The final phase of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) Photography Centre, designed by Gibson Thornley Architects and Purcell, is now complete. Situated in some of the oldest spaces on the V&A’s Estate, four new gallery spaces and a fifth reworked gallery space provide a contemporary and inspiring setting for one of the world’s largest and most important photography collections, while honouring the building’s historic grandeur.
The Photography Centre’s new space, set across 570m², includes a series of environmentally controlled galleries, accommodating a series of large-scale contemporary commissions and thematic displays which will be updated regularly to showcase new practice. The project also features a new dedicated space housing the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Library and a state-of-the-art gallery charting advancements in camera technology, including a walk-in camera obscura.
The project brings the Centre to a total of seven rooms, after David Kohn Architects completed the first phase of the project in 2018. Heritage and conservation architect Purcell upgraded the historic areas, previously used for storage and teaching, to allow for Gibson Thornley’s reimagining of them as a series of state-of-the-art public galleries, complete with seamlessly integrated services. Gibson Thornley worked closely with the V&A’s curatorial team and a cohort of 16-24-year-olds to help democratise the galleries and open them up to younger generations. The scheme is the practice’s second project for the V&A following its design of the ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’ exhibition in 2018.
The Photography Centre forms part of the V&A’s FuturePlan, an ambitious development programme which sees designers work with different audiences to create contemporary new gallery spaces while revealing and restoring the beauty of the original building. Purcell’s base build works has provided additional roof space and infrastructure for this long-term project.
Visitors can enter the new spaces via the Digital Gallery, an immersive room featuring a large-scale digital projection. Adjacent is the new home for the RPS Library, offering a space for visitors to pause and contemplate the importance of the photo book. To avoid loading to the original floors, the prestigious RPS collection lines the walls of the double-height reading room via bespoke new elements cantilevered from the gallery walls.
A new mezzanine walkway provides librarians with full access to the RPS collection. The bridges feature balustrades crafted from clasped brass rods, referencing the V&A’s own ironwork collection, while the room’s walnut burr lining echoes the V&A’s National Art Library. The space also features a study area, comfortable seating, a handling library and librarian workspaces, while a free-standing display wall embodies cases for selected prints and books. These public and private areas are intertwined to create a rich and layered experience for visitors and staff.
Throughout the voluminous gallery spaces which follow, new sweeping parquet floors and carefully curated lighting complement the building’s historic shell and enhance the range of exhibits, while a sequence of archways connects the galleries and offers a range of aspects and vistas, which unfold as visitors journey through the space.
These galleries will display a selection of recent acquisitions by celebrated contemporary photographers including Liz Johnson Artur, Sammy Baloji, Vera Lutter, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Tarrah Krajnak and Vasantha Yogananthan. A monumental photographic sculpture by Noémie Goudal will draw visitors through the galleries. Two major new commissions supported by the Manitou Fund will also be unveiled, with a series by leading Indian photographer Gauri Gill, and a digital commission by British media artist Jake Elwes. The breadth of subject matter explored by these international artists includes identity, race, sexuality, and climate change, together with a wide range of technical approaches.
In the camera gallery, objects charting the evolution of photography from the Talbot box camera to the iPhone hover within bespoke glass cases, where their workings can be exposed via backlighting at the touch of a button. Central to the gallery is a contemporary camera obscura photo studio, designed with the input of British Visual Artist Richard Learoyd, which invites visitors to experience and experiment with the fundamentals of the photographic process.
Marta Weiss, V&A Senior Curator of Photography and Lead Curator of Phase Two of the Photography Centre, said: “Photography lies at the heart of the V&A. The museum has collected photography since 1852 and continues to acquire the best of contemporary practice. As photography plays an ever-increasing role in all our lives, the expanded Photography Centre will be more relevant than ever. We look forward to welcoming visitors to explore the medium’s diverse histories and enjoy our world-leading collection.”
Matt Thornley, Co-founder of Gibson Thornley, said: “The V&A is one of the UK’s most beautiful and innovative museum sites, and so the design process became a conversation between past and present, celebrating all of the original detail, while enhancing these historic spaces with the very best modern design. We were interested in the idea of layering and depth at a variety of scales. From the experience of passing through the enfilade of rooms to the detailed consideration of separation and exposure of public and private space. The RPS Library is a pivotal point in the Centre where we hope visitors will linger. The brief for the camera gallery was developed in close collaboration with V&A staff and a steering group of young people. We hope it will help to break down barriers and create a relevant and welcoming space that people will want to visit again and again.”
Project Lead for Purcell, Graham Epking-Crane, said: “The V&A’s FuturePlan programme presented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remodel what had previously been back-of-house areas and reinstate them to their former glory as beautiful gallery spaces to be enjoyed by the public. The building is an important and high-profile cultural landmark, and it is wonderful to see these significant spaces upgraded and modernised to give the museum renewed relevance and increased capacity to showcase the breadth of the Photography Centre’s collection.”
The Photography Centre opens to the public on Thursday 25 May 2023. The Photography Centre has been made possible by Sir Elton John and David Furnish, The Kusuma Trust, The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation, Ms. Ruth Monicka Parasol and The Parasol Foundation Trust, Meta Media, Shao Zhong Art Foundation amongst other supporters.
Architect: Gibson Thornley Architects (Fit out); Purcell (Base-build)
Structural engineer: Harley Haddow
M&E consultant: Harley Haddow
QS: Currie & Brown
Lighting: Michael Grubb Studio
Project manager: Avison Young
CDM coordinator: Purcell
Approved building inspector: RBKC
Main contractor: Quinn London Ltd
Library contractor: Pavlis