We LOVE Secrets of the V&A Museum on BBC2
For the last six weeks Thursday evenings have been sacrosanct. I’ve been glued to the TV watching, Secrets of the Museum – the revelatory documentary series on BBC2 about what goes on behind-the-scenes at the V&A Museum. My own special interest (apart from the obvious quest as a journalist for even more fashion knowledge) stems from a personal encounter…
We bought our house in London, which has been our home for nigh on 35 years, from an eccentric retiring curator of costume at the V&A and meeting him in 1986 left an indelible impression on me. Pip (very Dickensian, I thought) met us at the door in a silk dressing gown (it was lunchtime) and John Lobb monogrammed slippers. He chain-smoked Gauloises and had a half-finished Francis Bacon on the wall, no heating (we later discovered heated blankets under the floor boards to protect his antiques), rails of theatrical costumes covered in faded tissue and a priceless garden statue that resembled a Florentine Angel. Needless to say, all of that vanished, along with him when we sealed the deal and he popped off to end his days in Deal, Kent.
I’ve had a soft spot for the V&A costume department ever since. And it’s the costume department that gets prime time in this remarkable series as the curators delve into how, what and where their majestic collection is archived, restored and displayed. The recent Mary Quant exhibition attracted 400,000 visitors to become the V&A’s third biggest fashion exhibition, and it was exhilarating to watch the restoration in progress of a mustard yellow mini dress (from the Ginger Group collection), painstakingly laboured over by a conservator called Frances. ‘ Being a textile conservator is a bit like being a doctor,’ she said spraying the crochet dress with deionised water, ‘ except your patients don’t talk back.’ The owner, Jenny Fenwick had bought the dress in Sheffield in 1964 and was delighted with the end result, ‘Who would have thought that the dress that had been in a plastic bag in the loft for decades…..I was a bit embarrassed by how grubby it was.’ Highlighting the importance of the staff behind the scenes at the museum, and the skill, craftsmanship and care that goes into the restoration process, Frances continued, ‘ You’re not just looking at a piece of cloth, you’re looking at a piece of history. You want to do your best for the owner, to present the item as best you can so the piece hold its own in the exhibition.’
Every week, personal stories like this unfold. In episode one, Pumpie the homemade toy elephant (circa 1890) and member of the Cattley family for generations is carefully repaired, a beautiful Dior dress is returned to its former shape and fitted to a mannequin in preparation for the Designer of Dreams exhibition and a woman donates her grandmother’s collection of fine saris to the archive. The museum is set to open a brand new site in east London in 2023, its vast archive will be moved to new hi-tech premises with a research centre and 3,000 costumes need to be catalogued. How do you even start on such a challenge? If anyone can do it, the V&A curators can.
If you haven’t seen this unmissable series, it’s available here on BBC iPlayer.