In development for four years, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jewellery Gallery opened last month. It was a considerable challenge for the designers, but an innovative approach has resulted in a show-stopping space, says Henrietta Thompson
The sheer quantity of diamonds in this room is enough to make anyone woozy. The sponsors, William and Judith Bollinger of the champagne dynasty, are most likely used to having that effect on people, but you’ve got to feel for everyone else involved in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new Jewellery Gallery. For the curator, the exhibition designer, the conservators, the museum staff and security, the task of displaying 3500 items of eye-wateringly important genuine bling – items that range from two to 2000 years old – in a very small space, where a very large number of people want to see them, must have been daunting.
Talking to those people, you get the impression the process has not been easy, but it has been worth it. The William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery, which opened at the V&A on 24 May, has been in development for the best part of four years and is, to use a rather obvious turn of phrase, a new jewel in the museum’s crown. Designed by Eva Jiricna Architects, the walls of the gallery tell the story of European jewellery over the past 800 years. For the refurbishment, EJA has connected what were previously three galleries to make one, with a central mezzanine floor, creating 30 per cent extra space. Glass cases line the walls and a series of curved glass cabinets wind through the centre.
EJA has previously worked on other galleries in the V&A’s FuturePlan developments, including the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Sculpture Galleries on the first floor and the main museum shop, which also contains a significant amount of jewellery to buy. The architect has also designed many a jewellery shop over the past ten years or so – from watch retailers on Bond Street to a jewellery market in Dubai. But while it is hard to imagine a better-suited designer for this show, it has been a challenge, nonetheless. Putting jewellery on display in a museum environment is very different to building a shop, explains Eva Jiricna.
‘There are fewer conservation issues for a start. And fewer security issues. In a shop the objects will be taken out of their cases in the evening and stored,’ she says. And, of course, people are navigating the space in an entirely different way. In a shop they can browse randomly, whereas this gallery has (at least) 3500 stories to tell. ‘Some people will treat the exhibition like a study book and check everything, while others just wander through for the visual experience.’
A more glorious space than you would usually find in a museum, you almost feel like donning a black tie to swan around the gallery, peering into the cases with your nose up against the glass like Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This has a lot to do with the sheer abundance of glittering diamonds, but is also a result of the dramatic dark lighting. This, says Jiricna, was one of the biggest challenges of the project. ‘I am extremely fussy about lighting; the subjects can only live under the right kind of light. You need different levels for different things – especially in these circumstances, where some objects can’t be exposed to very bright light, for conservation reasons. The light itself needs to be invisible, but diamonds need to be lit from the front. The object must sparkle, but the light must not then be blinding when you turn a fraction.’
Jiricna went to every single jewellery display she could think of, looking at the lighting, in a quest to find the best solution. Nothing would do. Eventually, the designers made it work using fibre optics outside the top of the case and directional LEDs on the ceilings of the case interiors. An almost imperceptible slant to the vertical mount angles the jewels towards the source so they remain lit – as much as is possible – from the front. ‘We made it work, step by step, mock-up by mock-up, discussion by discussion,’ explains Jiricna. ‘We were improving it constantly. In the end, I believe the result is better than anything that has ever been done before.’
Most of all, however, the designer is proud not so much of the final design – though she should be – but of the way in which the team of people working to make it happen pulled together. ‘Everybody had a different agenda. The sponsors were very generous but also very involved, and the conservators, the museum and the curator all had their own vision for the galleries. The architect often comes in and turns everything on its head – we wanted to put all these small objects in huge cases of a peculiar shape and, as simple as it sounds, in practice it was a continuous process to understand one another. Everyone was very nervous about losing sight of their dream. In the end it was our job to provide them with options and then help them to select the best one. We all learned how good people can be when they lose their egos and work together to find the best solutions.’