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Moira Gemmill, who has died aged 55 in a London cycling accident, was a leading figure in architecture and design and one of the capital’s most influential and discerning patrons. She was en route to a job specially created for her, and which she had taken up only in January, as director of capital programmes for the Royal Collection Trust.
Gemmill had been charged with the vast task of modernising facilities at Windsor Castle and Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse — apparently handpicked by the Queen.
Before that, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum she implemented an ambitious £150m (so far) “Future Plan” to update its galleries. Gemmill worked with a succession of (usually young) architects and designers to create a varied and stimulating series of gallery spaces, the aesthetic and stylistic variety of which chimed with the eclecticism of the Victorian building.
The V&A was transformed by interventions that opened it up, including a new entrance by Eva Jiricna, the John Madejski Garden (the central courtyard that had been used as storage space) and Amanda Levete’s entrance courtyard and exhibition space.
The museum was established to educate manufacturers and the public about design, Gemmill said last year. “But through the 20th century it became seen more as an art museum. Future Plan is partly about its rehabilitation. At the V&A the building came first and the collections came later. The museum was designed to embody new materials and techniques.”
Gemmill made it her mission to restore this idea of the building as a didactic tool, practising what it preached about the value of good design. She also oversaw the extension of the V&A beyond its Kensington site, opening the Clothworkers’ Centre for textiles and fashion in Olympia, a satellite museum in Dundee designed by Japan’s Kengo Kuma and planning a new centre on the London 2012 Olympics site. “She was convinced”, V&A director Martin Roth told the Financial Times on Sunday, “that good design could change society.”
Gemmill was born into a farming family in Kintyre, western Scotland, in 1959 and is survived by her parents. She studied graphic design and photography at the Glasgow School of Art, joining the Aberdeen Art Gallery and later the Museum of London where she was responsible for a series of exhibitions.
At the V&A from 2002 she became a patron of young practices and also of women architects. Her achievements are embodied in their most visible form in the V&A, an institution back into which she was so instrumental in breathing life and purpose. As Mr Roth puts it: “The V&A style that we see today, that is Moira. It is her work.”