Victoriana gets a facelift

The V&A's British Galleries were themselves in danger of becoming museum pieces. Visitors gave, on average, just 11 minutes to their 4,000 exhibits. Nonie Niesewand discovers how modern designers are trying to breathe new life into an old attraction
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The Independent Culture
The wish list of household objects for the mid-Victorian lifestyle seems curious now. In 1851 six million people flocked to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park to stroll through Joseph Paxton's glass halls and marvel at machine-age products with designer labels such as Minton's shocking pink china urns and Pugin's vast armoire carved with coats of arms. When Paxton moved his pre-fabricated glasshouse - the world's first - to Sydenham in south London, some of these wares ended up in the Museum of Manufactures, founded in 1852, the prototype of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Today the V & A still houses a vast outsize desk fronted like York Cathedral, a pair of Pugin vases that look more like funerary urns than jardinieres, and a tubular steel rocking-chair made in Birmingham - the forerunner of the Thonet bentwood cafe chair which largely put an end to furniture produced by artisans.

The Great Exhibition and its off-shoot, the Museum of Manufacture, had been the brainchildren of Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the Peter Mandelson of his day. The intention was to inspire British manufacturers to use designers to make mass-produced artefacts more desirable. The idea for the world's first international exhibition had been sparked by an 1836 House of Commons Select Committee report that showed Britain's lead in manufacturing was under threat from Continental rivals.

Today, designers Dinah Casson and Roger Mann are recreating a segment of Paxton's Crystal Palace inside the V&A, acid etching an exact replica of its iron frame on to glass panels under a glass ceiling to ensure the same lighting will shine again on the original exhibits. This will be just one highlight in this Grand Tour of 400 years of British design which will be on offer when the 15 British Galleries reopen in November 2001 - exactly 150 years after the Great Exhibition.

The V&A's British Galleries badly needed a new approach for the next century. Filled to bursting point, they needed to re-invent the way in which these inanimate objects can appeal to a new, more visually sophisticated generation. The museum's role to inform and educate has not changed, but its audience has. Before they closed for a revamp last summer, visitors spent an average of only 11 minutes in these galleries. The task of the designer is to bring more than 4,000 static exhibits to life - no mean feat with some of the cumbersome pieces like the Great Bed of Ware.

Wearing her Barcelona T-shirt emblazoned with Mies van der Rohe's modernist dictum "Less is More", Dinah Casson has drawn upon the knowledge and skills of the entire museum to redesign the British Galleries.

Casson and Mann have taken the unfashionable decision to tell the story of decoration and design of everyday objects sequentially with an art historian's tour from 1500 to 1900. This was the method used a hundred years ago: the galleries aimed to educate people through a series of rooms, sequentially ordered and housing collections chronologically.

Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Gallery, has argued that archival tours date-stamped by art historians merely highlight any gaps or weakness in the collection. The "experience" should be all. As he observes, there is a tendency for artists to involve the physical space of a gallery or museum in their work, and he quotes the sculptor Carl Andre on the evolution of his art in the twentieth century as a change of interest from "sculpture as form" through "sculpture as structure" and finally to "sculpture as place".

Christopher Wilk, V & A head of the British Galleries revamp and curator of furniture, does not agree. This dynamic young American, who was responsible for rebuilding Frank Lloyd Wright's Kaufman office inside the V & A and for kickstarting a brilliant 20th century collection of modern furniture, says museums are not the same as art galleries.

"3-D objects need to be shown sequentially. Only by understanding the past in historical context can you understand the object".

Casson & Mann's scale model unfolds as neatly as a dolls' house into a strip of corridor-like rooms that comprise the British Galleries. They have made scale models of each talking point in the display, no mean feat when scale varies from the Great Bed of Ware mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night to the first English fork found under the floorboards at Haddon Hall.

Each period will have its style gurus and fashion victims identified with a main exhibit, from which there will be various spin-off items. This approach will provide a visual narrative that Casson describes as "like reading a newspaper: headlines give an immediate sense of what's happening, the sub-heads inform, and then the small print gives precise details. This hierarchy of information lets you to find out more".

Mirrors under the furniture will reveal bits never seen before. Videos will show how things work, like a 17th century locksmith's hinge, or clocks and watches. Artists Gilbert & George will explain what turns them on about Christopher Dresser's quirky little spiders' legs on silver teapots. William Burges's washbasin, which spins silver fish around the basin when filled, has an accompanying video. Physical touch, that most powerful of the senses, will be permitted with some pieces like Victorian flocks and damasks, and carved pieces. A corner of the Bed of Ware will be turned down to reveal what goes into an Elizabethan mattress. The Antiques Road show section will show how to spot a fake. As well as the design icons, objects like Wedgwood's anti-slave trade plaques, and kitsch Nelson memorabilia will show the ideology of the time.

In the temporary galleries at the V & A some of these ideas are being tried and tested. Mysterious silvery halide light comes from the floor to illuminate chair legs and skirting details, while warmer halogen spotlights overhead pick out gilding. Labels which highlight phrases, in the style of the modern soundbite, are being tested in reading sessions for legibility and the amount of memorable information they impart. Painted or papered floor-to-ceiling panels, to replace room-set partitions for furniture grouping and to filter some of the excessive daylight, have been created by John Cornforth with David Mlinaric to show different colour combinations.

In the Eighties Dinah Casson designed the Gran Gelato ice-cream parlour in day-glo Neapolitan ice-cream colours. And she makes this palette either palatable, or indigestible, by describing combinations in terms of food.

"Bananas with mustard," is one of the more memorable examples. A real turn-off.

Britain's last great exhibition showcase for design this century was masterminded by a Casson. Dinah's father, Sir Hugh Casson was appointed director of architecture for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Twenty seven acres of wasteland on the South Bank heralded a new spirit of modernity in Britain after the War. Architect, president of the Royal Academy and artist, Sir Hugh Casson, who died aged 89 last week, remianed a great showman for British design. He had first witnessed what drew the crowds when at 14 he visited the 1924 Empire exhibition at Wembley and marvelled at the statue of the Prince of Wales carved entirely out of butter. He designed a section of the British pavilion strung up on wires across Osaka in 1970. His last assignment was when he was 82 and asked to illustrate Expo 92 (staged in Sevile, Spain) for Vogue. He confessed to being interested "to see how other countries see themselves on the supermarket shelf of world opinion".

The captions to his Expo sketches have the seductive appeal of "wish- you-were-here" postcards. His knowledge of what makes public space popular shows in: " All the flags of the EU countries made a highly coloured navigational buoy to guide visitors from afar on an avenue crossing beneath a shady canopy". And "Cantilevered support for the new bridge into Expo pokes its elegant nose into the city street as a reminder and an invitation".

Like the man, these observations are witty and astute. When visiting a park in Sevile, his guidebook had promised "hidden bowers", Sir Hugh thrashed vegetation with his cane, calling out: "Come on out, Bowers, your game is up".

It was the kind of jape that makes everyone who knew and worked with him feel a great loss.