When a brief arrives for The Wallace Collection Great Gallery, there’s only one company perfect for the task, heritage consultants, architects and conservation experts, Purcell. Partner and Head of Cultural Sector, Mark Hammond talks us through the challenges and success of the project
What was the brief?
The aim of the brief was not to restore the gallery space to its original arrangement but to use its 19th century appearance as the inspiration for its re-presentation. The room had seen a lot of alteration in the late 1970s, with the installation of air conditioning and large grilles in the ceiling, which removed the natural daylighting from the space.
A key part of the brief was to reintroduce natural daylighting, but in a conservation controlled manner. We needed to limit the exposure of the paintings, furniture and other artworks to harmful light and to reconfigure the environmental control equipment to integrate its provision more subtly with the architecture, while at all times meeting the strict limits for temperature and humidity control. This was in addition to delivering the principal gallery of the Wallace Collection with a stunning refreshed appearance.
What was the budget?
The refurbishment was funded entirely by a £5 million grant from the Monument Trust, a charitable body set up by the Sainsbury family.
What was the biggest challenge?
Working within an existing building always presents challenges. However, working at the heart of a listed building which is also a national museum full of valuable artworks that remained open to the public all year round, provided additional considerations for the team in how the project would be successfully executed.
What went wrong?
The project was very successful, it was completed on budget and the Gallery reopened on time in September 2014.
What went right?
A feature that surpassed expectations was the concealment of the air extract grilles which are built into the reveals of the oculi windows. These were prototyped by Edmonds and Co in Birmingham (who also fabricated the frame of the large lay-light in the centre of the gallery ceiling) and involve a mesh grille mounted around a conical formed plywood frame. This frame is then surrounded by a casing concealed above the ceiling which acts as a plenum box through which the air is ultimately extracted. As the oculi recesses are often in shadow, the extract grilles remain particularly unnoticeable to all but the most enquiring eye.
What are you most pleased with?
I’m most pleased with the ideas that have been developed and refined by Purcell to minimise the visual impact of environmental control equipment in traditional interiors, and introduce conservation-controlled natural daylighting. On a more basic level the room is a massive 35 metres long and looks absolutely stunning – beautifully lit, with the walls hung with Pompeian red silk.
What would change if you could start again?
I think it is relatively easy to get carried away with what technology can offer you, different aspects of lighting for example, but it is always worth returning to the basic principles of what you are looking to achieve and aiming to deliver this as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Ultimately we look to provide uncomplicated, durable solutions. We expect the fabric of the buildings that we design to last hundreds of years!
Client involvement – hands-on or hands-off?
Very much hands-on which we always encourage to ensure that decisions are made in a timely manner and with the understanding of the team.
The cultural team at Purcell are always busy with exciting museum and gallery projects – we’re currently working at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, the British Museum, the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, and the Bristol Aerospace Centre in Filton to mention just a few. We have been working with the Wallace Collection for many years and are beginning to look at the next phases of work to complete the refurbishment of the first floor galleries.