In the usual course of events, at this time of year and with summer well underway, the grass in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Madejski Garden would be well worn, showing the joyous effect of thousands of pairs of feet, many of them small and dripping with water from the elliptical pond that makes this one of London’s most unique and recognisable public spaces. But this year the grass remains untouched – verdant and lush – the flower beds are in full and vibrant bloom, and the garden is a scene of peace and tranquillity at the heart of an almost deserted Albertopolis.
Peaceful except, that is, for the unmistakable clank of scaffold poles reverberating around the garden, and bouncing off the red-brick facades as they are methodically and efficiently removed from site. For in keeping with responsible custodianship of great buildings we have been fixing the roof of the National Art Library while the sun has shone. Begun just before lockdown, the most significant collection of art and design-related publications in the country is now protected from the elements for the long term through the replacement of 225 panels of glass, 883 square metres of lead and 705 square metres of slate. Directly opposite, the elegant first floor balcony above the original entrance to the South Kensington Museum, now overlooking our garden, has been carefully repaired and restored, with crisp new terracotta wreaths adorning the underside, cast from the originals using traditional techniques in a specialist workshop in Loughborough. When the doors to the V&A reopen on 6 August to a tentative but happy public, the garden will be looking its very best, although sadly with the pond empty – at least for now.
Within the museum itself crucial infrastructure and refurbishment projects – normally the subject of constant deferral to avoid the inevitable disruption to visitors – have been breezing ahead. The Raphael Court is now home to a dramatic forest of scaffolding, constructed to allow this iconic gallery to be repainted, relit and reinterpreted, following forensic analysis and restoration of the cartoons themselves. The gallery will be ready to reopen to the public in November – a date thought impossible to achieve 100 days ago. With somewhat more noise and muscle, but no less care and attention, the café’s main floor and thoroughfare – adjacent to the Gamble, Poynter and Morris refreshment rooms (you know the story – ‘an ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached’) – is being unceremoniously ripped up, the failing substrate to be replaced and made ready for a beautiful marble mosaic floor to be laid, which arrived unhindered and unusually punctual from Italy in lockdown, complete with a motif inspired by the Greek guilloche decorative details found across the museum. What seemed at the time to be the least worst option for closing the world’s first museum refreshment rooms now resembles a planning masterstroke. This very rarely happens in museum life – you take the thinnest of silver linings where you can find then.
While the renovation projects have benefited from the absence of the visiting public and of V&A staff, a small number of us have been allowed back on site in recent weeks to plan and walk a series of new visitor trails, pinpoint locations for new signage, hand sanitiser stations and labels telling visitors not to touch what they used to be invited to touch, and to rewrite the visitor experience manual ready to reopen once again. Already the back of house spaces feel different – new ‘Elbow me open’ and ‘This room has been COVID assessed’ notices are everywhere – and the public galleries will soon follow. The ubiquitous reminders to ‘Please keep your distance’ will be balanced with the unambiguous invitation for visitors to reconnect with their national collections again, to be at home in their galleries, to seek relaxation, serendipitous discovery and inspiration. While in the whole scheme of things the visual intrusion of new signage is a small price to pay for throwing open the doors, I will particularly miss the ‘Please touch this object’ labels that will have to be temporarily covered up. It has always seemed utterly wonderful to me that in the V&A’s China Gallery there is a Ming Dynasty vase – surely the epitome of priceless craftsmanship and fragility – which visitors are encouraged to caress to their hearts’ content.
Under normal circumstances, having the museum to oneself would be the most enormous privilege, but the experience of the last few months has been anything but. An early morning coffee in the garden before opening, or the singular atmosphere of the galleries late at night after an event, are special because the emotion is overwhelmingly of an extraordinary place and collection that is either about to be shared, or that has just been shared. Without the public, our wonderful and dedicated staff, volunteers and contractors, and the school groups, the sketchers, the tourists, the first-daters, the hopelessly lost, the students, the families, and those who are simply there to use the pond as a paddling pool before shopping on High Street Ken, the overriding feeling is one of emptiness. But on 6 August that will all change, and we can’t wait to welcome our audience back.
In just 100 days, the world that we know has changed forever, and of course museums and public institutions across the UK will need to adapt and change too. The V&A will be ready – as a place for everyone – with the best of humankind’s creativity and imagination to inspire and entrance, and also to provide hope for a better future.
Tim Reeve is Deputy Director & Chief Operating Officer of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Read his piece on closing the V&A here.