Secrets of the Museum – 16 August 2021 – 16/8/2021 – Monday – BBC Two

Bacchus Vase / Minton
Series 2 Episode 4 of 6

Conservator Susan is at the centre of an epic conservation project that will take 20 years to complete: conserving a unique set of Chinese paintings called The Ten Kings of Purgatory. These rare works have been in the V&A’s stores for 150 years, but before they can go on display for the first time, each King of Purgatory must undergo extensive conservation. Susan has already worked on two of the kings, having learnt from a master craftsman at Nanjing Museum how to conserve them using traditional Chinese techniques.

Now she is deploying her new-found skills in conserving king number eight, which will involve dousing the watercolour and ink paintings with very hot water and applying new lining paper made with yasha, a traditional Japanese dye created from cones of the alder tree. It is not a process for the faint-hearted, and as Susan manoeuvres almost two metres of soggy painting on to a special upright board to dry, there is a chance that the delicate paper may tear.

Meanwhile, the Theatre and Performance department has just acquired one of the favourite outfits of legendary pop diva Dame Shirley Bassey. Curator Simon is keen to get the spectacular skin-tight catsuit on display, but the costume, encrusted with sequins, crystals and beads, needs some serious conservation first. Made in 1969 by British couturier Douglas Darnell, the body-hugging sheer silk chiffon outfit was worn by Shirley Bassey on and off for 30 years; first on the album cover of her famous Bond title song Diamonds are Forever, then through a number of stage performances, culminating in her 60th birthday concert. Getting it ready for display will take hours of careful stitching, with specially adapted needles and sheer threads kept in perfect tension, to ensure it is ready for its new starring role.

Finally, the glittering catsuit is dressed on a specially made fibreglass Bassey mannequin. Here it can be reunited with a gold lame cape trimmed with turquoise-blue ostrich feathers, made to accompany the outfit, before its debut in the gallery.

Over in the cafe area, a major refit provides an opportunity for a flamboyant Victorian majolica vase, dedicated to the god of wine Bacchus, to shine for the first time. The colourful vase, decorated with goat-like satyrs sticking their tongues out, was made in 1883 by the innovative Minton factory in Staffordshire. Minton also decorated the museum’s Gamble Room, part of the world’s first-ever museum cafe.

Minton became one of the most important ceramics manufacturers of the Victorian era after developing a new technology that could produce majolica, a type of colourful ceramic, by firing many-coloured glazes all at once at low temperatures. When Queen Victoria ordered some of Minton’s majolica for Buckingham Palace, the colourful objects became the must-have decor of the Victorian era. But the Minton vase must undergo a deep clean before it is ready to take its place in the newly refurbished cafe.

The museum collects objects both old and new. Over in the sculpture department a new acquisition by contemporary sculptor Eleanor Lakelin, Echoes of Amphora, is joining the collection. Eleanor’s unusual sculpture looks like it is made from clay or pottery but is in fact carved from an ancient tree that had to be cut down. Using furniture-making techniques, Eleanor turns the wood on a lathe to create a huge vessel that she then scorches to reveal the burrs or scars of the ancient tree in all its beauty. When she visits the V&A to see her finished work on show, alongside the museum’s most celebrated sculptures in the Cast Courts, it is an honour that most artists can only dream of.

About Secrets of the Museum

Secrets Of The Museum invites viewers into the hidden world of the Victoria and Albert Museum, going behind the scenes at the world-famous home of art, design and performance.

This show is broadcast on BBC Two, also known as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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