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Archive for the 'Events' Category

What exactly do you do?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

By Glyn Davies

The Courtauld Gothic Ivories project board meeting

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this, I’d be a wealthy man. The usual thing is that I meet someone at a social event, the talk turns to work and careers, and then comes the big moment when I reveal that I am a museum curator. This usually earns a lot of blank looks, and then some courageous soul pipes up with ‘what exactly does that involve?’. The sub-text here, of course, is that museums are assumed to be unchanging places, and the museum curator is an ivory tower academic who maybe sometimes dusts things.

Actually, curators do an incredibly busy and varied job, many of them putting in long hours for very little financial reward, largely for love of the wonderful objects that they work with and the pleasure of communicating about them with others. If you’re reading this blog, then the chances are that you already knew that, but I thought you might be interested to get a detailed sense of what this curator, at least, does on a daily basis. So, below, I’ve been through my diary over a recent two week period, and pulled out some of the more interesting things I found myself doing. Maybe now I’ll never have to answer that question at a party again!

March 10th-11th: to York, for a conference on medieval stained glass and its display in museums, organised by the History of Art department at York University. My paper looked at the challenges we’d faced, and the choices we’d made when developing our new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The discussions were lively, because no way of handling the display of stained glass is entirely satisfactory, and there are strong opinions!

March 15th: A student group from University College London came to the Museum, and I ran a close-up session for them looking at five medieval ivory and bone carvings produced in the period 1300-1450. Talking to students is always fun, because their views are often fresh and unclouded by too many assumptions. Later that day, I had a meeting with a colleague to discuss an idea for a potential exhibition of medieval textiles.

March 16th: Locked in a basement in north London, recording audio tours and commentaries for an iPod app that we’ve developed to showcase the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. I was feeling pretty confident, until  I was told that they’d had Rupert Everett in the day before doing recordings for a similar audio tour of our Cult of Beauty exhibition…

March 22nd: I finally finish drafting a catalogue record for an interesting ivory depicting the murder of Saint Thomas Becket by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. This is the ivory in question: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O106938/panel-martyrdom-of-st-thomas/. There are a few of these in existence - this example is quite late in date, but copies a design that was at least thirty or forty years old at the time this ivory was carved. The clue is in the figures’ armour - those square shapes on the shoulders are characteristic of armour fashion in the 1330s, but this ivory was carved no earlier than 1360.

March 23rd: a board meeting for the Courtauld Institute’s Gothic Ivories project. This, by the way, is what’s going on in the photo above. This ambitious project aims to put the vast majority of surviving gothic ivory carvings (about 4,000 in number) on a single, searchable website, complete with high quality images. It involves an enormous amount of collaboration between institutions, and in the photo above you can see curators from London, Paris and New York, together with well-known collectors and dealers in the field. If you want to learn more about the project - and to search the database - then take a look at their website: http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk/

March 24th: in the morning, a lovely visit to the National Gallery’s current exhibition on Jan Gossaert. In the afternoon, a colleague from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore visited, and together we looked at medieval objects in the collection that have been altered over time. At the end of the day, I find myself fielding an urgent phone call regarding a visit to the Museum the next day by a group of donors. Fortunately, in the event, I’m able to persuade a colleague to take this one on…

March 30th: I give a formal lecture to students on the study course The Medieval World at the V&A. It’s about medieval textiles, and is followed by a visit to the galleries to see and discuss the objects in detail. After two hours of solid talking on my part, my voice is in need of a rest!

And that’s it. Just two weeks of my life, but quite busy and varied. Working in the V&A is fun, exciting, and intellectually challenging. But how to sum that up when asked? I’m still not sure I have a good answer.

Audio and Technology in the Galleries

Monday, January 24th, 2011

By Glyn Davies

Medieval Mass audio

I remember that when I started working in museums in the late 1990s, computer terminals and audio points were just starting to become common sights in gallery displays. Often, there was a film running on a loop on a television screen, or there was a somewhat clunky computer supplying limited information. The question of whether or not to include tools like this within displays was extremely divisive, with many curators and visitors bitterly opposed to the idea, on the quite reasonable grounds that they distracted from the wonderful objects on show, and that they were ugly.

When the V&A opened its British Galleries in 2000, it was the first major suite in the Museum to make extensive use of such tools. The experience offered in the British Galleries was, for me at least, a good one; we’d taken the trouble to provide the technology in ways that were particularly useful, informative, or stimulating. A good example is the demonstration of William Burges’s wash-stand, an object that for conservation reasons can’t be regularly used, but for which a film was made, demonstrating the elegant and clever means by which water was dispensed into the wash bowl, and then emptied out into a cistern. If you’re interested in Burges’s washstand, then follow this link: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/furniture/videos/washstand/modem.html

For the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, we followed the same path. The aim was to keep the quality of the content high, but to make sure that the means of delivery was discreet and did not in any way detract from the beauty of the objects we were displaying. We thought very carefully about the placement of every screen - close enough to have an obvious relationship with the relevant object, but not so close as to overwhelm it. However, we were very aware that technology was developing faster than we could keep pace with it.

In the first year of our planning, 2002, I remember being shown what the Getty Museum in Los Angeles was developing for their galleries - a portable mini-computer that visitors borrowed from the Entrance Desk, which would provide you with information and films about selected objects in the collection. At the time, I thought this was hugely ambitious, and quite futuristic!

V&A visitorsOf course, by the time our galleries opened in 2010, there had been a revolution in the amount of computing power being carried around in many of our visitors’ pockets. When I first watched Steve Jobs’s launch presentation of the iPhone, it was obvious that this device was going to revolutionise the way people lived their lives. And already since then, visitors now expect to be able to use WiFi to go online in the Museum, and to be able to access more and more information about the collections on the internet.

Our online output these days is starting to resemble that of a small tv company, with the Museum’s own video ‘channel’, and films often presented by well-known figures like Howard Goodall or David Dimbleby. As far as the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries go, we were aware enough of the direction in which things were moving to make sure that all the gallery films, audios and computer interactives were made available on our website as well as within the Museum.

Which brings me to my point - over the last couple of months, we’ve been planning a new step towards our provision of information using technology. In the next few weeks, the Museum will launch an App for iPhone, iPad and Android phones, specifically about the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Users will have access to a series of highlight objects with text and photos, the text and photos from the introduction to the accompanying book, and a series of audios including tours of the galleries. I’m particularly excited about the tours, because if you’re anything like me, then you’ll know that it can be very hard to absorb a lot of information via text panels in museums. On the other hand, if you’re shown around by somebody who knows the objects well, it’s always a more vital and stimulating experience. I do a lot of tours of the spaces, but by offering one of my tours this way, far more people will be able to benefit. We’ll also be able to keep updating the content (offering new tours, for example) over time.

Of course, we can’t expect our visitors to come armed with an iPhone. That’s why labels and wall panels will never be replaced in museums. But many visitors do own these devices, and increasingly, we’ll be able to offer them great ways of improving the experience of their visit. It also means that we don’t have to loan out devices, that there is no added clutter within the galleries, and that visitors are more in control of their own visit. All of which have to be good things!

It would be great to know about other innovative museum interpretation you’ve come across. Feel free to post below…

Changing Manuscript Displays

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

An exciting element of museum displays is that they never stand still - in a very real sense, no gallery project is ever ‘complete’. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries have been open for over six months now, and the first changes are starting to be made. The pictures accompanying this post show you the arrival in the galleries of a new pair of illuminated manuscripts on loan from the British Library.

Installing British Library ManusriptsAs part of the new gallery complex, we came to an agreement with the British Library that they would show a changing selection of manuscripts from their collections within the area of one of our galleries that looks at Great Churches and Monasteries in the period 1050-1250. Manuscripts were an important part of the artistic production of major churches at this time. Churches needed service books in order to better administer the liturgy. They copied scholarly texts for their libraries; and they produced charters and other administrative documents as well. The V&A’s collection of medieval manuscripts is comparatively small, and our works from this period tend to be individual leaves or fragments from much larger and grander works. We wanted to work with the British Library to help further contextualise the displays that visitors will see, and to juxtapose V&A objects with relevant manuscript materials. Hopefully, over time, we will also have the opportunity to display some of the BL’s lesser-known treasures.

Installing British Library Manusripts

 

What really gives this collaboration life, though, is that because manuscripts are extremely light sensitive, and their bindings often fragile, they can only be displayed for a relatively short time. This forces us to regularly change the display - in this case, we are aiming to change the loan every six months. Of course, for regular visitors to the Museum, this means that there will be new and unfamiliar material to see and enjoy, so although it’s a lot of work choosing, preparing and organising each new display, there is a real benefit for the visitor.

The manuscripts here were chosen to show how monasteries and churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries survived through their close links with the ruling elite. Both parties benefited from this relationship. The church provided careers for some of the children of the nobility, provided political support and expertise (for example, in diplomacy) and safeguarded treasures and archives. In return, it was granted lands, tax breaks and other privileges, and could count on royal and noble patrons to help in setting up new churches and monastic foundations.

Installing British Library ManusriptsOne of the new manuscripts is a chronicle of the Abbey of Saint Martin des Champs, near Paris. The image we are showing, a little the worse for wear from water damage, but wonderfully lively, depicts King Henry I of France (1031-1060) standing beside the church building, which he had financed, and signing the foundation charter document. If you’d like to find out more about this manuscript, or see stunning images of the British Library’s other treasures, then their website is here: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/index.html

Next time: just what is it about Italian art that the English love so much?

The Role of the Catalogue

Monday, July 19th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

You may be wondering why this post is accompanied by a photo of a party. Where is the art, you say? What does this have to do with the Medieval and Renaissance periods? Have I stumbled on someone’s Facebook page?

Well, I thought you might like to see one of the less obvious results of our work preparing for the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. While the galleries were being designed and built, there was a huge amount of research going on behind the scenes to re-assess some of our greatest treasures. One of the curators carrying out research was Dr Paul Williamson, the head of the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass department, who is one of the world experts on medieval ivory carving. Paul spent a year researching and writing a new catalogue of our early medieval ivories - one of the most important parts of our earlier collections. We weren’t able to publish it in time for the opening of the new galleries in November, but the advance copies have now arrived, and the book will be going on sale to the public soon. Paul, by the way, is the man with the glasses and dark jacket sitting towards the front.

Medieval Ivories Book Launch

I’m often asked why we didn’t issue a catalogue to accompany the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The answer to this is simple - we issue catalogues to accompany temporary exhibitions, but not permanent displays. The permanent collections are catalogued according to media type, and we have been issuing catalogues of different areas of the collection every few years for a long time now!

Paul’s new book is the first of a series of three which will completely catalogue all the V&A’s ivories, a collection of about 500 objects. Ivory may today seem an odd sort of material to be a major art form during the middle ages, but it enjoyed periods of real popularity during the period. It’s hard to know why exactly this was, but it is noticeable that most of the luxury arts of the medieval period used raw materials that were exotic and hard to obtain - think of silk, gold and silver, or the lapis lazuli pigment used for the finest blue details in paintings. The whiteness of ivory, its durability, and the very tactile nature of ivory carvings (you have to really restrain yourself from touching them) were all probably part of its appeal.

The picture shows a little reception that Paul held to celebrate the completion of the book. I say ‘little’, but even with a single-author book like this, you can see that a large number of people ended up contributing to it! In the photo are staff from the V&A Conservation studios, who carried out scientific examination and testing on the objects; staff from the Photo Studio, who took the wonderful photographs that fill the book; experts from other parts of the Museum, like Rowan Watson, the curator responsible for our medieval manuscripts; the editors and staff of V&A Publications; and many more. Paul is having a more official launch party this week - but it was lovely for all those closely involved in the project to come together to mark its completion.

But of course, it’s never complete. No catalogue is truly the last word on the subject. And now Paul and I have started work on Volume II, which will take up where this catalogue leaves off, and go from 1200 to 1550, covering another 300-odd objects. Volume III is also in the process of being written, by Marjorie Trusted. This kind of scholarship on the collection may not be of any obvious significance for many of our visitors. But in reality, it decisively shapes the ways in which the objects are presented and discussed within the galleries. Many people who would never read Paul’s academic catalogue will certainly see our objects differently because of his research. For instance, one of our greatest treasures, the ivory crozier telling the story of Saint Nicholas, has always been described as English (have a look at it on http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70467/staff-head-the-st-nicholas-crozier/). Paul convincingly demonstrates that it is French, and this will transform the ways in which it is presented in the future.

What Makes a Renaissance Ball Swing?

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

By Glyn Davies

Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.Although it’s now a while since the event happened, I couldn’t resist posting a blog entry on the Renaissance Ball that the V&A hosted in the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries in late January. As you can see from the photos posted here, the guests’ amazing costumes contributed in no small measure to what was a hugely successful event - although their interpretation of Renaissance clothes was broad to say the least! Rather than give you my own opinions about the ball, I’ve asked my friend and colleague Melissa Hamnett, a curator in the Sculpture Department, who was one of the organisers, to tell you about it instead. So, over to you, Melissa!

‘On January 29, over 5,000 people flocked to the V&A’s Friday Late to strut their stuff at a special Renaissance masked ball to celebrate the opening of the new galleries. In collaboration with the Last Tuesday Society, the V&A put on a wide programme of workshops, performances and readings drawing on the masked tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Elaborate attire was the order of the day as costume designers from Wimbledon College of Art donned contemporary clothes for their production of Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo, while members of the public arrived in fantastical masks and period dress to revel in lute-playing and mask-making workshop amongst others.Renaissance Ball at the V&A, Friday 29th January 2010. Photograph by Peter Kelleher.The Monteverdi Choir and the Glydebourne Opera Company performed madrigals and arias by Tallis and Pucell from the balcony in the Renaissance City gallery, while story-telling, silhouette-making and shadow-puppetry took place elsewhere. During a tour of the medieval galleries, many heard the historian Dan Cruickshank embellish on objects such as chalices and chasubles, to sarcophagi and stemmata, while four graduates of the London Contemporary Dance School produced a specially commissioned piece in the Raphael Cartoon Courts. The evening’s events saw all ages delve into the fun in what proved to be one of the most successful Friday Lates to date.’

Of course, what Melissa hasn’t told you is the sheer amount of work involved in planning an event of this sort. She and other team members were working on it during the period in which the Galleries were being installed, and taking part in the installation at the same time. One of the interesting things that’s struck me having seen a number of parties and events happening within the new galleries is how much they lend themselves to this slightly more theatrical, and less didactic, way of experiencing them. This may have something to do with the largest space, ‘The Renaissance City 1350-1600′ in particular. This gallery was intended to provide a broader context for the monumental sculpture and architecture displayed within it by evoking the feel of renaissance interior and exterior spaces. It’s this broadly evocative approach, which means that parts of the gallery feel like a courtyard, or an Italian piazza space, that lends itself to these kinds of events. But speaking as a medievalist, it seems a shame for the renaissance to have all the fun. Maybe we should plan an event for the Feast of Fools?