Hands on at the touchy feely V&A

Visitors can now handle rare pieces of silver thanks to a mysterious benefactor, reports Sarah Jane Checkland
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Britain is to get its first "hands on" art gallery, thanks to the generosity of a mystery benefactor.

The Victoria & Albert Museum's pounds 2m new silver galleries, opening next month, will include a "cage" through which visitors can extend their arms and touch exhibits. Other attractions will include a chance to take rubbings of hallmarks, and to punch out your own silver souvenir.

The "Silver Discovery Area" which can be compared with the Science Museum's popular educational "Launch Pad", is all part of an ambitious new display of the nation's extensive British silver collection.

For much of this century it has languished within a drab exhibition space featuring post-war partitions and 18ft strip lighting. Much of the splendid original 1865 Victorian tilework had been torn out by a fiercely "modernist" director , Cecil Harcourt-Smith, in 1913-14, and only saved from destruction due to a campaign by Alan Cole, the son of the museum's founder, Sir Henry Cole.

Today's benefactor had already pledged a substantial amount towards the project when he heard the dream of the museum's curator of silver, Phillipa Glanville, to re-instate the original splendour. "As soon as the sponsor came along I said 'it is not just the silver we are concerned with, we want to get the original setting back', and so he gave us more money to do it," Mrs Glanville says.

And so the partitions went, and the tiles which had been saved were duly brought up from the basement. When the suite of five galleries opens on 27 November, Mrs Glanville says, "we will have the full sweep of the galleries as they haven't been seen since the First World War". She compares the adventure with "a swing in taste from the Cavaliers to the Roundheads and back again".

The pounds 800,000 gift has been boosted by the Wolfson Foundation. Set up in 1955 by Lord Wolfson, head of Great Universal Stores, it sets about funding the kind of jobs in museums that nobody else wants to pay for, such as environmental controls.

Apart from the state of the art display for the collection, which includes 1,200 precious objects dating from 1300 to 1800, the new galleries entail an ambitious experiment in museum display. "People want more from a museum than simply reading a label," says Ms Glanville, who has travelled the world seeking ideas from other museums.

Hence the "cage" with objects "to play with". Ms Glanville hopes that apart from enjoying the feel of the relief work on an 18th-century tankard, for example, visitors will note the comparative weight of various types of silver, and how Sheffield plate has a "vinegary smell".