When I first started as a V&A Guide, I asked myself: ‘What makes a good tour?’ I decided it was engaging with the visitors, researching the objects, and taking an interesting route through the galleries. However even with the best laid plans, we have to expect the unexpected, as I discovered on a memorable recent tour.
I became a Guide in 2017 because I love telling stories about artefacts and sharing this knowledge with the public. In subsequent years I expanded my repertory to include four more tours – but it was the Introductory Tour that interested me most.
One of the objects I had chosen for my tour was the Bionic Chandelier designed by Julian Melchiorri. Mr Melchiorri is a British Italian scientist and inventor. He has won many prestigious prizes and more recently was invited to the United Nations. His long residency at the V&A brought his extraordinary ingenuity and scientific knowledge further to the attention of an admiring public. For me to engage with his work as a guide was exciting, like watching history in the making.
This chandelier still hangs where it was originally placed for the London Design Festival of 2017 on the landing above the Members’ cloakroom. It looks like an exotic, other-worldly green hanging bowl made from glass mimicking leaves. It is irresistibly strange.
It is worth explaining that the chandelier functions via photosynthesis, the natural process used by plants to convert sunlight into energy. Microorganisms live within its 70 leaves, aided by a hydraulic and mechanical system to sustain them. Using photosynthesis, the micro algae are able to absorb carbon dioxide and release, or exhale, oxygen into the air.
There is, however, one problem with a guide like me presenting such a chandelier to the public: I did not entirely understand how to explain photosynthesis. Copying out references and definitions to memorise did not help me grasp the lamp’s function any better.
This can be explained in part by going back to my early education; for it is true that my performance in science was poor. In fact, my school mates often made a meal out of ridiculing my slow progress. They would whisper to the teacher quite indiscreetly, ‘Sir, you should put him in the corner face to the wall; we are 5 months on and he is still at square one!’ They were very mean but had a point: I did in fact spend a lot time at square one in science class and exhausted everyone’s patience.
Nothing, however, could derail my fascination with Julian Melchiorri’s lamp, neither my ineptitude for science nor the language barrier created by the scientific terminology I struggled to understand and articulate.
The normal amount of research then followed. In the end, I believed that I could give an acceptable presentation of the lamp, but I mostly lacked confidence and was afraid of difficult questions. The sophisticated scientific concepts of Mr Melchiorri were quite beyond me – though I persisted undeterred. I wanted to honour his ingenuity.
On the day of the tour I came in early to rehearse and to check if any of my chosen objects had been removed. (This is an occupational hazard of museum tour guides.) To my alarm, a team of three engineers were busy working around the chandelier but they assured me they were merely carrying out a regular service.
Bouts of courage and enthusiasm pared with anxiety as to whether I should carry through with including this chandelier on my tour. If I could not understand its function why even consider it? On the other hand, a gentle dive into the unknown was right down my lane and a good way of gaining experience. Part of the joy of guiding for me was not to think I knew everything about a given artefact, which was impossible anyway. Nor should I try to anticipate the outcome of my tour. Destiny would surely decide. What did I have to lose?
It was almost 10.30 and, as my tour was about to start, I hurried back to the meeting point to greet the interested visitors. After a brief introduction we were off. A friendly group of about 11 people, we visited the Raphael Cartoons then walked through the Fashion Gallery to the Hinze Sculpture gallery. I felt unusually relaxed, knowing that I would decide on the spur of the moment where next. This helped me to get into my stride.
I had two possible choices: either turn right into the Sculpture gallery or left up the stairs through the Members’ cloakroom and on to what is now Design (1900–Now). Mysteriously drawn to the latter, I decided to confront my bête noire and turned left, heading straight for the Bionic Chandelier.
There I stood with my group in front of me and, in the background, the three engineers were still servicing the lamp. I was both confident and enthusiastic but my insecurities were starting to unsettle me.
Then it came to me: how Julian Melchiorri was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci when he wrote … my style of design and engineering is to allow form to follow function. Suddenly I saw the invention of the chandelier as philosophy rather than science, and was able to explain it fluently to the visitors.
Then just as we were walking away a young man, who I remembered as one of the engineers servicing the lamp, ran up to me and took me by the arm, saying,
‘What an interesting description of the lamp you have just given!’
‘Interesting!?’ His comment took me completely by surprise.
‘Where did you learn all this, it was very well explained?’ the man said.
‘I did do a lot of research.’ I said to him. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘I’m the designer Julian Melchiorri. Well done!’