Austin-Smith:Lord and the Victoria and Albert Museum – 25 years at the forefront of conservation and archive space design. Blog Part 2

V&A blog part 2

Austin-Smith:Lord and the Victoria and Albert Museum –
25 years at the forefront of conservation and archive space design

Part 2 – 2018-2023: The Collections and Research Centre

Blog by Rob Firman, Director, Austin-Smith:Lord

In 2018, based on our experience of delivering similar projects throughout the UK, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro of New York invited us to act as their Local Representative for a project to prepare designs for a new Collections and Research Centre for the V&A and together we were successful in securing the commission.

Just like the RCA project 25 years before, this commission is focussed on the provision of state of the art facilities for the Museum, although in this case those facilities will accommodate its collection of artefacts and objects currently stored in an adapted and out-dated, inefficient Victorian building in Olympia.

Also mirroring the RCA project, the new V&A Collections and Research Centre will be located in an existing building, albeit a contemporary one – Here East at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. Constructed for the 2012 London Olympics and offering a vast internal volume within a 21st Century envelope, the building will be adapted to provide a purpose-built home for 250,000 objects and an additional 917 archives from the V&A’s collection of fashion, textiles, furniture, theatre and performance, metalwork, ceramics, glass, sculpture, architecture, paintings and product design.

From the outset the project has represented a paradigm shifting experiment, the first of its kind to give the public anything like this level of access to one of the nation’s priceless collections. A central public collection hall will turn the storage inside out and a rich array of objects will be on display for visitors to explore – from some of the smallest curiosities in the collection to the largest and most significant rooms and building fragments. Further spaces within the Centre will host pop-up displays, education workshops, performances and screenings alongside live encounters with the museum’s work – from conservation and research to exhibition preparation.

The introduction of visiting members of the public into the archive and collection storage spaces raised significant challenges for the design of environmental controls as well as bringing considerations for visitor and staff life safety and security to the forefront of design thinking.

The process of coordination of the architectural concept with mechanical and electrical services, sprinkler installations, security controls and a complex fire strategy and storage racking systems took many hours of our team’s time. In one further echo perhaps of the RCA precedent, all services installations within the Collections Hall volume, workshops and conservation studios will be exposed to view within the ‘industrial’ aesthetic adopted for the architectural concept.

Construction operations for the new facility commenced on site in the spring of 2020, 25 years after the completion of our first project for the V&A. It will be ready to receive the collections in the second half of 2021 and when they have all been moved into the new facility the CRC will open to visitors in 2023.

The CRC project has drawn from, and built upon, our existing extensive experience of designing Museum and Archive projects and we believe will set standards for this building typology for many years to come.

Read Part 1 of this blog (1992-1995: The Conservation Department) here