Interview: Moira Gemmill, director at the V&A Gallery
Phase I, affecting 70 per cent of the museum's collections, culiminated in the opening of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries on 2 December, but this year alone the museum has also unveiled the first half of its stunning new ceramics galleries (when Phase II opens next July there will be a total of 26,500 objects on display); a revamped shop and garden; a new theatre; the Gilbert Collection (gold, silver, mosaics, and enamel portrait miniatures); the Buddhist sculpture gallery; and even a new women's loo containing a bespoke mural: Six Circles in Disorder, by Swiss artist Felice Varini.
Though it's all change here at the V&A, Moira Gemmill, director of projects, design and estate, sits before me on this early November day a calm, collected, ultra-sleek sliver of black-clad cool. Just as she is no fusty pencil-pusher, it is no longer fair to dismiss the V&A as venerable but dull. Today's V&A is vibrant, vivid and full of va-va-voom.
Gemmill grew up in a farming family in Kintyre that had strong links to the art world via an artistic grandmother and aunt. Gemmill's sister is an artist, and she herself took an Art and Design degree at Glasgow School of Art, specialising in graphic design and photography. But when she graduated in the early 1980s, jobs were scarce.
"Eventually I got a job as an illustrator on a technical magazine for the offshore oil industry and moved to Aberdeen. It was excruciatingly boring," she recalls. There, she set up a little company with friends and published Citygirl magazine, but when the next downturn in the oil industry made that untenable, Gemmill went to work for Aberdeen Art Gallery.
"It's a very, very fine art gallery with great collections and I absolutely loved it. It was quite forward-thinking. We put on a lot of temporary exhibitions in the art gallery itself and in the maritime museum.
"I'd been working for (them] for about ten years in various different roles, mainly planning and implementing exhibitions. Then a job came up at the Museum of London, where I spent three or four years before moving to the V&A as the head of design in 2002."
That meant taking on the responsibility for how the museum presented itself both internally and externally. "How the galleries look, how other facilities look and function, and even the two-dimensional print and promotional material we produce – this museum is all about design, so it's incredibly important that we present ourselves with that in mind," says Gemmill.
My own earliest memories are of a dark, confusing warren of galleries and a baffling hunt for the coffee shop secreted in the William Morris rooms. But after years of ignoring it, I now count the V&A as a must-visit whenever I'm down south.
"In the past seven years there has been a very concerted effort to change how the museum looked and how we interpret the collections," Gemmill explains. "We wanted to refresh our brand identity."
One of the first changes she oversaw was restoring the integrity of the V&A logo. Gemmill says: "It's a beautiful piece of typography that had been relegated to a little nook in the corner. We worked to make it central to any piece of printed material we produced. It's an iconic piece of design. People love that logo and they love this museum, but when I arrived the place didn't feel very loved, it felt slightly tired around the edges."
Take the Medieval and Renaissance collections. "These collections are world class and unrivalled, and while a lot of them were already on display, it was in quite a disjointed fashion, dotted throughout the museum. There was no coherent thread running through the story," she says.
Looking for the story's beginning and end points, curators settled on the span from 300 to 1600. I was lucky enough to be allowed to prowl around the building site that, by the time you read this, comprises the newly opened suite of ten galleries: Faiths and Empires (300-1250); The Rise of Gothic (1200-1350); Devotion and Display (1300-1500); Noble Living (1350-1500); Renaissance Art and Ideas (1400-1550); Donatello and the Making of Art (1400-1500), which will showcase the museum's collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture – reckoned to be the greatest outside Italy; A World of Goods (1450-1600); Splendour and Society (1500-1600); The Renaissance City (1350-1600); and Living with the Past (300-1600).
Even unfinished, the ambition and scope of the project are breathtaking. Beautiful original mosaic floors have been stripped of their ugly vinyl coverings and restored to glory. Artefacts have been thoroughly re-examined and re-assessed. To give just one example, when the lavish enamelled Eltenberg Reliquary (circa 1180), which the V&A acquired in 1861, was taken apart, curators discovered a hidden note explaining that it came from a Benedictine monastery in Cologne and was used not for relics, but to contain the Eucharist. Newly rechristened the Cologne Tabernacle, it has pride of place in Gallery 8, Faiths and Empires.
Computers will enable visitors to flick through Leonardo da Vinci's original notebooks (also on display) and listen to music of the period that has been specially recorded by the Royal College of Music. All of this takes place not only in magnificent halls created out of existing spaces, but in new exhibition space reclaimed from store rooms and offices.
This is due to extremely clever thinking on the part of the young architecture practice, MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects), whose three partners – two of whom are Scottish – met at Mackintosh School of Architecture, which is affiliated with both Glasgow University and the Glasgow School of Art.
Stuart McKnight, originally from Callander, is on hand to show me a wealth of schematics and other diagrams, reinforcing just how enormous the project has been on every level, from the 30m budget – all of it donated – to its scope and execution. There will be 3,300 square metres of gallery space showcasing some 2,000 objects.
McKnight says: "The fantastic thing about the V&A is that it believes in design enough to allow young practices opportunities. When William Morris did the rooms, I think it was his first commission. We ended up on a shortlist that was initially only about exhibition design, not about changing the building – but, in fact, that was what we ended up doing."
The V&A is not one but several structures built over a period of some 60 years by different architects. Therefore not all the bits join up, which can prove frustrating for visitors who don't understand why point A doesn't lead to point B. This site, comprising the entire south-east wing, consisted of several levels that didn't link. Thus, to access the lower rooms you would have had to retrace your steps back to the main entrance and start all over again.
McKnight explains: "We saw that the building doesn't work, and thought about how to make it work better. Looking at the historic plans, we found an opportunity to take away a set of marble stairs and put in a new glass lift and stair. Suddenly rooms that were never used as galleries become useful. Windows had been blocked off, but we discovered a light well that we could open up."
For the first time ever, all six levels of the V&A museum will be accessible via a single lift. And in opening up the light well, MUMA has created a breathtaking day-lit gallery covered by an innovative 1.1m glazed roof engineered by Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners. "Tim Macfarlane is probably one of the leading glass engineers in the world – another Scot in London," says McKnight.
The great glass ceiling consists of beams that seem to disappear into the brickwork where they meet the wall. They undulate, rising and falling to compensate for the uneven distance between the back of the Italian chapel, where they originate, and the main building. "It's a pure circle against straight lines that are not parallel, which is a geometric puzzle," says McKnight. "We explored how much we could twist the double-glazed units. It's the most fabulous engineering. These are standard double-glazed units that had to be forced into place – cold formed, by force, not using heat – without breaking."
It's no small feat creating space suitable for displaying objects ranging from a pair of Egyptian socks and a slim silver hair ornament to the three-story faade of Sir Paul Pindar's house, the only wooden structure (circa 1600) to survive the Great Fire. There are stained glass panels and altarpieces, paintings by such great masters as Botticelli and Crivelli, a harpsichord dating to 1574, and the Becket Casket depicting the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury and said to have held his relics.
How on earth do you showcase this range of artefacts and also create light, airy galleries without blocking off the windows, as was so often done in the past? One of the most beautiful solutions was MUMA's creation of translucent walls made of thin sheets of pale, veined onyx bonded to structural glass, from which objects can be hung. This lets light pour through the windows while lending the artwork an ethereal air.
Gemmill says: "We wanted to get across the point that the medieval period was not dark, so in our smaller, square side galleries we've used more colour, jewel tones. We had long debates about colour. One of those galleries is gold, and our graphic designers have also introduced real gold leaf into the theme panels for our displays. They're stunning." MUMA also triumphed with the design of seemingly invisible display cases conceived to be ultra-secure while maximising the impact of the artefacts. The plinths echo the limestone of the gallery floor, topped with boxes of specially engineered glass. "The glass rises up and down on internal hydraulic ramps and the display surfaces slide out so curators can pin objects on to them. The idea is really simple, but to achieve it is technologically tough," says McKnight.
As for Gemmill, she's already looking to the future, eyeing up ways to highlight some of the stellar interior spaces that are currently under-appreciated due to the strictures necessitated by housing temporary exhibits.
"I also have longer-term plans for moving our fashion and textile collections, but it's reliant on other things happening. It's sort of like a game of Tetris," she laughs.
The V&A, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London. Admission free, tel: 020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk
This article was first published in The Scotsman on December 19