V&A Exhibition Road Quarter looks to change “role of the museum”

The new section of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has taken six years to complete, and looks to integrate passers-by and encourage a wider demographic to engage in art and design.

The Sackler Courtyard. © Hufton + Crow

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum has revealed its new Exhibition Road Quarter, which looks to challenge the “role of the museum” through engaging more with passers-by and “contemporary, urban life”, says lead architect Amanda Levete.

The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter has been designed by architectural practice AL_A, and has been in the planning since 2011. It was spearheaded by previous V&A director Mark Jones. Current director Tristram Hunt, who was appointed this year, has since taken over the project.

The new quarter is the London museum’s largest architectural project in 100 years, and sees a new courtyard – the Sackler Courtyard – that opens out onto the main Exhibition Road, in the midst of South Kensington’s museum district alongside the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

It also includes a café, 1,100m2 basement gallery for temporary exhibitions, a new entrance hall without ticket desks, open galleries showcasing a selection of the V&A’s ceramics collection and a garden. A shop has also been designed by Mark Pinney Architects.

The Aston Webb Screen with gates closed

The courtyard opens out onto the street through a perforated entrance gate, which aims to create a more casual place for visitors to “hang out”, says Amanda Levete, founder at AL_A.

“The most important thing was to see the museum not just as a cultural project, but as an urban project,” Levete tells Design Week. “We wanted to make it belong to the street as much as it belongs to the institution. Even when the gates are closed, you can see through the perforations, so there’s this real dialogue.”

“It’s about making a new public space for London,” she adds. “The project was about the role of the museum, which is to engage with contemporary life.”

The Sainsbury Gallery for temporary exhibitions, © Hufton + Crow

The courtyard has been inspired by the V&A’s ceramics collection, and features white porcelain flooring, which contrasts with the “cavernous” basement exhibition space, which has a 10.5 metre height, and grey walls. Trusses have been incorporated across the ceiling, which can be used to hang installations.

“The gallery space is a very moody, dark, lofty space, which will make it much more flexible for exhibition designers to work with,” says Levete. “You get the contrast between the light outside and the dark inside, which creates a moment of drama as you descend into the underworld and the light disappears.

“At the same time, we’ve cut out frames at the foot of the staircases to let in daylight as you head down to the gallery, so visitors actually feel very comfortable about being below ground,” she adds.

Descending the staircase © Hufton + Crow

A large slant has also been integrated into the courtyard to allow for easy accessibility for visitors with disabilities, and a large “oculus” window within the outdoor space allows people to see down into the basement gallery.

Accompanying the opening of the new museum section is Reveal, a free, week-long festival from 30 June – 7 July, which will include art and fashion design displays, performances and interactive activities for people of all ages.

The aim of the free festival and open-spaced quarter is to make art and design more accessible, and encourage an appreciation of many different disciplines, says Hunt.

V&A Exhibition Road Quarter © Hufton + Crow

“The new quarter is a big statement about our approach to Exhibition Road and getting away from this 20th century arts divide, and going back to the mid-19th century vision of arts, science, technology and design all mixing together in a high-tech campus,” he tells Design Week.

Hunt adds that the new quarter will aim to connect with the UK as a whole and a wider demographic of people, rather than being London-centric. Hunt will start the travelling DesignLab Nation scheme in September, which will encourage students in Blackburn, Coventry and Sheffield to engage with art and design, and he also hopes to work with the Wedgwood Museum in Staffordshire to borrow collections.

The Blavatnik Hall © Hufton + Crow

“I’m very passionate about thinking of the V&A as a national museum,” he says. “It should be an institution which connects with different regions and communities where design and technology is under pressure in the school system, that’s our function.”

He says he hopes the new quarter will also target a wider demographic of people to increase ethnic and social diversity of the museum. “Our figures show 16% black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) visitors, which is about the national average but way below London figures,” Hunt says.

He adds: “We are proud to be in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea – but we realise there are great disparities between South and North Kensington. We have to do more to reflect the community we serve in terms of curatorial staff, how we interpret and analyse our collections and how we speak to all parts of the nation.”

The V&A Exhibition Road Quarter opens as the V&A Museum of Design Dundee looks set to open next year, which will expand the museum’s portfolio across the UK.

Reveal takes place 30 June – 7 July at the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, Kensington, London, SW7 2RL. Entrance is free. For more information, see the V&A’s site.

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