about that challenge – the sustainability of our physical plant?
MG: It’s something that we’re very much focused on and it’s something that our estate department, I think, has been very successful in achieving a very good energy rating at the V&A considering it is, you know, a huge series of buildings over a twelve and a half acre site. When we adapt part of the building in one area we are still getting to grips with the knock on effect of that in the rest of the building.
GA: Is it a particular challenge to work in a historical building? We mentioned Francis Fowke as one of the foundational engineers of architecture, but of course if you have a nineteenth century building, it’s not going to be designed with much of an eye towards optimal sustainability is it?
MG: Well interestingly I think it was. I think there were very clever systems that were put in place by the original architects and engineers of the building. For example, in our recently renovated ceramics galleries we reinstated some of those systems that had been blocked up for many, many years. But absolutely, it was all there from the beginning.
GA: Fascinating. Andy, can we close by just having a little word about engineering in general? I began by asking Moira about engineering and design in relation to one another and she said she thought of them as pretty much one continuous activity. Is that how you see it too? Because, I suppose a lot of people think of design as very aesthetic and expressive and engineering as basically a lot of mathematical calculation. So how do you think of the profession in relation to design?
AS: I think one of the fascinations about engineering particularly for the built environment is that it has both those aspects. There is of course a very serious and focused role in calculation and specification of materials that mean that when our intent is taken through into construction it’s going to do the job we all want it to. Often we’ll do very sophisticated calculations to make sure that we get where we want to. For example, the Exhibition Road project that we’ve just about finished the design of.
GA: These are the new galleries that we’re building on the West side of the museum.
AS: Yes, a major new temporary exhibition gallery. It requires the excavation of a very deep hole immediately adjacent to three grade I listed buildings. So we need to do a great deal of checking to make sure that things with ground movement, that will inevitably happen when you make an excavation, are within the limits that we can expect the existing buildings to cope with. But alongside that more computational and technical role is the role engineers have in influencing the development of each project hopefully right from the beginning, and I think the V&A projects have benefitted from the whole design team being present from the beginning. So topics such as energy and structure and so on are given good voice at the beginning of projects and weighed against and coordinated with the other objectives of the project that will be to do with architecture and visitor experience.
MG: Just on that, Andy was talking about the Exhibition Road project – the new galleries that we’re building below ground – and going back to the sort of difference or similarities in discipline, and status if you like, between architects and designers. We actually debated long and hard within the museum before we started this project as to whether the lead designer for the exhibition road galleries should be an engineer or an architect. And in the end we decided to go with an architectural lead but it was a very real debate and a really interesting one because this project relies very much on the engineering side of the design team.
GA: So that gives you a great sense of how important engineering is to us at the V&A. This has been a fascinating discussion, I must admit something I didn’t know very much about myself and I hope that listeners out there enjoyed hearing this discussion which I think has shown a real light on the underpinnings of the museum in delivering a great architectural experience to our visitors. So I hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the V&A podcast bring you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com