Season 1, episode 11
In early 2015, the Europe 1600 to 1800 gallery will open at the V&A. In this episode, the importance of gallery interpretation is considered: How do we give meaning and context to the objects on display for gallery visitors? Glenn Adamson is joined by Lucy Trench and Evelyn Welch. Lucy is Head of Interpretation for the European Galleries and Evelyn is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Kings College London and a V&A Trustee.Together they discuss some intriguing objects, technology in exhibition spaces and how it's possible to display two centuries of European history in a gallery setting.
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A Podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of 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. At the end of 2014 the V&A will open the latest in its series of major projects. A set of seven galleries devoted to Europe between the years 1600 and 1800. The galleries will include one thousand objects, including some of the most magnificent works of art and design in the museums collections. Made for figures including, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, and Catherine the Great. In this episode we will discuss the interpretation the visitors will experience in this new space. Here to discuss the Europe 1600 to 1800 galleries are Lucy Trench, head of interpretation for the project, and Evelyn Welch, Professor in Renaissance Studies at Kings College London. Professor Welch also serves as a Trustee at the V&A. Lucy, lets begin with you. I have one simple question to begin with. What is museum interpretation?
(LT:) Well that’s not a simple question! I think interpretation is one of those words which everybody in the museum profession just takes for granted, they know what it means. Outside the museum profession nobody has the faintest idea what it means, as I have discovered if you talk to people. Really it’s about giving objects meaning, a meaning which is interesting and relevant to quite a wide range of people. In the bad old days, which is long ago, curators used to get out their favourite objects, arrange them around the gallery, and put labels which were either very long or very short, and that was it. Now we make much bigger efforts to group objects in a way that is meaningful, and to create narratives around them. But of course these meanings change all the time, a meaning that an object might have for you is different to the meaning it might have for me, or for Evelyn, and it will change in subsequent generations. These meanings are never fixed. One of the big changes is in the Europe Galleries - these galleries were put together in the 70s by Peter Thornton. And although interpretation might not of had the status it has now, I’m sure people thought very seriously about what objects they were choosing and why they were putting them together. Now we are completely overhauling that, and we are trying to maintain some of the old meanings which were conveyed in the old galleries, as well as creating new ones for ourselves.
(GA:) Can you give us an idea of who is involved in museum interpretation? Obviously curators are one group of people in the museum, but there are other professionals who contribute as well.
(LT:) In the Learning Department we have the educators; each new gallery project has a lead educator, and sometimes an assistant educator, so we sit at the core of interpretation. We liaise all the time with curators, I sit on the concept team with four curators, we talk weekly, or almost daily about interpretation, displays, and the choice of objects. We also liaise with Designers, Graphic Designers, Architects... the relationship between the object, the text, and the designed environment that it’s in, is really key. To make galleries successful they all have to work together in a completely synchronised way, and not fight against each other or turn their backs on each other, which is what you see in less successful galleries.
(GA:) Evelyn, maybe we could turn to the Europe Galleries themselves. I’ll ask you another big and not so simple question. What were the big transformative changes in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Obviously that’s what’s reflected in the galleries, it is the story we are telling. As a Historian, you are very knowledgeable about this period, what do you think the big narratives are?
(EW:) Between 1600 and 1800 the range of changes is extraordinary. The kinds of foods that you eat, drinks that you drink, clothing that you wear, the political culture that you believe in, and even how you conceptualise your own body has been absolutely changed across Europe in this period. Think about trade and the world, in the sixteenth century, essentially it was an age when discoverers found new continents. Come 1600, what you have is a group of primarily men in Amsterdam and London, but also in Paris, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, thinking ‘how do we make money out of this?’ By the eighteenth century they have absolutely worked out how to make money out of this. One of the other major changes that comes with that is the political changes. Not only do you have the continent of the Americas that has been discovered, you have this new nation, the concept of a republic, which is looking to France, which has had the revolution, and that’s building on and separating from this notion of absolutist monarchy. You have these new and really sometimes quite genuinely terrifying, think of the terror in France, the terrifying debates about who rules, what does it mean to be a citizen, what are the philosophies behind that. Finally, thinking about science and technological changes that take place. Although we think of 1800 and the nineteenth century as being the Industrial Revolution, in fact the changes in technology, changes in our ability to see, for example, at the cellular level, to look through microscopes, to look at the stars in a completely different way. This isn’t a sudden change, the sixteenth century, the fifteenth century, all of these are times of transformation as well. But nonetheless there is something intense about this two hundred year period, where all kinds of certainties are thrown up in the air and luckily for us come back down as objects.
(GA:) I suppose, Evelyn, one thing that happens towards the end of that period is of course the development of the modern museum itself.
(EW:) Absolutely. In this period you see the invention of a space which is public. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries you have a lot of the development of the galleries of private collections. In the seventeenth century you start to be able to pay small sums, sometimes they’re tickets, sometimes they’re bribes to people who allow you in to see other people’s collections. In the seventeenth century when John Evelyn is able to see collections, he says ‘this is amazing, I gave some money, they opened up the royal collection for me, and I had three days in it’. In the eighteenth century there is this concept that we ought to be making things that are beautiful, valuable, and life enhancing, which are open and visible to the public.
(GA:) One of the things we are doing here is telling the story of a period that is in some ways the beginning of our own story as a public museum. There is a lot to get across there Lucy. Do you recognise in some of the themes that Evelyn is talking about: trade, scientific knowledge and political change, some of the key themes that visitors will see in the galleries?
(LT:) Yes, very much so. Evelyn has obviously painted the broad picture which is absolutely right. Our problem is that it is not always easy to convey that picture through the objects that we have. Just looking at the Europe galleries, at the key messages that we have tried to convey through objects, they are sort of the same as Evelyn’s key messages, but they are not entirely the same because we are telling a story through objects, not through words or books. Our key messages are that Europeans took manufactures, materials, and imagery from all around the world. That ways of living came to resemble those that we know today, I think that is a very important point. The growth of privacy, individualism, comfort, informality, a much broader and fluid social sphere, all these things happened progressively towards the end of the period, which we would completely take for granted today.
(GA:) That’s interesting, the period in which society itself is becoming perhaps more familiar to us than medieval and renaissance society would have been.
(LT:) Yes. I always feel if you were transported back in time to a café in Paris in the 1790s or house in Amsterdam at the same time, you would roughly know what to do and how to behave. If you were transported back to the 1590s you might be really struggling actually.
(GA:) At a loss.
(LT:) Yes. Our third key message is that France took over from Italy as the leader of fashionable art and design in Europe. That is very much a V&A message, because the V&A is a museum of art and design, rather than history or even a fine art museum. The fact that France took over from Italy has lots of political and historical ramifications and justifications and also has an absolute visible impact on art and design which we can show through our displays.
(GA:) So France became a style leader in a sense.
(GA:) So how do we tell that story for example?
(LT:) The first gallery, which is called Europe and the World 1600 to 1720, will have a very strong emphasis on Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. By the time you get to the last gallery, which is Liberty, Luxury, and Power, that gallery is predominantly French. We do try to shape the displays and create a message which is historically accurate and reflects the way we today feel about art and design.
(EW:) One of the fascinating things that you are describing, Lucy, is the challenge of describing a story through objects. Do you let the objects themselves tell the story, even if it ends up being a kind of footnote to what Historians think is the key message, because the objects themselves are the focal point? Or do you try to mix and match? So that you have these great objects which might tell the story of French-ness, but perhaps some objects which are of a more minor nature which tell the story of trading across the continents. So France for example isn’t a major player in terms of global empires, but it is a major player in terms of the fight for supremacy on the continent. It’s a bit like playing the symphony isn’t it, you have to decide what high notes you want to play, and what you want to be the drum beat underneath.
(LT:) It is fascinating, it’s a big challenge. I think you come at it from both directions, you have a wish list of what you would like to say in abstract intellectual terms that these are the big ideas, this is what we want to convey, and then you look at your objects and you see to what extent you can shape those objects into this wish list, and you can’t always do that. There are some things that we would have wanted to say and we simply couldn’t say, you just have to strike them out, particularly because we are not borrowing any objects for these galleries, and that’s a really important point. On the other hand we have collections which say certain things extremely strongly, we have a fantastic ceramics collection, so we can do a lot on dining, although oddly enough we have no cutlery of the period. You have to play your strengths at the same time as trying to convey the key messages of the period.
(GA:) Lucy I suppose a classic problem that museums of the nature of the V&A, at any rate, face are these historical narratives, that we have lots and lots of fabulous objects that were made for very wealthy people, and had been preserved precisely because they are so fabulous, but we often lack depth in collections that reflect the everyday persons experience. Are there ways that the Europe 1600 – 1800 team are trying to address that particular problem?
(LT:) Yes, that is an important one for us, particularly since the heritage lottery fund who are one of our big sponsors, are very keen that we show the social, geographical, and racial diversity of Europe. We’ve devised certain displays which we think give a wider social spread than others. For instance we have got a display on local traditions in the final gallery, so this is 1760s – 1780s where we have things like a wonderful Polish sash which is originally an Oriental Persian concept, but was adopted by Polish noblemen. Although I agree that’s not very democratic. The same display has Greek island embroidery, ceramics, carved wooden food moulds, this is what you could call peasant art, or regional to some extent. To tell the truth it sits very uncomfortably with the high end French stuff, if you were being a design fascist about it you would say that our local traditions have to go, but since we are trying to present a more varied and open picture of the period it will stay in. It will remind people that it wasn’t all Marie Antoinette and French ébéniste furniture makers, that we are trying to indicate that there was something else going on as well. We have also got a display in the Louis XIV gallery about drinking in the early seventeenth century which will include a huge range of objects from quite everyday to very high end. It will address some of the rituals and significance of drinking. In certain areas we have tried to make it as demotic as possible.
(GA:) Because everybody drinks.
(LT:) Yes exactly.
(GA:) I suppose another example of that, Evelyn, would be dress, because everybody wears clothes. So that’s a great subject to capture the diversity of Europe at this date. I know that you are working on a major research project called Fashioning the Early Modern, which is supported by HERA, which stands for Humanities in the European Research Area. That is a project that has involved not only your own university but also the V&A and a number of other partners. I wonder if you could tell us about what you are trying to achieve? And how it involves the V&A project?
(EW:) The Humanities in Europe Research Area - the HERA project - was a million Euro funding that we received to work between Scandinavian universities, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Stockholm, and the Institute in Helsinki, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Queen Mary University of London. What was exciting about it was that we were asking a really simple question about this period, which is how do people know what to wear when they get up in the morning? Why is it that in 1600 you got up in the morning, you brushed your hair, if you were a man, and in 1700 when you got up in the morning you put on a wig? The question we were addressing was literally, how does fashion travel? How do ideas get carried through things? That of course helps to answer some of Lucy’s problems, because the galleries were able to include textiles, images of people getting dressed, and although there are not many full costumes in the gallery, you can get that sense of how the things that people put on in the morning were also a reflection of how they saw themselves. When we were doing this work we were actually handling a lot of objects and learning through garments, learning about, what does it mean to actually try to do up a stay or a corset? What does it mean when you are trying to hold your stockings up when all you have are garters? Really thinking about the practicalities of that. I hope that visitors to the galleries will get some sense of that. Because one of the ways around the challenges of interpretation that Lucy has been describing is that you can look at the object, but then this is going to be a completely web enabled gallery. If you are interested in fantastic lace, how was it made? Who made it? How was it worn? What you can do is then go online and look at the catalogue to get more information about it. The object can only carry so much, and then you have to hand over to the interpretation.
(GA:) Lucy, I wonder if you could give us a sense of the range of interpretive materials that people will see in the Europe galleries?
(LT:) What people expect, and what we will always give them, is in-situ text, I think that is absolutely the bedrock of interpretation, short, succinct, focused text. In addition to that we will do films, there will be four films about how style spread around Europe. There will be seven object in focus films in which we take particularly intriguing objects and explore them further. There will be a layer of audio, some of them introductory, a curators audio, some will take a more theoretical stance. We will do one which is called ‘Belief, Knowledge, and Value’, which will enable us to look at ideas of philosophy, which is very difficult to do directly through objects. Importantly, we also have three activity areas, where we are trying to bring the activity, the objects, and the intellectual purpose of each gallery together into one space. The first one is a Cabinet about seventeenth century collecting, the second is the Salon, which is about seventeenth century enlightenment, and the third one is called the Masquerade, and this is where we are doing something entirely new to the V&A. We are going to make a film that will be closely based on the carnival in late eighteenth century Venice, a film that has a very distinctive look of masks and Commedia dell’arte costumes. Visitors will be able to interact physically with this film, it will be a more immersive, more environmental experience. It’s not going to be a film on a small screen, it’s going to be a film which will be around the walls of a small space, and visitors will be able to feel they are entering into the space and participating in it.
(GA:) Do you have a general feeling about technology in the galleries? That seems to be on everybody’s minds at the moment, how, for example, portable devices, like smart phones, are changing the way that people experience museums? And you have just given us the example of an activity area that’s quite technologically ambitious. What is your view on this as a professional interpretation specialist?
(LT:) Well I think it opens up lots of exciting possibilities, because as you go around a gallery you can take everything with you, you take the whole web with you. We can put on mobile devices anything we choose to put on, anything we think visitors will find useful. It opens up enormous possibilities of allowing visitors to access more information. The question is do visitors want to access more information? What we have learnt over the past twenty years is that actually visitors don’t want a lot of information in galleries, they primarily want to walk around, have a nice time, look at objects, talk to their friends, and just enjoy it as a social and aesthetic experience. Although we know that more and more people have smart phones there is no evidence that I have seen that suggests that people want to use their smartphones for interpretation, they want them for information, but that’s a very different matter. I think we have to proceed quite cautiously here, and perhaps do more evaluation, more research before we invest a lot of money in mobile interpretation.
(GA:) Evelyn, from your perspective not only as a historian but also as a trustee of the museum, do you have a sense of how the V&A operates as a mechanism for telling history? In a general sense, do we have a personality as a historical institution that might be different to other museums?
(EW:) When you come into the V&A, you are coming into a very eclectic institution that is made up of strong curatorial personalities. We know that a lot of the collections were formed by great buyers in the nineteenth century. The V&A tells its history of the world through the histories of the personalities who bought the objects, who donated the objects. The great thing about the museum is that it doesn’t try to disguise this. It doesn’t try to say ‘we are a universal history of the world institution, we have no gaps, we tell everything’, it tells the story of itself, the story of the objects, and tells the story of the ideas that lie behind them.
(GA:) I wanted to finish by asking Lucy one last question. What is your favourite object in the Europe 1600 – 1800 galleries?
(LT:) That’s a tough one. Today I went to have a look at the mechanical tortoise, which is a dear little tortoise, it has got a real tortoise shell on top, and it had got little tortoise feet and a tortoise head, and on top of it there is a merman who is riding it like an Indian Mahout, and prodding its head with a trident. It moves; it has a little mechanism inside. I went to have a look at it because the clock maker was there to see whether we could get it moving for a film, which we can certainly do. That’s a fun object, which I think the curators don’t entirely share my enthusiasm for, because it is not a high class object, but it is very intriguing and it brings together these ideas of science, the mechanism, the natural world, the fact that it is actually a tortoise, and the little brass feet and brass head move in the most extraordinary tortoise-y way. It is not an entirely serious object, so perhaps a more serious object I would choose is the Endymion Cabinet, which is a fabulous ebony cabinet made in Paris in the 1640s with scenes from a contemporary novel, and when you open out the cabinet it has got this fabulous marquetry mirrored set which is like a miniature theatre, with the mirrors arranged in such a way that you get vistas into infinity. When cabinets like this were used for collections of jewellery, shells, coins, curiosities, the collector could bring out items from his collection and arrange them on this little stage within the cabinet, and there would be these wonderful effects of these objects going off into infinity. It is an extremely intriguing object, and it’s one of the things we will be making an object in focus film on.
(EW:) What is wonderful about both of those is they capture that sense of amazement, the secret mechanisms, the secret draws, this notion that we are capturing the whole world in our salons, in our cabinets, and in what will become London’s living room.
(GA:) Well thank you very much, it sounds like it was a great deal of fun to be alive in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Thank you very much indeed to both Evelyn Welch and Lucy Trench for their discussion of interpretation in the European Galleries. I hope you have enjoyed listening, and I hope you will join us again for the next episode of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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Supported by HERA and The Leverhulme Trust
The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com