There was an anxious cluster of people outside the Victoria and Albert Museum. They were reading the hoardings that had appeared. "NEW RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT" it proclaimed, and a second line added, "AT PRIME CULTURAL HERITAGE LOCATION."
I could hear what the people were saying, although their voices rarely rose above a quiet mutter. "They're selling everything off." "I never thought we'd lose the V&A." "It's such a shame - I'll miss it." But although passers-by really thought that the government had decided to convert one of London's great museum into luxury housing, none of those I heard suggested a protest. They minded, they were upset, but not one of them even suggested wearing a badge or writing a letter to an MP. This was what the government was doing and they would have to put up with it.
I'd have been there with a banner and loud-hailer if I thought the government was selling off the V&A to property developers. I've loved this museum since, as a London child, I wandered through its galleries and got lost amidst its marvels. There used to be a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry on rollers so that you could view it in stages. I lost count of the number of times my brother and I surveyed it, looking for the figure we believed was Harold with the arrow in his eye. The huge and detailed Raphael cartoons were another attraction and for some reason I was fascinated by the sculpture of the serpents entangling Laocoon and his sons. There were even visits to the cast gallery, if I could persuade an adult to take me past the sign which banned unaccompanied children under 15. I don't know if this was to project the fragile casts or to keep us from the replica of Michaelangelo's David with which I was obsessed, though more for the expression of his face than for his nudity. Fortunately I rarely had any problem in finding a grown-up to escort me past the museum guards. If only for the strength of my memories, I would fight to preserve the V&A for future generations of children.
But I knew that, for now at least, the V&A is safe from property developers. I was on my way to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation and, after a moment's shock, came to the conclusion that the hoardings were part of the game they were playing with visitors.
It was Friday evening. I've never been to a late evening opening at the V&A before and the feel of the museum is different. As the skies darken outside, the light in the museum changes. Visitors seem more hushed and slightly tentative, as though they fear they're trespassing. And because some of the galleries were closed, I had to find new routes and, as usual with so large a museum, I found myself in unfamiliar rooms. I couldn't work out if I'd seen the Turners before and hurried past but on Friday evening they were luminous and compelling. I've only just begun to appreciate Turner after the hackneyed reproductions of The Fighting Temeraire that appeared on so many biscuit tins in my childhood. But after spending time in the small room of the National Gallery where two Turners are hung with two paintings by Claude, I have gradually come to realise, some years after falling for Claude, that I've learned to like Turner as well.
I wanted to linger by the Turners but I had come to the V&A to see the Elmgreen and Dragset installation, called Tomorrow. I loved the idea of the installation: five galleries of the V&A have been turned into the apartment of a rich and unsuccessful architect which he has been compelled to sell but has not yet left. Visitors are encouraged to snoop on the invisible inhabitant while the museum guards, dressed as butlers and maids, stand about and respond to queries with deferential courtesy.
At first I thought the installation was great. My sense of being an intruder matched my sense of strangeness at being in the museum at night. There weren't many other visitors just then, and I wondered if some of them were part of the installation. Nervously I picked up items, stroked them, read postcards and bills, leafed through newspapers (lots of stories of the London riots) and perched on sofas and chairs. There were a few moments which added to my uneasiness - but not many and, for my taste, not enough. In the end I wasn't sufficiently engaged with the setting nor with the film script which was provided to accompany it. I was left as cold as I was by Elmgreen and Dragset's consciously kitsch sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It's the only fourth plinth sculpture that I've actually disliked.
I've been trying to work out why I was so unengaged by the installation. I know other visitors have liked it. There were elements I enjoyed: the unwashed coffee cups, the unmade bed, the sound of the shower, the fireplace in the living room and the vultures. But in the end I was uninterested in the people that the room conjured up - apart from the servants. The servants were great and I'd like to have known more about them. I leafed through the postcards and photograph album and worked out, from the pictures, that I was supposed to understand that the rich inhabitant of the flat was gay and liked looking at attractive young men - but why was this presented as a puzzle? It seemed to be presenting the character's sexuality as a not-very-hidden secret, which would have made some sense forty or fifty years ago but is a little strange now. I looked at the architecture posters and models and wondered what point was being made, then found that I didn't much care. The installation seemed to be about wealth and people to whom wealth came easily. In real life I feel much more uneasy in such a world than I did in the installation. I left unmoved.
But then I found myself among the drawings in the V&A's collection, and I was riveted. Here there were people and scenes I could care about. There was clear craft as well as art, and surprising experimentation. A startling ink drawing which Constable made in old age caught my attention, and I looked with care at some of the tiny oil sketches he had made too. I particularly loved those of the seashore. I fell into conversation with people who had taken a different route to the museum and been distracted by the small Constables on their way to the installation. They were more knowledgeable than me and could trace the influence Constable had on twentieth century artists. I couldn't stay long enough but I want to get back to see the Turners and Constables again. It seems that my views of Constable have been unfairly limited by exposure to frequent reproductions of his paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and the Hay Wain.
So it wasn't the temporary installation that awoke my sense of wonder but the familiar seen anew. I left the V&A determined to return again soon - and on a Friday evening if I can.