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The Research and Conservation of Art Centre

Gwyn Miles
Head of Major Projects and Collections Management, RCA Project Leader

The buildings of the V&A, started in the 1860s and completed in 1909, extend across the entire 5.5 hectare site. Nearly all the buildings were designed for the display of objects - only the small secretariat block on the eastern edge gave the Museum purpose built offices. However, a modern museum needs other facilities in addition to offices. We require workshops, studios for conservation and photography, and laboratories to service the collections and provide for the public. Over the years these facilities were provided by taking gallery space for curator's offices and tucking conservation studios here and there in 16 separate locations across the site. In 1987 Michael Hopkins & Partners produced a Masterplan for the use of the building. To increase efficiency they proposed that staff should be grouped more closely together - towards the back of the building.

The opportunity to rationalise staff working spaces came with the removal of the Royal College of Art's Painting Schools to their new building on Queens Gate in 1991. A space audit was carried out which demonstrated that the old painting schools would indeed provide excellent working space; in particular, it would act as the focus for bringing together all staff working on the collections - curators, conservators, photographers, scientists, technicians, and provide a home for the newly created Research Department.

Plans for the RCA development were drawn up and an option appraisal undertaken. The rationale for the new building was to provide excellent facilities for the examination, study and conservation of objects. Better, more streamlined methods of treatment would allow us to increase the throughput of objects through conservation and mounting, thereby improving the overall welfare of the collection. By grouping the operational areas together we intended to avoid overhandling objects and thus reduce the risk of damage. The appraisal showed the best option, that provided most space, was a £22 million scheme. This, however, was rejected by the Office of Arts and Libraries. A reduced scheme, giving the best value for money and allowing us to keep some double height spaces, was agreed by the Minister for Art, Tim Renton. The OAL allocated an additional £5 million towards the £14 million cost of this scheme.

The benefit of the scheme was that it used the RCA as the centre for activities connecting existing spaces to the west and east, not as a 'stand alone' development. This will become apparent once Phase II (the West and South Wing) and Phase III (the East Wing) are completed. The RCA will provide much needed horizontal and vertical routes through the building. The North Wing is served by a goods lift which will benefit the Henry Cole Wing and East Wing. The South Wing will provide a much needed passenger lift to the Lecture Theatre and Seminar Rooms.

The design of the spaces has been a challenging task. The original scheme and rationale was developed by Norman Ullathorne of David Leon and Partners. The detailed design and execution was carried out by Peter Lyon of Austin- Smith:Lord. We were determined that the spaces should provide a calm and elegant environment in which people could work happily. A key component of the scheme will be the new staff common room on the ground floor of the West Wing. A major work of art has been commissioned from Wendy Ramshaw. This will be a screen which will include all the different types of material within the Collections, and will stand at the entrance to the common room helping to provide an appropriate atmosphere for an informal meeting place for all members of staff.