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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for July, 2009

The Listening Gallery Part 2: Medieval to Baroque

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009. Photograph by Lorena Meana.Music was part of daily life in medieval and Renaissance Europe and talented musicians and composers were often as highly regarded or sought after as other artists. Music was an important art form in its own right. The central role of music in medieval and Renaissance culture is reflected in many objects in the V&A’s collections. Thanks to a partnership with the Royal College of Music funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) we will be able to integrate a large number of high quality recordings into the Medieval and Renaissance galleries in an innovative and exciting manner.

Rehearsals and recordings of music for the new galleries have been taking place over recent weeks, thanks to the efforts of Giulia Nuti at the Royal College of Music. I’ll focus on one example here. The picture below this paragraph and to the left is of a page from a medieval manuscript known as the Saint Denis Missal. The book was made in Paris around 1350 and was used at the royal abbey of Saint Denis. Click on the picture for more information about it and to see other openings from the book. The Saint Denis Missal is a remarkably fine example of a Gothic manuscript and features some magnificent examples of calligraphy and illumination. It is largely because of the artistic qualities of the book that the V&A acquired it.Page from a missal from the abbey of Saint-Denis, 1350. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346.

The pages of the missal, however, also carry countless lines of musical notation and it is some of this notation that was performed and recorded earlier this week. The work of Professor Anne Robertson on the service books of St Denis allowed Jennifer Smith of the Royal College of Music to prepare sheet music that could be rehearsed and performed by a choir of talented singers. Listening to the choir perform a piece of music that was originally sung in Paris over seven hundred and fifty years ago certainly stands out as one of my personal highlights whilst working at the V&A. The pictures  at the start and end of this blog entry show the choir at work with Jennifer.

Each of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A will contain at least one audio-point, most of which will be built into seats. Visitors will be able to sit down, select an option from a small touch-screen and listen to an audio track delivered through a handset or a set of headphones. Many of the audio-points have been placed in a direct relationship with a key object. Visitors will be able to look at the Saint Denis Missal, for example, whilst listening to music that is written on its pages. Each of the audio-points will include recordings provided by the Royal College of Music. We hope that the recordings will help visitors to the galleries understand the culture that produced the objects displayed around them, to stimulate their imagination and to enhance their feel for medieval and Renaissance culture. Performing medieval chant, 17 June 2009.Photograph by Lorena Meana.

The first phase of the Listening Gallery project led to the integration of a number of beautiful recordings of music within the recent temporary exhibition Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence. If you have visited the exhibition I’m very keen to hear your views about how the recordings playing in the exhibition space impacted on your visit. For those of you unable to visit the exhibition physically a number of recordings are available to download online.

The Listening Gallery Project has been a fascinating one to be involved with. The commitment, expertise and passion of all the staff and students at the Royal College of Music involved with the project has been truly inspirational. Thanks to Peter Kelleher and Maike Zimmermann at the V&A we’ve been able to film some of the behind-the-scenes work involved in making the recordings. A series of short online films will be made available over the coming weeks. Watch this space for more details and further information.

Click here to find out more about the Listening Gallery project.

Click here to download recordings of music associated with Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence.

Mounting and Fixing

Monday, July 13th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Woman's girdle, about 1540-80, Italy or France, Museum no. T.370-1989.There will be approximately one thousand and eight hundred objects for visitors to enjoy in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. Regular readers of this blog will know that object installation has been underway for sometime. As the opening of the galleries approaches rapidly, mounting and fixing has been coming ever closer to the fore. 

Every object to be displayed in the new galleries has been the subject of discussion to establish how it can be displayed to best effect. There are numerous factors which need to considered and sometimes conflicting demands that need to be reconciled. For example, if an object is displayed too far back from the front of a case, or if the angle it is displayed at isn’t quite right, visitors will be unable to fully enjoy the object. Many exhibition cases bear the marks left by visitor’s noses or foreheads in their desperate attempts to get a good view of a beautiful object. However some objects are too fragile to be displayed at the ideal angle for a visitor so finding the ideal solution can be a challenge.

G. Preparing the Mount for a Woman's girdle, about 1540-80, Italy or France, Museum no. T.370-1989.  Photograph by Constanze Zimmer.The production of mounts for objects has now been taking place at the V&A for sometime. Some objects are comparatively straightforward and can sit, for example, on a shelf within a case without any external or internal support. Other objects pose significantly greater challenges testing the ingenuity and skills of those involved to the limit. The object illustrated here in the top right corner definitely falls into the latter category. 

The picture of the object laid flat isn’t very helpful in suggesting the original function of the object and demonstrates just how important way an object is displayed is. Despite the concertinaed appearance in the photograph the object is a 16th century girdle that would have been wrapped once around a woman’s waist and then tied in front. At 3.75m it is a remarkably long girdle which suggests that it might have been worn by a rather tall lady with a wider than average waist. The ends of the girdle are weighted with knots would have ensured that it hung loose at the hem of her gown. To find out a little more about the girdle, or to see a larger image, please click on the picture.

J. Making a mount for a girdle. Photograph by Constanze Zimmer.The girdle is made from silk and metal threads and despite its fragile and delicate appearance it is surprisingly heavy. It will be displayed in a subject display called What People Wore and Why. After considerable debate, discussion and experimentation it has been decided to suspend the girdle in the case with the ingenious use of a mount that will project from the back wall of the case. The overall aim is to produce a mount that fully supports the girdle whilst remaining as discreet as possible and giving the viewer a clear sense of how the object would have been worn. The object’s weight and its length made the mount-making process particularly challenging and demanded a creative solution.

The first stage of mount production involved shaping clear acrylic into a waist shaped support and then covering it with padding and textile. The image above and to the left shows the girdle pinned to this waist-shaped mount. The full length of girdle couldn’t be displayed in the case. There is an aperture in the back of the mount that allows some of the textile to sit inside and rest on the bottom plate. The acrylic plate, or lid, that you can see in the picture will be covered with a dark textile.

The picture above and to the right shows the girdle temporarily pinned to the almost finished mount in the Textiles Conservation Studio at the V&A. The trailing ends of the girdle rest on cut acrylic which can’t be seen in the photograph. The mount is now finished which means that the object can installed inside the relevant case in due course. If you’d like to see more pictures of the production of the mount for the girdle there are ten pictures posted on the V&A Medieval & Renaissance site on Flickr. You can reach the Flickr site by clicking on any of the photographs reproduced here.

I would like to thank Constanze Zimmer for providing the photographs to illustrate this blog entry and for additional information about the mount-making process. If you have any comments or questions please post them below. When the object is finally installed I’ll provide an update here.