ZMMA creates a subtly sumptuous setting for the V&A’s ‘Europe  1600-1815’ treasures


Chris Foges
David Grandorge

There is often a trade-off between the opportunity to make large-scale immersive environments, or choreograph sequences of distinct spatial experiences, and the ability to consider and control every tectonic and material detail at the smallest scale. So ZMMA was given a rare sort of brief in its £12.5 million renovation of the ‘Europe 1600-1815’ galleries at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The galleries cover a lot of ground both figuratively – their subject is one of the most intellectually and creatively prolific periods in history – and literally: the L-shaped series of rooms wraps around the south-west corner of the building on the ground floor, and totals almost 2000 square metres. And yet over the five years of the project’s gestation, the architect and 10-strong curatorial team were able to analyse each of the 1,100 objects on display, their placement in relation to the others and the narrative drive of the exhibition, and to create a crafted setting for them which is richly varied, meticulously worked-out and almost entirely bespoke.


Costumes are presented in floor-standing glass display cases in ‘Luxury, Liberty and Power 1760-1815’, allowing visitors to accurately gauge their size.  

The gallery is entered immediately off the museum’s main foyer, down a short flight of steps, from where the impact of the renovation is quickly apparent. A 1970s refurbishment had divided the long gallery spaces into a sequence of smaller rooms, and sheathed most of the interior in plasterboard, obscuring both Aston Webb’s finishes and the close-spaced windows that run along the external walls. ZMMA has swept all of this away, creating long vistas within an enfilade of grand rooms restored to their original proportions, revealing the Victorian fabric and admitting daylight.

In addition, by burrowing into back-of-house service spaces, the gallery’s area has been increased by a third. Into these pockets of space ZMMA has inserted three historic panelled interiors. (Knocking through metre-thick walls in an old building filled with fragile treasures called for unusual sensitivity from the contractors). Each of these antechambers off the main visitor route is announced by a projecting enclosure of fluted timber or plaster.


‘Masquerade’, an interactive exhibit for children combining animation and live action, is located within a pocket of space recovered from a former back-of-house area. 

The main route comprises a string of seven distinct spaces: four large rooms introduce the story in chronological sequence, and are punctuated by three smaller rooms accommodating supplementary activities, including the ‘Cabinet’ – with discreet educational games for children – and the ‘Salon’, a space for reflection and debate.

Aptly for the Age of Enlightenment, the visitor’s journey is marked by a progression from darkness to light in the interior design. The first room, ‘Europe and the World 1600-1720’ explores the baroque, and the arrival of novel goods from the colonies, and is painted in a deep plum-purple with a reconditioned dark teak floor. By the time the visitor has reached the fourth gallery, ‘Luxury, Liberty and Power 1760-1815’, exquisite silks and silverware are set against pale walls and a stone floor.

Movement through the space is also driven and directed by the deliberate positioning of objects at the end of sightlines, and by the use of lighting, with hoop-shaped luminaires distributed asymmetrically across ceilings like stepping stones, implying a pathway below. The now-exposed windows also aid orientation in both space and time, as the quality of light changes throughout the day. To protect the displays, incoming daylight is modulated by tall, textured timber and aluminium shutters. Fixed at irregular angles, they lend a relaxed informality.


The sense of a natural flow between the gallery spaces is further enhanced by the design of stone-clad steel display platforms that appear to float above the floor, and by the detailing of the floor itself, to sit flush with the base of freestanding glass cases (requiring their climate control and lifting gear to be buried in the sub-floor). With orientation and the urge to move through the galleries established, ZMMA has been careful to apply the brakes periodically, creating natural pause points both in the form of comfortable bespoke leather seating and by the positioning of low cross-walls, perpendicular to the direction of travel, that require visitors to weave through the spaces rather than make a straight-line dash through the enfilade.


By clustering objects of diverse sizes and types, subtle correspondences are revealed without resort to didactic direction. Signage and labelling of exhibits is low-key. Many objects are on open display, either on plinths or on the walls – often hung in unusual and arresting ways. But the fragility of some requires that they are behind glass, and the 91 custom-built vitrines make an important contribution to the gallery’s material language. Bronze bases on slender, angular legs contain both climate control gear and a mechanism to unlock and lift the glass cases.


 The gallery contains 91 bronze and glass display cases, built by the specialist German firm Glasbau Hahn.

Lustrous metal, figured stone, rich woods and soft leather form a warm material palette that enhances the appearance of the artefacts. In their astute application, ZMMA has done justice both to the gallery’s story and to the history of the building itself.

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Architect, exhibition designer
Services engineer
Structural engineer
Eckersley O’Callaghan
Cost consultant
Display cases
Glasbau Hahn
Main contractor, exhibition fit-out
Exhibition mounts

Light fittings
Mike Stoane Lighting
Structural glass
Window shutters
Leather wall cladding
Specialist plastering
Artisan Plastercraft