Our critic Jareh Das puts the BBC TV series through its paces
What goes on behind the scenes in museums from the perspective of curators, technicians and conservators is explored in the six-part BBC series Secrets of the Museum, which takes viewers on a journey into the unseen processes at work in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A).
The V&A houses a staggering collection of over two million objects spanning centuries and, for the first time, cameras were allowed in to present a perspective on the inner workings of one of the world’s celebrated encyclopedic museum. It’s a well-known fact that museums across the globe only display a fraction of their collection – 2-4% in some cases – and in recent years, initiatives have been put in place to counter this, such as transforming collection stores into viewing spaces (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art – MIMA – has done this) and digitising collections. Perhaps the most ground-breaking of all is the Depot at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, a brand-new model for museums (set for completion in 2021) that will display its entire purpose-built stores and also jointly function as exhibition spaces.
The series unfolds, giving a balanced view between behind-the-scenes perspectives related to exhibitions, artwork loans and conservation of objects, with each episode exploring the many challenges faced by professionals working in their given areas of expertise. It should be noted from the outset that the artworks selected tell an Anglicised, Western-focused version of art history. The result is that the selection is neatly uncontroversial, shirking the increasingly heated debates around the contested history of non-Western objects that exist in such collections.
Each hour-long episode is centred on a series of pieces ranging from a two-metre-large Frankenstein monster from the 1935 sci-fi classic Bride of Frankenstein to an 18th-century Romanesque micromosaic tabletop, detailing the lost-technique of heating, stretching and cutting thousands of individually coloured glass pieces the size of pinheads that are then arranged with tweezers in a metal tray on a metal plate set in a slow-drying cement. The conservation of a newly acquired, pre-20th century men's kimono is pondered and the challenges of moving a customised canary-yellow Chevy Impala convertible named Tipsy for a car-themed exhibition from Los Angeles (cue the joke: How many technicians and curators does it take to fit a car into a good lift?) reveals what happens to everyday objects when they enter the museum as artefacts of display. The curators and car owner elaborate on the importance of low-riders in Mexicali culture, beginning in 1950s Los Angeles, as well as the six years of customisation it took to create this masterpiece – multiple layers of paint and lacquer, hand-engraved metalwork and artwork in homages to Latinx heritage and so on.
A stand-out employee in the series is the jolly curator of dance Jane Pritchard, who is tasked with condition-checking and making fit for transportation more than 3,000 items from the museum’s performance and costume collection. This is a job she clearly revels in, as she describes both animatedly and enthusiastically Rockstar costumes, the ghastly Breakfast Dress worn by Dame Edna Everage (made famous on British telly by the Australian actor, satirist, author and comedian Barry Humphries) and Elton John’s general's uniform made for his 1982 Jump Up tour, worn during 135 shows in 70 international cities, which she describes as ‘theatrical bling’. Another item Pritchard highlights is an elongated glove by 19th-century burlesque superstar Kate Vaughan, drawing attention to the risqué practice of skirt-dancing for women of that era. The most remarkable revelation from this series is that all the stunning dresses for the museum’s recent blockbuster Christian Dior exhibition had to be conserved individually, fitted onto custom-made mannequins and each taking around 40 hours of work.
For a regular museum-going audience, the ‘secrets’ the series reveals are a tad predictable as most museums do run public tours and allow visits behind the scenes on request (scholars and academics have the upper hand here), but interestingly it is still able to surprise with its breadth of objects from the historic to more familiar objects from popular culture (who knew the V&A collected usherette dresses from the premiere of The Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day's Night?).
Secrets of the Museum undoubtedly demonstrates the consciousness of museums to open up and show more of their collections, but the series would have benefited with broadening the scope of featured objects and dealing with the imperial history of collecting in this institution. Whether the jovial demeanour of all the curators, technicians and conservators filmed was for the camera or representative of everyday working-life at the V&A, what comes through is the attitude of care and love for what they do. The series also sheds light on the painstaking amount of research imbued in museum work, the respect for adhering to the time and contextual specificity of these objects while seeking to preserve them for future generations.
Secrets of the Museum is available to view on BBC iPlayer. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing a variety of content online to keep you inspired and entertained at home, as well as advice on how to continue your craft business during this period of isolation. Start by browsing our lists of craft books and podcasts to help beat your boredom. You can also access Crafts magazine's entire digital archive for free.