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Art & Architecture
Interview with The Wallace Collection - The Synergistic Relationship Between Architecture and Art, Part II
Image of The Great Gallery, hailed as ‘the greatest picture gallery in Europe’ at The Wallace Collection, London. Photo by Von Chua.

The synergistic relationship between architecture and art is a fascinating area, exploring how one affect and complement each other. My previous article, The Synergistic Relationship Between Architecture and Art was focused through the lens of an architect – what an architect would consider when designing spaces that hold art. In this article, we have the opportunity to speak with experts in designing exhibitions and caring for art collections from The Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom. The Wallace Collection is a museum in Marylebone, London founded in 1897 with a large private art collection from paintings, sculptures, furniture, and armours.

Joining this interview to share their insights are Yunsun Choi (Head of Collection Care at The Wallace Collection), Clare Simpson (Head of Exhibitions at The Wallace Collection), and Dr Yuriko Jackall (Curator of French Paintings at The Wallace Collection).

Von Chua:

Can you tell us briefly about the program and collection at The Wallace Collection?

Yunsun Choi:

We have quite a comprehensive, eclectic decorative arts, master paintings, arms and armours, so we have almost everything in our galleries. My understanding is that 97% of our collection is on display, so in terms of our program of our exhibition space, from time to time there are changes of display, but apart from that, the collection remains within The Wallace Collection. We don’t have acquisitions either.

Von Chua:

Interesting, I didn’t know such a large number of the collection is always on display.

Yunsun Choi:

It is one of the rarest thing because if you look at other museums like Victoria & Albert Museum displays about 25% of their collection, Tate displays about 40% of their collection, British Museum displays about 5% of their collection. So if you’re actually looking at that side of it, for The Wallace Collection, it is a huge amount of items that are on display.

Dr Yuriko Jackall:

It’s not an institutional philosophy that it has to be on display. And probably if we had the opportunity, we would choose to take more things off the display in order to attend to them more from a conservation perspective, but also, to be able to play a little bit more about changing installations within permanent collection spaces, similar to what we’re now able to do in the temporary exhibition galleries.

Clare Simpson:

We built a newly refurbished exhibition space in our lower ground floor, opened in June 2018, that’s our new exhibition offer. We’re really trying to go in with main stage, international loaned exhibitions programme, launching a big, rolling, temporary exhibitions. Before that, we had a small temporary exhibition space, but it was an opportunist space that we use depending on opportunities rather than having a big, national museum back offer. And that’s really opened up a lot of different possibilities in terms of what our programme looks like, who it’s for in terms of our audiences, and other kinds of smaller display opportunities within the collection. So we have our current collection space and our temporary exhibitions space. And where those two space meets, in terms of other opportunities within the permanent collection, to do spotlight focus within, or do re-hangs within the main decorative scheme.

Von Chua:

From preparing a collection for an exhibition to storing the collection at the end of an exhibition, can you tell us what are the main areas of concern?

Yunsun Choi:

The collections are at most vulnerable when they are being moved and handled, so even though our collection is static, we do change our display from time to time. It is often handled and moved, that’s where the danger comes in. My interest in the collection is the wellbeing of the collection. Before anything is moved, we condition check them to see the condition of the item first, if it is safe to move, and how we move the item, we think about it before we move them. During the movement, we oversee the whole movement of the collection, and then after the movement, we condition check them as well. And if we feel that the item is vulnerable, perhaps we will carry out the treatment before we move, or we will change the methodology of it.

“Before anything is moved, we condition check them to see the condition of the item first, if it is safe to move, and how we move the item, we think about it before we move them.”

– Yunsun Choi, Head of Collection Care, The Wallace Collection

Von Chua:

When you say treatment before you move, what are they before moving a vulnerable item?

Yunsun Choi:

It depends. So when we talk about the treatment of the items, we talk about two things, (i) display-ready treatment, (ii) full-on treatment. Display ready treatment will be safe to move, safe to be handled. For example, if we find that a painting is flaking or some areas that we feel may move during the movement, we may consolidate them. Or for example, if we have a furniture leg, if you move it and it might fall off, then we would do some similar consolidation into the leg to make sure the leg wouldn’t move, or sometimes we actually move the leg separately then put them back together.

The other type of treatment would be full-on treatment. Sometimes, if you’re looking at a painting and it’s flaky, a little bit of consolidation is one thing, but to look at it and remove the varnish, retouch it, revarnishing it, consolidating is also another. There are different types of treatment we’re talking about but when it’s movement, that’s a superficial treatment to make sure that when we move the collection, it will be safe.

We have a large collection. Access is an issue at the Wallace Collection. When we move the collection, we make sure we have enough people around, so will book our handling team. We have an in-house team but we may have extra handlers to come to help us. At the same time, having too many people can also be a risk so we manage the whole situation. It’s all about planning in advance.

Clare Simpson:

A recent change to the reinterpretation of our will last year, a huge constitutional change for The Wallace Collection in terms of lend out, so we are the team that led the first loan out from The Wallace Collection over to the National Gallery. It’s really opened up lots of different opportunities for us to pull our internal knowledge and skillsets that we’ve all brought from other institutions to The Wallace Collection. We are a little team that has been brought in to address this new requirement of major loans in and opportunities for loans out – we’re leading that national and international reach. So that speaks to some of the things that Yunsun was describing, in us having to make sure that our collection is display ready.

Dr Yuriko Jackall:

The Wallace Collection is still very much a house museum, very much defined by personal taste. Hence this kind of description of eclectic that Yunsun was giving it, because it is very much, as opposed to collection constructed by curators who are trying to think about creating something more encyclopedic. The display as well tries to emulate how it was in Sir Richard Wallace’s day, but there is a conscious decision to try to emulate as much as possible this house museum character. And that’s an interesting consideration for museum professionals, especially for curators, conservators, and people in the exhibitions field. We all come from an area where there is the desire to move the collection, to assess it from a conservation perspective, to some things out on loans, to play with displays a little bit even in the permanent collection galleries, having it sit with the ethos of a house museum creates an interesting tension. And I think it’s an interesting tension in a positive, creative way.

One of those things really is trying to balance that when things are going out on displays, to exhibitions, that’s really the opportunity to assess them for condition no matter what type of object they are. It’s balancing that with a collection that doesn’t really move, trying to create a structure whereby things are regularly assessed is a real challenge. And trying to balance some of the display decisions that naturally come with the house museum aesthetic, so a salon-style hang for pictures where they go right up to the ceiling, but then that means you can’t look at them closely, and therefore you can’t assess them for condition. It’s always a balance.

Von Chua:

How important is space when you are planning for an exhibition? The collection sits within a Grade II listed building, which is a building of special interest with approx. 92% of all listed buildings in the United Kingdom this class. Does this affect how you plan the layout and displays of the collection?

Clare Simpson:

I cheated slightly in that we built a new exhibition space, dodged all the listing restrictions. We have our new exhibitions space downstairs which has a 21st-century feel. It has new lightings. It’s one empty space that we can build within each exhibition, everything is demountable and it’s incredibly flexible. So it’s really interesting from a visitor experience approach because in the house aesthetic, which is incredibly immersive and decorative. And then you go into the temporary exhibition space and you’re in a contemporary exhibition feel with painted walls, and much more spaced out selective hand, something that’s been carefully curated. There’s a bit of that tension that Yuriko has mentioned, that big gear change for visitors to move from that space. Something that has allowed us to do in terms of moving the permanent collection down into the temporary exhibition space, so selecting objects from our collection as part of a curated loaned in collection means that we can give them that space to look at them in a very different way, out of their highly dense and decorative environment. It really gives us an opportunity to look at that.

“We have our new exhibitions space downstairs which has a 21st-century feel… selecting objects from our collection as part of a curated loaned in collection means that we can give them that space to look at them in a very different way, out of their highly dense and decorative environment. It really gives us an opportunity to look at that.”

– Clare Simpson, Head of Exhibitions, The Wallace Collection

We work with exhibition designers and graphic designers on the 2D and 3D elements in the exhibition space. We look at the wayfinding and the narrative of the exhibition, so we can really go in a give it a full visitor-based approach in terms of the exhibition space. The permanent collection has a very different kind of aesthetic to it, in that there is no planned route around the collection. It relies heavily on a self-guided visit and the element of self-guided discovery. But that said, we have done a coupled of little displays within the collection. We did the big show with Manolo Blahnik. We try to find these opportunities within the permanent collection where we can rotate or hang, obviously with the listing in mind. Not necessarily just the listing, it’s really how densely decorative everything is. So moving something on the silk walls, or moving something that it isn’t obscured by a piece of furniture. They’re all challenges we’re looking at now that we want to create more opportunities within the permanent collection space. We have a menu of different channels, different layers, different ways to experiment and explore. The listing and access are the two biggest challenges.

Von Chua:

Access-wise, do you move the works during opening hours?

Clare Simpson:

We don’t have a day of the week that we’re closed. That does make it challenging especially for Yunsun and the curatorial team to inspect objects or move them around because everything on view permanently. We try and do as much out-of-hours as we can. We open to the public at 10am, so we kind of have a working window between 7am to 10am where we can try to move things out and reopen, as if fairies came at night and moved things around. We’re also lucky enough in that if we do have to eat into the public opening time for an hour or so, there’s enough of the collection to see while we work on one room.

Von Chua:

On keeping the art collection in optimum condition – conservation, restoration, and preventative measures, does the condition of the artwork affect where it is displayed in the building? For example, a particularly fragile artwork, what do you do?

Yunsun Choi:

Yes and no. Even though this is a listed building, we have an air-conditioning system for all the galleries in whole museum. We do control the environment, so in theory, we shouldn’t have areas where we couldn’t display certain items. I would just say one thing, when it comes to light, if we have very vulnerable paintings like watercolour or paper items, we may avoid the south-side of it where the direct sunlight might actually touch the items.

We don’t only condition check them, we also have an active pest management, so we set up pest traps so we know if there are certain items that might be attractive to certain insects. Although we control the environment, sometimes it is not perfect, so if we feel this area is a little more humid than we would like, and it’s a more optimum condition for the insects, every insect have their lifecycle, we might put in more time to housecleaning, and we might put more pest traps in certain places.

We have sensors that records humidity, temperature, UV light, and light levels. We do that throughout the building, 24/7.

Von Chua:

What is the workflow like when planning for a new exhibition? Do you ever involve changing the architecture and interiors to accommodate an exhibition? When does Collection Care come into the conversation, or is it a constant communication between yourself, Yunsun and your teams?

Clare Simpson:

Specifically talking about the temporary exhibitions space on the lower ground floor, we have a program planned ahead between three and five years. It can take a long time to request our loans and secure loans, and look at the 3D planning of exhibitions. It’s really a balance between addressing some of the conservation requirements and display requirements that we’ve already discussed, but then really looking at the visitor experience. We work with exhibition designers to help us with that in terms of the 3D and 2D approach.

We have a big project team that work on temporary exhibitions. We work to a design program that will be familiar to you (architect’s workflow) in terms of concept, detail, and delivery scheme. That design process really helps us, curators, exhibitions designers and conservators to plan our work flow moving forward and how we make those creative decisions along a timeline. It might be that we’re trying to make creative decisions before we’ve even secured a loan.

In terms of working with designers, optimum viewing and balancing conservation needs, we’ve inherited this incredibly decorative scheme, we are looking at different ways at the moment at how we can play around with the viewing experience. Anything with the interiors that we’d like to refurbish, or any lighting that we’d like to change, the blinds – whether we allow sunlight or UV, we’re looking at all that moving forward.

Dr Yuriko Jackall:

It’s a balance between seeing works in a very decorative scheme which is beautiful but feels quite perfect unto itself. So when you pull something out of that, first of all, you create this knock-on effect where you need to replace it with something but it needs to come from somewhere else. There is a real sense of excitement to see things in a totally different context. And that’s the really wonderful thing about the new exhibition space that Clare has built with our director. It’s an opportunity for us to show the permanent collection to visitors in a totally new way. A lot of the projects we are working on takes the permanent collection as a starting point, our design to bring works into dialogue with loans from other collections that they’ve never encountered each other before. In our case, it really has never encountered before because we have never lent before and haven’t had a precedent of doing big exhibitions.

“A lot of the projects we are working on takes the permanent collection as a starting point, our design to bring works into dialogue with loans from other collections that they’ve never encountered each other before. In our case, it really has never encountered before because we have never lent before and haven’t had a precedent of doing big exhibitions.”

– Dr Yuriko Jackall, Curator of French Paintings, The Wallace Collection

In terms of things that are coming up, all three of us are involved in the Fragonard exhibition that we’re working towards. The starting point is the Fragonard collection in the permanent collection, and most notably The Swing, one of the big stars of the museum, his most iconic painting. We’re going to be trying to use that painting in particular as a way to think about different types of projects that we can do and different ways which we can play with the displays. For instance, we’re going to be studying it on its own, work by Fragonard, and trying to create programming around that process. We are working towards a bigger exhibition bringing together all of our paintings by Fragonard, but also bringing them together with different loans. That will go in the temporary exhibition space. It will be an opportunity to see it differently within the permanent collection during one phase of the project, and the next with other works.

Von Chua:

On keeping the art collection safe, there is an increasing number of people taking photos on their cameras or phones to post on social media, how does the accidental flash affect the safety of the collection? The Wallace Collection can get quite busy with bottlenecks of the visiting crowd in the galleries, does this affect your strategy in keeping the collection safe?

Yunsun Choi:

Flashlight photography is forbidden. We are quite lucky we have visitor assistants in the gallery space so they can still invigilate the galleries as well. You have probably noticed in our galleries, we don’t have barriers and we don’t have sound alarms. You will see the galleries space as if you’re walking into your own house, enjoy the setting, but also to show that we don’t have a lot of our paintings glazed either because traditionally the paintings hasn’t been glazed. So if you’re looking at the gallery, just the galleries and how it’s displayed, all the items, apart from the items that are displayed inside the display cases, are pretty much on an open display. So it does come with lots of challenges, so visitor assistants are very important.

“…we don’t have barriers…You will see the galleries space as if you’re walking into your own house, enjoy the setting, but also to show that we don’t have a lot of our paintings glazed either because traditionally the paintings hasn’t been glazed.”

– Yunsun Choi, Head of Collection Care, The Wallace Collection

Also, for example, we put furniture in front of the paintings. People cannot go too close to the paintings, they have a certain distance from the painting. But also, in that case, we just leave the historic paintings vulnerable, but we do wax them. When you wax the paintings, it does protect the furniture as much as possible. It supports the furniture from being scratched, if water droplet is in there, we can actually wipe them out. We use different measures to support our collection as much as possible.

Barriers itself can also be a danger. I used to work at Tate, sometimes there are huge exhibitions with lots of people coming in. The barriers are quite low, I have seen people trip over the barrier, and landing on the painting, damaging the painting. When people are walking backwards, and if they are not aware of certain barriers, it does trip people. We’re lucky that we didn’t have any serious accidents.

Von Chua:

What are the biggest challenges of running a Collection with nearly 5,500 objects?

Dr Yuriko Jackall:

It is quite specific to the Wallace that everything is so thoroughly integrated, paintings, porcelains, works of art, sculpture, etc. Typically, in some places that is less of a house museum, more of a classic museum or gallery, you would see the media separated a little more. I think has both positives and negatives. Of course, the great strengths of The Wallace Collection lies in its richness, and the fact that we can show everything so integrated is – it speaks to the collecting history of the family, and provides a unique space within London, because there is really no other national museum that does this quite as wholeheartedly as the Wallace has been able to do it. In a way, it provides an experience that is maybe more authentic to the 18th-century that is one of the great strengths of the Wallace Collection because that was the period where the decorative arts and the paintings really were kind of, at least in the domestic environment, really meant to be hung side-by-side. Artists that were making one type of work would know and certainly be collaborating with artists that were making another type of work. The real challenge lies in then, keeping every aspect of the collection safe because you have galleries that are now integrated and the objects need different care. For instance, light levels. Paintings can take higher light levels than furniture. But we want to show them together, so that’s a challenge.

“It is quite specific to the Wallace that everything is so thoroughly integrated, paintings, porcelains, works of art, sculpture, etc. The real challenge lies in then, keeping every aspect of the collection safe because you have galleries that are now integrated and the objects need different care.”

– Dr Yuriko Jackall, Curator of French Paintings, The Wallace Collection

In terms of space, you often end up with rooms with paintings that are really so abundant that they are pushed up the walls, literally, that you end up having really great works of art hung so high that nobody can see them. Again, it’s that balance. Our instinct as museum professionals is really to take each work of art unto itself and really take care of it individually, and have it shine on an individual level. But then, trying to integrate it in the overall collection, within the identity of the Wallace Collection, presents a very interesting challenge.

Yunsun Choi:

A collection size of 5,500 is quite a small collection. Looking at British Library, their collection grows 12 km a year! So if you compare to that, we have quite a small collection. As a conservator, collection care people are used to dealing with large collections. Our challenges come with different materials coming together. Our collection is very unique. For example, if you’re looking at the V&A Museum, if you walk into the glass room, they only have glass in one room. Whereas for us, there is a wealth of different materials and they all need to go in. Paintings and furniture going into one space, it does create challenges. Because we have so many types of materials, we don’t only deal with one type of pest, we are dealing with every aspect of pests. We are dealing with clothes webbing moths, paper pests, cloth pests. We have a different aspect of the problem rather than actually the quantity of the collection. It’s the quality and the depth of the collection that is the challenge. For example, there are different aspects of the collection, like metal and cloth together, organic and inorganic collection being together means there is a different humidity needed to be looked into. Furniture and paintings, there are different light levels. The challenges are having that balance right, rather than the number of the collection we need to look into.

“Our challenges come with different materials coming together. Because we have so many types of materials, we don’t only deal with one type of pest, we are dealing with every aspect of pests. It’s the quality and the depth of the collection that is the challenge.”

– Yunsun Choi, Head of Collection Care, The Wallace Collection

Clare Simpson:

Speaking from a visitor perspective, it’s a balance between not losing that quality of it being a house museum and taking everything in as a sum of its part. Also offering layers of interpretation weighs into the collection. You can walk past star objects and that hierarchy within the collection, we celebrate our star objects but it’s easy to walk past them and not really know what you’re looking at. To try to break down some of those barriers, so we don’t continue to look like we’re on our pedestal, not listening to contemporary learning experiences. To make sure we have a generation coming up that can enjoy The Wallace Collection in taste, aesthetic, and understanding.

“Speaking from a visitor perspective, it’s a balance between not losing that quality of it being a house museum and taking everything in as a sum of its part. Also offering layers of interpretation weighs into the collection.”

– Clare Simpson, Head of Exhibitions, The Wallace Collection

Von Chua:

The Wallace Collection website explains that The Conversation Department consists of one metals and one furniture conservator, together with a conservation craftsman/mount-maker. For art collectors who do not have a collection care team, do you have any advice on the basics of how to care for their collection?

Yunsun Choi:

One thing I always say is that do-it-yourself is your worst enemy. Please don’t do it yourself! If you feel an item is damaged, don’t try to fix it yourself. As a conservation department, from time to time, we receive some emails saying I have this item and it’s peeling, what can I do? Don’t do anything. Your best chance is to talk to a specialist first. If you do anything to your paintings, furniture, or your albums, chances are you will make it a hundred times worse than it is now.

“Your best chance is to talk to a specialist first. If you do anything to your paintings, furniture, or your albums, chances are you will make it a hundred times worse than it is now.”

– Yunsun Choi, Head of Collection Care, The Wallace Collection

The other thing is about handling. Be very careful about handling. 95% of damage occurs to a collection by human. It’s not biological, it’s not chemical, it’s human damage that causes the most serious damage. When you move a collection, when you’re dealing with an item, try not to force anything. All the collection you have, your item will tell you – it will speak to you. If a historic furniture door is not closing, don’t force it to close it. If it’s not opening, don’t pull it out. It’s likely that you will cause damage. I always say don’t force anything, ask for advice, and try not to handle things too much.

“Don’t force anything, ask for advice, and try not to handle things too much.”

– Yunsun Choi, Head of Collection Care, The Wallace Collection

The interview was conducted virtually. With sincere thanks to Yunsun, Clare, and Yuriko for carving their time and sharing their insights. The Wallace Collection is a great example of a house museum, open 7 days a week, so if you have a chance, do visit it in person to experience and appreciate the collection and space. Thank you to The Wallace Collection for the opportunity to make this interview possible.

Interview conducted by Von Chua. First published on ADF Web Magazine on 01/05/2020. If you have any questions or would like to further discuss about the relationship between architecture and art, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com

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