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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for October, 2007

In Touch with Our Past

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Stuart Frost

Bronze Door Knocker, 1550-1600, Venice. Museum No.  M.30-1951Over the last week or so I’ve been focussed on writing draft labels for a series of touch objects for the new Medieval and Renaissance displays.  If you’d like to read one or two examples click on the images reproduced here to see the text. We’ve tried to ensure that in each of the ten galleries there will be at least one original object that visitors can handle. We want the experience of visiting the displays to be a multi-sensory one where people can actively explore. 

We selected the objects quite some time ago. My curatorial colleagues suggested objects that they thought would be suitable. We visited each one in the relevant store to establish a list of the strongest contenders. Then the Collection was asked to approve the use of the object, and the Conservation Department made an assessment of its suitability. I’ve illustrated this blog entry with a selection of those that have made it on the final list.

Given that the collections cover the period 300-1600 I’m sure you’ll appreciate that it hasn’t always been easy to identify appropriate objects, particularly for the earlier centuries. The ideal touch object has to be durable enough to withstand daily contact without suffering any damage. At the same time the object has to offer an interesting tactile experience otherwise there is little point in including it.Glass replica of the 'Chellini Madonna, glass, made around 1976.

We have made things a little more difficult for ourselves by picking objects that help illustrate characteristics of the major period styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerism. The touch object for the Romanesque style needed to fall within a date range of approximately 1000-1200 and proved particularly challenging. Nevertheless we’ve managed to identify a fantastic architectural detail from a church doorway. I’m very pleased with the selection of objects that we’ve made. Some of the objects are wonderfully large and hopefully will encourage social use and discussion.

Each object will have a standard label and a descriptive text in Braille. I have written draft descriptions and later in November we’ll be testing them with visitors to help us further refine them. A number of visually-impaired visitors have kindly agreed to give up some of their time to help. They will come to the V&A, test the touch-objects and evaluate the Braille descriptions so that we can finalise them.Linenfold Panel, 1500-1600. Museum No. Circ.156-1928

There is still plenty of work to be done. The mounting of some of the objects, because of their scale or weight, will test the ingenuity of the design team. The touch objects needed to be fully integrated with the relevant subject display but without disrupting the overall aesthetic. They need to be at a height that’s suitable for all visitors. The graphic designers will have to find an elegant way of communicating to visitors that they can touch these objects. In short, there is still plenty of work to be done!

Please use the comment facility below to let us know what you think of our touch objects and draft texts. The texts are in the process of being reviewed by curatorial specialists so they represent work in progress. They will be edited by our internal editor, Lucy Trench, in due course.

Let there be light!

Monday, October 15th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project team have been conducting a series of display mock-ups since July of this year. These allow us to test the new arrangements of objects and involve bringing together artefacts located in the V&A’s many stores and or galleries. The pictures here show one such early morning mock-up in progress.

Developing lighting strategies for bronze sculptures.The objects are gathered before the Museum opens to the public with the assistance of staff from the collection departments. The objects are transported in baskets, with each object supported by wads of tissue ensuring that they are stable during transit. They are then assembled in a special room equipped with adjustable display surfaces so the team can decide which height works best for each object and the viewer. The lighting in the room can also be varied. Curators, conservators, designers, lighting contractors and educators attend to discuss the displays and to pool their expertise. Discussion centres around the size of the cases, the height of object within the cases, the location of labels, how objects will be mounted and what type of lighting will be necessary. All these factors are assessed to ensure that the objects look their best and form a coherent and effective display.

The most recent mock up involved one of the finest Renaissance bronze sculptures in the V&A’s collection, a statuette of the mythical hero Meleager by Antico. The statuette has to be handled carefully and the mock-up was carried out in special conditions. The figure has extensive areas of gilding and some details are inlaid with silver. Effective lighting enables these details to be picked out to dramatic effect. You can see the statuette in the picture above. The Meleager’s leaning posture makes him difficult to light effectively from above and having experimented with different strength lamps, pointing from different angles, it was agreed that in-case lighting was the best approach. The golden curls on Meleager’s head and the tunic on his shoulders will catch the light thrown down from the lamps above, while his down turned face and inclining torso will be illuminated by the glow from fibre-optic lamps below him.

Developing lighting strategies for medieval and Renaissance objects.The picture to the left was also taken during the same mock up session. The object illustrated here is a fourteenth-century French coffret. It is covered with decorated boiled leather and poses different challenges. Some materials are particularly sensitive to strong light. Boiled leather needs a relatively low light level. However the decoration on the coffret, which was created using stamps and a range of special modelling tools while the leather was still wet, requires good light if the visitor is to appreciate the detailing. Therefore the lighting had to be just right to give the optimum viewing experience, without endangering the condition of the object. In order to achieve the correct light levels, and as you can see in this picture, a light meter was used to gauge the light which fell on the object.

The mock-ups are an important part of the process in developing the new displays. Despite the amount of work involved in setting them up they’re always enjoyed by those taking part. Everyone appreciates the opportunity to see the objects up close and outside of the cases. In addition there is always a curatorial expert on hand and its fascinating to here them talk about the objects.

Many thanks to my colleague Simon Carter for providing the pictures and information for this blog entry. Simon is the member of project team with the most responsibility for arranging the display mock-ups.

Parish Churches and Worm Charming

Monday, October 1st, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I spent a rather pleasant weekend in Blackawton a little while ago. Blackawton is a small village in Devon, not far from Totnes. I was there helping a friend set up a stall in the village hall. They were hoping to capitalise on the audience attracted to Blackawton to participate in the annual worm charming festival. Competitors are allocated a small area of ground and the team which charms the most worms to the surface in a fixed period of time wins.

Sutton Valance Altarpiece, English 1350-1375. Museum no. A.58-1921.

After the excitement was over, and the winning team had charmed nine worms out from the earth, I wandered off to explore. At the centre of the village I found the Parish Church of St Michael. Spending so much time in London I forget how richly endowed the English landscape is with ancient churches of different sizes, many of which are treasure houses of medieval (and later) history, art and architecture.

The Church of St Michael is impressive in scale and sits above the level of the road by a good ten feet or so on an island of earth which is surrounded and contained by a dry-stone wall. The Church has an impressive grey tower (containing seven bells) and a large nave with two aisles. Inside the nave I discovered a Norman font, lead-lined, carved out of a single massive block of stone. More remarkably separating the larger nave from the smaller chancel were substantial sections of a wonderful wooden choirscreen with a Gothic perpendicular fan vault. A closer inspection revealed that the screen was decorated with the initials of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.  It is rare to find painted choir-screens still in-situ as most were removed and destroyed as a consequence of the Reformation in the sixteenth-century.Decorative boss, late 15th century from Llanbadarn Fawr Church, near Aberystwyth, Wales. Museum no. 118-1908 

Looking at the scale of the church I wondered how the size of the congregation who sat in the nave when it was first built would compare with the current congregation today. I read a report recently which indicated that England is one of the fastest secularising societies in Europe. This inevitably raises thoughts about the future of England’s rural parish churches. What will the size of the congregation of the average village church be in twenty years time, and will local communities across the country be able to maintain all of these churches and their furnishings effectively for future generations? Churches receive very little financial support from external sources.

The V&A’s medieval and Renaissance collections contain several important pieces that were once installed in English and Welsh churches that were at the heart of  their communities from the middle ages onwards. I’ve illustrated this blog entry with a few examples. Most were removed during renovation and restoration in the nineteenth century. I’m trying to think of ways of using the web to make connections between artefacts like these and their original churches. Click on the images to find out more about each object.