London Museum's Galleries Applauded

After 7 years, Medieval and Renaissance galleries open at Victoria and Albert.

December 4, 2009, 8:22 AM

LONDON, Dec. 4, 2009 — -- The Victoria and Albert Museum in London wows visitors with its new wing displaying more than 1,000 years of artistic and cultural history. Visitors young and old are flocking to the museum to see the much-anticipated Medieval and Renaissance galleries, which open Wednesday.

"I'm impressed with everything from the large architectural fragments to the small pieces in the collection," said Johanna Roethe, an architectural historian in London.

Occupying the entire southwest wing of the museum, the 10 new galleries display more than 1,800 works of art. The collection is laid out with precision and illustrates chronologically the history of art and architecture from the fall of the Roman Empire to the foundation of modern Europe during the Renaissance.

Unique to the museum is the ground-floor gallery, which mimics a Renaissance city. It features large-scale works that were once part of Renaissance buildings, including the exterior of Santa Chiara Chapel, which is the only example of a Florentine Renaissance outside Italy.

One British couple said the gallery gave them a taste of Florence without having to hop on a plane.

Among the permanent collection's treasures are stained-glass panels that came directly from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The panels are laid in front of subdued light to demonstrate the same colorful light show individuals would have experienced in a 13th century chapel lined in stained-glass.

A tribute to the wonderful layout is that the transition among galleries is incredibly smooth; from the 13th century stained-glass room, for instance, to the next room containing a 15th century giant tapestry depicting a bear hunt, which takes up an entire wall of the gallery.

"It was certainly a major challenge to connect the time periods but it works very well," historian Roethe said as she stood admiring ceramic ceiling tiles from the 15th century. "I've been waiting several years for this. It's been so long in the making."

Years of Anticipation

The Medieval and Renaissance wing took more than seven years to create. With a price tag exceeding $50 million, it is the museum's largest project since it opened in 2001. The extensive project was made possible through generous donations of more than $33 million and a $16.2 million grant from the heritage lottery fund, which is supported by Britain's national lottery.

"The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries mark the culmination of nine years of systematic renewal at the V&A," museum director Mark Jones said. "The new galleries present some of the world's greatest treasures in beautifully designed galleries that we hope will inspire all our visitors."

And inspire they do. By providing more than just a display case, the new galleries create an art experience for visitors.

"I think it's great that they have more than just the wall labels," visiting New Yorker Irene Haji-Georgi, 21, said. "It makes everything accessible to the public, which is great for people who know nothing about art but also good for those who do."

Haji-Georgi praised the touch-screen interactive accompanying an ivory booklet. But the crowd favorite was the interactive screen next to Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, which allows visitors to peruse the pages of the 500-year-old notebooks containing his famous right-to-left mirror writing.

The galleries are also filled with short film stations, audio points including music from the Royal College of Music and discovery areas where visitors can dress up in period costume or participate in brass rubbing (these areas have not yet opened).

The activities that are up and running appear to be successful. In the first floor galleries, every interactive was in use this week. A couple watched a short film on Palm Sunday, two brothers clicked away at a quiz on Romanesque art in another and, among the bustle of visitors in the Renaissance City gallery, one man sat listening to a hymn. All walked away smiling.

The galleries go beyond the surface to provide a wonderful experience for the art connoisseur and your average art admirer. Best of all, the experience is free of charge.

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