DESIGN / Suddenly, it all became clear: After years of pandering to the connoisseur, the V&A has unveiled its new glass gallery. Tanya Harrod sees right through their plans

MUSEUMS have a harder job than picture galleries. They have to recreate the social life of things; they have to make objects speak to us. They are mysterious places, and one of the most mysterious is the Victoria & Albert Museum, home to the greatest collection of applied art in the world. Its arcane geography defeats the most logical sign-posting system. The heterogeneous diversity of its holdings is bewildering, ranging from the Raphael Cartoons to netsuke toggles to emblematic Filofaxes.

The history of painting has arrived at some kind of consensus, however hotly debated, as to how work should be hung. But the history of objects is far more complex, and so the V&A offers two separate series of displays: the Art and Design Galleries show objects of all types produced by a particular period or society; the Materials and Techniques Collections take in objects of all periods fashioned from a particular material - silver, glass or ceramic. The redesigned Glass Gallery, which opened last week at the V&A, is one of these Materials and Techniques collections.

Glass at the V&A used to be displayed in rank upon rank of Victorian mahogany cases. It was tempting, if perverse, to be sentimental about these ill-lit, invariably deserted ceramics- and-glass galleries sequestered on the upper floors of the museum; they seemed to be neutral zones, giving us the objects straight, free from fashionable interpretation. There was even something flattering about the curatorial assumption of knowledge and connoisseurship on the part of the viewer - for the labelling of the objects on their wedding-cake plinths was almost uniformly terse, not to say meagre.

Now that we have the new Glass Gallery it is possible to see that this neutrality was illusory. The curator of Ceramics and Glass, Oliver Watson, and his team have re-presented the collection - chronologically as before, but with its labelling system transformed. There are informative and admirably concise summaries of periods and cultures. Further information on each object can be called up on computer terminals in the gallery, while an introduction to the materials, techniques and history of glass is given by The Story of Glass, a touch-screen computer program that incorporates marvellous short videos.

In one display case we can see the lovely glass made in 12th-century Iran, learn how it was undermined in the 15th century by imports from the more powerful economies of Bohemia and Venice, and be introduced to a curious Persian 19th-century crafts revival. This last was an exercise in romantic nationalism in which functionally mysterious glass was presented by the Persians themselves at world fairs as an imaginative response to the kind of Orientalism so often imposed by the West.

Now that emphases have been adjusted, we learn that the old displays had a hidden set of values, frequently inspired by connoisseurs' fashions in collecting. For instance, 17th and 18th-century English drinking glasses took up a quarter of the old gallery space. This was because from the late 19th century onwards such glasses, and the minutiae of their stylistic differences, have been the focus of obsessive debate and desire among collectors, a passion driven by the subject's typological bible - Hartsthorne's Old English Glasses of 1897. In the new gallery a selection of these glasses occupies just one case and the rest are to be found on a mezzanine floor housing the study collection. Nineteenth-century glass, dismissed as tastelessly extravagant by inter-war curators, is given its due for the first time. The generous space devoted to the Victorian and Edwardian eras demonstrates how voracious European culture at that time could be - engorging and co-opting designs, techniques and decoration from the rest of the globe and from all of history. We may not feel any great tenderness for the period's superlative skills and its all-embracing historicism, but this kind of glass had enormous prestige in the 19th century and its fuller display serves to highlight the radicalism of the Arts and Crafts movement and the modern movement in glass.

There will be those who will find lacunae in the 20th-century section. Why no car windscreens? Why nothing on glass's use in fibre optics or on its integration with sophisticated polymers for all kinds of industrial purposes? In the mid-1980s the V&A gave itself the additional title 'The National Museum of Art and Design'. 'Design' was certainly the buzzword of the decade, but in the context of the V&A it was perhaps misleading. The V&A's roots lie not in industrial design but in what the Victorians called Industrial Art - applied art at its most decoratively complex and technically sophisticated. When it comes to the 20th century, therefore, the museum is faced with a dilemma. We no longer have Industrial Art's equivalent and design historians tend to focus almost exclusively on mass production. Rightly, I think, the collection's curators have favoured the 20th-century studio glass movement - arguably a branch of modern sculpture - over glass's non-domestic industrial applications. This art-based approach is, in fact, more truthful to the museum's origins.

But high technology is everywhere apparent in the planning of the gallery by the architect, Penny Richards of Pringle +Richards. She has provided space for 80 per cent of the collection to go on display, with a mezzanine co-designed with the glass artist Danny Lane. Lane's balustrade is a dramatic tour de force, but the real pleasure of the gallery must be attributed to Penny Richards's decision to go for restrained simplicity. The intellectual sympathy between curator and architect was crucial. 'Not a cross word,' recalls Watson happily.

The result is a gallery in which the objects dominate. Often they are massed together with 19th-century abundance. Yet each piece is fully identified and beautifully displayed. Things become emissaries, illuminating cultures and their tastes and desires. In this corner of the V&A, mystery - in the negative, obfuscatory sense - has been swept away.

V&A, SW7, 071-938 8500, 12noon-5.50pm Mon, 10am-5.50pm Tues to Sun.

(Photographs omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz