Europe is a major topic of discussion, now in the eye of the refugee crisis, more than ever. Some people are scared and see the challenges Europe is confronted with, while others are more optimistic and focus on the bonds and the cultural roots European countries share and see this as a chance for European nations to grow closer together. The Victoria & Albert Museum has always had a special role in conveying European history to the public. Therefore, it assumes its role once again now with the opening of the new Europe galleries Europe 1600-1815.
These are a continuation of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries that lead up to 1600, and whereas the galleries from 1600 to 1815 have existed before, they have not been renovated since the 1970s. Therefore, the museum decided that it was time to do so. This was a major project that lasted over five years and was sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund and private funds. Architects ZMMA made a great job in opening up the gallery space and giving the ceiling its original height back, as well as providing more gallery space for the exhibition, by taking back the attached rooms that were previously used for storage. The lead curator for this permanent exhibition is Dr. Lesley Miller and she and her team of restorers, conservators, curators and technicians did an incredible job.
When you walk through the seven galleries you immediately sense that you are in an old historic building, but in very modern rooms. Every transition, from one work to the next and from one room to another, is smooth. The large windows are blocked to not let sunlight in, but the artificial lighting is efficiently pointed towards those objects the curators meant to lead our attention towards. There are little leather sofas scattered around the exhibition for visitors to rest once in a while, again, strategically positioned in front of particularly important work.
The gallery compromises seven rooms in total, most are long galleries and each one is in a different color and in periodic order. The room in the middle is round and allows a natural short break before visiting the second half of the exhibition. Additionally, you can find some smaller rooms attached to the sides of the galleries, which show us dressing rooms and bedrooms from the time. These are beautiful and richly decorated rooms, entirely reconstructed the way they used to be.
Room 7 is called Europe and the World, 1600-1720 (the one highlighted in the V&A above), but it is chronologically the first room visitors enter after having visited the Medieval and Renaissance galleries. It is also the first room you see when entering the V&A through its main entrance. Its walls have a deep purple color and it demonstrates to what extent Europe at the time was shaped by trade, colonization, and religious conflicts. It also touches upon the regions colonized by major nations like Portugal and Spain.
Room 6 is the second room and it is called The Cabinet and displays collections of all sorts of objects that people at the time collected.
Room 5 is called The Rise of France from 1660 to 1720 and contains objects and paintings related to French society, culture and, of course, politics. Particularly memorable here is a very large painting that required seven people to hang it onto the wall. It shows the gardens of a castle designed by the architect of Louis XIV; it is incredibly detailed and it is one of the few objects the V&A acquired while renovating the Europe Galleries, whereas most of the objects were already in its collections.
Room 4 is the above-mentioned room, the center room of the galleries, round and connecting both long corridors of galleries with each other. It’s main content is a specially commissioned artwork called The Globe, which serves as a space for meeting, discussion and debate. It is also the Enlightenment room; during this time the Enlightenment emerged in Europe and, for example, a controversial Encyclopedia intended to encompass all human knowledge was published. Various objects relating to this theme can be found around The Globe.
The second-to-last two rooms are called City & Commerce and cover the time period from 1720-1780. Following the French Revolution, wealthy Europeans started enjoying a less formal way of living. During this time, artists and designers developed the Rococo style. Catholicism plays an important role during this time and thus these rooms contain several historic objects from churches.
The last room is called Luxury, Liberty & Power, 1769 to 1815 and it is dominated by Neoclassicism, inspired by the then recent discoveries of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Here, France and the French Revolution play an important role, as well as Napoleon’s rise to power, as both movements used the arts to promote their cause.
These galleries are an absolute must-see and on Monday the V&A’s Director Martin Roth hosted a roundtable in honor of the opening of Europe 1600-1815 so stay tuned to hear more about it! But you absolutely have to go see the galleries for yourself.