Photography had been around for barely 30 years when the V&A established its collection in 1856 – the same year that the museum began developing its South Kensington home. The collection received a boost with the transfer of the Royal Photographic Society’s holdings last year, and now comprises over 800,000 items. The opening of a new Photography Centre, designed by David Kohn Architects (DKA) reflects the growing size and importance of the archive and a new curatorial approach, with artefacts illustrating the practice of photography presented alongside images.
The 600-square-metre centre occupies a suite of three nineteenth-century picture galleries on the third floor. It more than doubles the space allocated to photography within the museum (which will double again in a second phase). Two long, interconnected galleries – Rooms 100 and 101 – run in parallel. They lead into a third room, ‘The Hub’, into which Kohn has inserted the Dark Tent, a small “building with a building” to accommodate lectures and film screenings.
Arriving visitors are given a foretaste of the ‘fullness’ of the collection by a pair of vitrines that flank the entrance to Room 100, densely packed with 140 cameras dating from the origins of photography to the present day.
Inside, Kohn was concerned to “incorporate the architecture into the show”. Rather than creating ‘white cube’ galleries within the nineteenth-century rooms, the architects opted for rich colours “that one would associate with grand domestic interiors”. Woodwork is dark grey, and walls in the long galleries are a deep blue with green undertones. A dark green is applied in the hub, and a rich mustard yellow in the ‘project space’ within Room 101. Though ceilings were removed in order to insulate the roof and introduce extensive new air-handling equipment, they have been restored to their former appearance, and high-level frescoed lunettes are newly lustrous thanks to improved lighting.
Existing cross-walls were stripped out, restoring the grand proportions of the rooms and freeing visitors from tightly prescribed routes through the spaces. Instead, says Kohn, “we are constantly trying to encourage people to look across the gallery, so that they might spot something and follow their interest”. Of three arches that link the two long galleries, two are occupied by round-topped display cases that close the way to visitors, but allow views through. Custom-made smoked oak benches are designed to allow visitors to sit facing in any direction they choose.
DKA designed the inaugural exhibition, comprising over 600 exhibits that represent a history of photography, and has clustered display cases down the middle of Room 100 in a series of ‘episodes’, encouraging visitors to circulate, says Kohn. Shows turn over on a two-year cycle, so the modular, wheeled cabinets were designed to allow curatorial freedom. Modules are scaled to generic classes of object, such as ‘large cameras’. Lighting within cases is supplied by wireless mini-spots on a magnetic track, and can be repositioned according to need. Dual-pitched glass tops give easy views of the full depth of the case, and have an antique character that subtly recalls the age of the museum, and of the medium.
Another reference to the nineteenth-century origins of photography is found in the design of the screening room within the Hub. It was inspired by tents once used as travelling darkrooms, but is also a pragmatic response to “one of the most challenging aspects of V&A commissioning”, says Kohn. “The brief called for a room that 30 people can sit in, but which couldn’t touch the existing architecture.”
Internally lined in stained plywood and clad in pale powder-coated steel, it is an enigmatic presence in the space. It incorporates quiet references to classical details, and allusions to Schinkel’s Tent Room at Schloss Charlottenhof in Potsdam (1826), but “there’s also something slightly ‘lock-up shed’ about it”, says Kohn. “Our ambition wasn’t to make something highfalutin, but to use the historic architecture to do something interesting.”
Concertina doors reminiscent of a bellows camera open from the Dark Tent into the Hub, where a ‘light wall’ shows screen-based images. Other displays offer interactive engagement with exhibits. One case carries four binocular viewers for stereoscopic images, and a handling table by a window at the entrance lets visitors pick up cameras and frame shots of the nearby Oratory Gardens. DKA’s organisational intelligence and boldly characterful interiors lend calm coherence to this variety without losing a sense of the abundance of the V&A’s holdings. It has produced a distinct and fitting identity for a foundational collection in a forward-looking museum.