This week, the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, throws open its 10 Medieval and Renaissance galleries after almost seven years of refurbishment, which has cost in excess of £31m. Almost a third of this sum has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and much of the rest from the private sector. With almost 1,800 works on display, this is museum remaking on a grand scale. Are the results equal to the ambition?
There is no denying the scale of the task. The galleries aim to tell the story of art from AD300 to the 16th-century. The objects range from architectural features rescued or pillaged from great buildings – a Renaissance balcony from Venice or the façade of a 16th-century London house which escaped the Great Fire – to the most humble household items. Pieces unseen for years are back on view, gleamingly clean: look, for example, at the barrel-lidded, wooden wedding chest, made for the Gonzaga and Este families, which would have been strapped to the back of a horse. In former times it was sad and brown. Now it is as colourful as a stick of Blackpool rock. Any museum has to play to the strengths of its own collections. This museum is no exception, so the story is largely a Christian one. Don't expect Islam and Judaism to be represented to the extent that they deserve to be.
The galleries proceed chronologically, but each time-span is divided into sub-themes. The V&A has always existed as a place where the public can learn about the practical applications of art. This streak of pedagogy continues here, but the information is never presented overbearingly. Glance at the interactive screen which sits beside the tiny notebook by Leonardo da Vinci in which he thinks aloud about the problems of hydraulics. Oh my God, it's written back-to-front, and in Tuscan dialect, isn't it? The interactive turns the pages for us, and translates it.
We not only see great examples of Renaissance enamelling, we can also touch a screen which shows us how such work is still being done by practitioners today.
It has always been difficult to find your way around the V&A's maze of galleries. Not so with Medieval to Renaissance, not now. That task has been made much simpler by the installation of a central hub, which includes a new lift and a new staircase. We no longer have to trudge up hill and down dale. One dramatic gallery space – just behind the ground-floor sculpture court, which used to be open to the sky – is brand new. This is where the marvellous late-Tudor façade of Sir Paul Pindar's house is now on display, an English architectural marvel that was rescued from near certain destruction when Liverpool Street Station was created in the mid-19th century.
Other galleries have been wholly or partially reshaped or relit, transforming former storage spaces into intimate display areas.
Subtle changes can make a world of difference. There is a Venetian stone balcony which has always overhung the sculpture court. It was once a decorative feature. Now, thanks to the blasting away of a section of wall, you can step on to that balcony and admire, from above, Samson's dramatic slaying of a Philistine by Giambologna, just like one of those Medicis would have done.
In spite of the fact that there is always so much to see here, none of these galleries threatens to overwhelm us. We always feel as if there is the time and space to indulge the contemplative mood.