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The British Galleries 1500-1900: An Overview

Nick Umney
Museum Project Manager, British Galleries Project

Victoria Oakley
Head of Ceramics and Glass Conservation


The refurbishment of the British Galleries is one of the largest and most exciting projects the V&A has ever undertaken. The world's most important collection of British art and design will be redisplayed in a new and glorious setting. Fifteen galleries will house, in an area of about 3000 m2 , some 3000 exceptional pieces of decorative and fine art spanning the four centuries, 1500-1900. These include a wide variety of ceramics, glass, furniture, metalwork, textiles, costume and wallpapers as well as books, sculpture, prints, paintings and drawings.

The new galleries will provide a stimulating, dynamic experience giving visitors a real sense of involvement with the collections. Improved display, clear organisation and fuller explanation will heighten interaction and enjoyment. Air-conditioning, careful management of light and rotation of sensitive objects will provide greater accessibility to rare exhibits and minimise the risk of damage and deterioration.

The project is in receipt of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund of £16m towards the total redevelopment cost of £31m. The transformed galleries are scheduled to re-open to the public in November 2001. The brief represents a marvellous opportunity for V&A conservators to be involved with all aspects of the examination, cleaning, repair, mounting, documentation and display of some of the most important objects in the Museum. It offers the opportunity to work with internationally renowned designers to help develop innovative displays. At the same time it presents a challenge to the management of the Conservation Department to plan, co-ordinate, monitor and control a wide range of diverse activities and to communicate effectively with many different project stakeholders. This means understanding the requirements of the project, setting targets and monitoring progress to ensure that they are met.

Project Planning

A concept team was set up in 1995, reporting to the Head of Major Projects, Gwyn Miles, to develop the idea for the gallery. Shortly afterwards a project manager, Ross Shute, from Bovis Programme Management was appointed to complete the process of tendering for a full team of design consultants and to manage the construction related aspects of the project. Three gallery teams, reporting to the Concept Team, were set up to develop the themes and choice of subjects and objects for the galleries. The three teams represent the Tudor and Stuart, Hanoverian and Victorian sections of the galleries. In January 1998, Nick Umney was seconded from the Conservation Department to the post of Museum Project Manager.

In order to plan the tasks required to complete the project in detail and to manage the complex interactions between different activities, a series of master programmes were developed for construction, content and museum operations. The latter programme included individual programmes for object relocation, loans, setting up of temporary displays, photography and conservation.

The conservation activities identified in the programme include: object assessment and technical examination; preparation of objects for relocation, loan, photography and final display; conservation advising on design; trial assemblies and test runs; materials testing; environmental monitoring; management and control. It was recognized that these activities would to a large extent be phased. The first phase would be an assessment of objects for relocation closely followed by preparation of objects for temporary displays, to ensure their continued availability for public viewing. Subsequently, preparation for photography and the final display would become the main focus of activity.

 Preliminary Assessment for Conservation Requirements

A preliminary assessment was carried out during the summer and autumn of 1997 to determine the probable extent of conservation needs for the project. This information was submitted as part of the Museum's funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The objectives of this assessment were to determine:

  • The overall condition and damage types of objects
  • Conservation needs for relocation of objects from the former British art and design galleries and associated stores
  • Conservation requirements for loan/return of relocated objects - to satisfy demands for access and/or to provide suitable locations
  • Special packing needs of objects for relocation and storage offsite
  • Environmental susceptibilities of objects and environmental requirements for new displays to be communicated to designers and others
  • Objects requiring technical analysis
  • Objects requiring treatment before photography
  • Objects requiring treatment before final display
  • Possibility of working on objects offsite following relocation

The methodology1 used, aimed to provide consistency across all Conservation Sections and object types. The basic descriptive information was imported from theMuseum's Collections Information System (CIS) to a local database that was then used for data collection. The local database was structured to preserve the integrity of the central system and allow the collection of further information that could later be returned to the central system. This was done in anticipation of sharing data between stakeholders. Although the object list has been considerably refined, the assessment has provided a firm foundation for analysis of project needs and for monitoring progress of the work.

The work so far and more still to come

Two galleries were converted for use as temporary galleries to provide temporary display space for some of the most important objects relocated from the former British art and design galleries. Preparation of objects for photography is currently the pressing priority. Photography is required for a major publication to accompany the opening of the gallery and for interpretative devices, particularly for multimedia interactives. Deadlines for photography considerably predate those for final display.  Sharing of up-to-date centrally recorded data with all interested parties is vital to the success of this approach.

While these activities have been in progress, the Department has also been providing an input to the design effort. Victoria Oakley who represents the Department on the Project Team has provided day-to-day input. Two volumes of generic method statements have been produced by the Department to assist the designers, one for mounting objects on open display, the other for mounting objects in display cases. To ensure that it will be possible to erect the Melville bed under gallery conditions, a trial has been successfully completed. The bed was on display for a limited period and the opportunity was used to create publicity for the Museum. The work was filmed and will be seen in the new galleries.  A small team of conservators has audited all of the designers' plans and elevations for preservation issues and have had to make some tough decisions about displays.

Conservation scientists continue to be involved in the project. Environmental monitoring has helped to ensure that conditions in new locations to which objects have been moved are appropriate. Analysis has been undertaken variously to determine whether objects should be included in the object list for the galleries, to provide essential information for conservation treatments, to increase our understanding of 'star' objects for displays and to enable tender specifications to be written for the period rooms.


The Conservation Department is striving to ensure that the objects selected for final display are stable, in optimum visual condition and technically understood. Work being done to achieve these aims includes scientific and technical examination, cleaning, stabilisation, consolidation, repair, restoration and mounting of objects and includes preparation for interpretative devices. The project offers unique opportunities for professional development of conservators undertaking the work. However, the resource implications are considerable and a combination of approaches are being used to manage available resources to meet the requirements. Compromise inevitably plays a large role in any project on this scale and where it is necessary to limit resources to any area, it is important for all concerned to work within the agreed allocation.

In the meantime, the assessment of objects has continued as the list has been refined, ensuring that the overall estimate of work required remains current. Each month figures are published to show the amount of work completed, the amount remaining and the estimated versus actual amounts of time spent. This information is vital to ensure that the project delivers on time.


1. Keene, S., Audits of Care: A Framework for Collection Condition Surveys, Storage, papers given at UKIC Conference: Restoration '91, London, October 1991, pp6-15. Published by UKIC ISBN 1 871656 125