Museum Review: Miri Rubin Explores the Recently Reopened Medieval Galleries at the V&A and the British Museum
Rubin, Miri, History Today
The British Museum's Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe 1050-1500 and the V&A's Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, both of which opened at the end of 2009, are homes not to new acquisitions but to items from well-established collections, often restored and displayed for the first time.
Organising permanent collections differs substantially from curating an exhibition. In recent years we have become so used to well crafted and themed exhibitions that judging the new face of a permanent collection becomes rather hard. The accidents of gifts and earlier acquisition mean that coverage of periods must sometime appear haphazard. Such facts are not usually noted and discussed and they force curators to make some awkward decisions: thus the V&A has a dedicated space for the work of Donatello and uses parts of the chapel of Santa Chiara in Florence, as an aspect of the Renaissance City, strangely juxtaposed by a choir screen of the Cathedral of St John at 's-Hertogenbosch from northern Europe.
The two displays differ dramatically in size, scope and tone. The V&A uses 10 vast rooms tightly packed with some 1,800 artefacts, while the British Museum's display presents around 340 items in one large room. In keeping with its mission as a museum of design, the V&A displays beautiful items that once filled the palatial spaces of princely courts, villas and well-appointed churches. It exhibits the finest craftsmanship and the most confident patronage from the late antiquity, through the high Middle Ages, culminating in somewhat predictably the 'Renaissance'. These are above all Renaissance galleries, celebrating the achievements of Europe's artists between 1400 and 1550. Renaissance is taken to speak for itself, sumptuous and pleasing. Earlier items, it seems, provide a sort of prelude.
While those historically minded will encounter moments of frustration and amusement at some of the juxtapositions, all should applaud the inventiveness of the interactive devices offered: like digital access to Leonardo's notebook, covered with his famous 'mirror writing'; or the very helpful digital version of a 15th-century tapestry, which allows visitors to 'zoom' into details which usually escape the viewers of such marvels of craftsmanship. There are several artefacts--like a Welsh carving in oak offered in facsimile which visitors are encouraged to handle. …