Summer 2006 Issue 53
Developing the Islamic Middle East gallery and touring exhibition
In 2003, the V&A received a substantial donation of £5.4 million from Hartwell plc, part of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, to transform one of its historic galleries into a fitting home for the Museum's superb collection of Islamic art from the Middle East and finance a touring exhibition of the V&A's Islamic treasures. The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art is dedicated to the memory of Mr Abdul Latif Jameel, the late founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, and his wife Nafisa. Located in Gallery 42 on the ground floor, it is at the heart of the V&A, with a floor area of 550 square metres and a height of 13 metres at its centre. It houses treasures from the V&A's collection of more than 10,000 Islamic objects from the Middle East.
Following the donation, the V&A set up a dedicated team to develop the gallery and the touring exhibition intended as a showcase of star objects from the collection, to travel internationally during the gallery closure. A project team was formed of curators, a project co-ordinator and a gallery educator, who were responsible for intellectual content, and the structure and management of the refurbishment process. This team was supplemented as the project progressed by V&A staff working within the normal departmental structure (Collections Services, Public Affairs, Projects & Estate etc.).
The project team's first task was to forge the narrative concept and aims for the new gallery and touring exhibition, then work out how to deliver them. Following the example of the V&A's British Galleries, a framework document was developed, detailing intellectual content, the objects required and interpretation needed to make them accessible to the public. A programme was also developed, breaking the project down into manageable and integrated tasks so that activities, roles and responsibilities were clear. These tools enabled us to identify the objectives and the resources required to deliver the project by the agreed opening date of 18 July 2006.
Another tool developed out of the British Galleries was PROJEXS, a project-specific information database. The team inputted detailed information about every object, including photography and conservation requirements, object dimensions and display needs, while the database automatically drew down information from CIS (the V&A's central Collection Information System) and fed into the database to generate working lists for the conservation teams.
In August 2003, staff responsible for storage, collection records, object handling, packing, conservation and photography were brought together to plan the first practical step of de-installing the existing gallery. An off-site store was prepared for objects. Gallery 42 closed in November 2003 and, over a four-week period, 400 objects were audited, photographed, measured, condition checked, packed and taken to storage or for conservation work.
By the time of the gallery closure, the object list for the touring exhibition had been largely agreed. One hundred and twenty objects were selected and in just six months conservation work was completed, mounts made, travel crates built and packing undertaken. Because of time and resource limitations, a number of large ceramic objects were sent out of the Museum to be treated. A star object of the show, the Iznik fireplace (Museum no. 703-1891; Front cover image), needed six months' work alone to make it suitable for travelling to four international venues.
Once the touring exhibition arrangements were well underway, attention focused on the gallery in earnest. By August 2004 the framework document was agreed, enabling the team to set up the PROJEXS database. Object lists were then generated to enable assessments of conservation, photography and display requirements, and the resources needed to undertake this work. The considerable challenge of moving over 300 objects between the stores, mount-making workshops, photography and conservation studios was undertaken by the assistant curators. Short-term contract staff supplemented the V&A's existing conservators in order to deliver the objects in time for the installation in April 2006. A whole year before installation, in-depth mounting and framing decisions had to be made to inform the detailed design of display cases by lead architect Softroom, in liaison with the case manufacturer Goppion Srl.
The project team started working with Technical Services on the detailed planning of the object installation from late 2005 - we calculated that 400 objects of varying complexity would take the team eight weeks to install. Thirty out of the 47 display cases in the gallery contained objects that were travelling in the exhibition, so we concentrated at first on the large carpets, heavy tilework, high level windows and textile displays. When the touring objects returned to the V&A, there were fifty crates to unpack before work could start on the rest of the gallery. We worked in teams tailored to the task in hand. The curators worked on small object displays, with a technician if needed to install object mounts. For large and complex objects, assessments were undertaken to plan the work stages, equipment and resources required.
Our biggest challenge was the project's timescale. The project team were all relatively new to the V&A and had to hit the ground running to deliver, from scratch, an international touring exhibition, two publications and a major new gallery in just over three years. In the early stages, the project team were under pressure to keep up with the design team who were solely focused on the gallery. Careful prioritisation and hard work were required to keep one step ahead, and in some cases, such as the Ardabil carpet light-fastness testing, the V&A was late in delivering vital information to the consultants.
The touring exhibition presented an interesting challenge. Initially it distracted from the delivery of our main goal - the permanent gallery. Yet it enabled narrative ideas to be thought through and helped us to see the objects in a new light. From a practical point of view, we sometimes found it frustrating to have 120 objects on the other side of the world. However, in moving the objects between four venues an intimate knowledge of them was gained - which came in particularly useful when detailing cases for, and installing, the new gallery. Nearly 300,000 people visited the exhibition at its four venues, which acted as a wonderful opportunity to showcase the forthcoming Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A.