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Unique arts series venturing behind the scenes at the world famous museum of art, design and performance, the V&A.

Station: BBC Two (GB)
Rating: 0/10 from 0 users
Status: Running
Start: 2020-02-06

Secrets of the Museum Air Dates

S03E03 - Episode 3 Air Date: 14 April 2022 19:00 -

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Inside every museum is a hidden world, and now cameras are returning to the V&A, going behind the scenes to parts of the Victoria and Albert Museum never seen before.

Only a small fraction of the museum's enormous collection is on display. But in this series, we'll go behind closed doors, discovering the painstaking work of the V&A's experts as they breathe new life into fragile marvels, uncover hidden stories and preserve the best of past and present.

This year, the V&A is being transformed – with new museums on the way, and more of its treasures than ever travelling to every part of the UK. In this series, we'll find out how the V&A puts the biggest object it has ever acquired on display, hear the surprising tales of some of its Scottish collection and unearth the human stories behind the objects in their blockbuster shows, from Beatrix Potter's original drawings to 21st-century fashion. We'll see rare works by artists from Donatello to Constable, uncover the secrets of Tommy Cooper's magic tricks and meet the woman painted by renowned contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley.

This week, extraordinary new works of cutting-edge design are arriving at the museum. The V&A is planning its biggest-ever menswear exhibition, and curator Rosalind has just taken delivery of a new ensemble for the show. It's a shiny pink lamé two-piece, made in 2017 by acclaimed young fashion designer Harris Reed, that comes complete with a cigarette burn from its past life as a party outfit.

For the new show, Rosalind is planning to pair Harris's outfit and others with historic works of art that together will reveal how menswear has reflected changing ideas about gender down the ages. Harris Reed is a designer interested in gender fluidity, and his outfit – made to measure for himself - is in shocking pink, not a colour much associated with men in recent years. But in the past, pink was a badge of wealth and success for both sexes. Rosalind invites Harris to the National Gallery in London, where they come face to face with Jacques Cazotte, an 18th-century French colonial administrator who sat for his portrait wearing a pink silk outfit bearing striking similarities to Harris's 2017 ensemble.

In east London, a giant new outpost of the V&A is under construction. When V&A East Storehouse opens in 2024, visitors will be able to walk amongst some of the V&A's treasures previously hidden away in storage. But the building will also house new pieces. The museum has recently acquired its biggest-ever object, and now the team wants to display it in the middle of the Storehouse.

The new acquisition is a giant ten-tonne slice of a tower block from an east London council estate known as Robin Hood Gardens. This monolith of modernism was designed by the famous husband-and-wife architects Peter and Alison Smithson and completed in 1972. Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, but the V&A stepped in to acquire several large chunks of the façade. Now they hope to reassemble these giant concrete components inside the new Storehouse and hang the entire edifice 15 metres in the air. If the hugely ambitious plan is a success, visitors will be able to get a sense of the estate's most famous feature – the ‘streets in the sky', which the Smithsons hoped would replicate the terraced streets of the old East End.

The V&A's old Museum of Childhood is also undergoing a major revamp – it's being transformed into a new museum to be known as Young V&A. But even while the site is closed for its makeover, curators are still acquiring new pieces, with many embodying cutting-edge design. Curators Kristian and Trish have just acquired a bionic arm, a robotic prosthesis made from 3D-printed plastic and designed to help children and young people with disabilities. The Hero Arm, as it's known, was created with input from young people themselves. Trish goes to meet 16-year-old social media influencer Tilly to find out how she's contributed to the bionic arm's special features.

At the V&A's Wedgwood Collection in Stoke-on-Trent, archivist Lucy and curator Catrin are taking delivery of a mid-century treasure that shows off the Wedgwood company's tradition of working with the most cutting-edge artists of their day. Eric Ravilious's travel tea set, which went into production in the early 1950s, celebrates planes, trains and hot-air balloons, amongst other forms of transport. Ravilious designed the set in 1938, but production was put on hold when the Second World War broke out. Ravilious himself became a war artist during the conflict, but in 1942 he failed to return from an RAF mission over Iceland.

Today, Ravilious's granddaughter Ella, who herself works as a curator for the V&A, is writing a new book about her grandfather, whose reputation has grown and grown in recent years. Ella travels to Stoke to see the Wedgwood factory's closely guarded pattern books, which reveal the top-secret process by which Ravilious's designs became a mass-produced tea set.

S03E04 - Episode 4 Air Date: 20 April 2022 19:00 -

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The curators are searching for untold stories in the museum's objects. Curator Christine is working on a major new exhibition highlighting African fashion, spanning couture, photography and design. But she's also looking for objects with more personal stories. A family has come forward offering their kente cloth to the exhibition. Traditionally made from woven strips of silk and cotton, kente has been produced in west Africa since the 17th century.

77-year-old grandmother Gladys tells Christine that she bought her kente in Ghana in 1960, ready for the christening of her daughter Doris. The family are keen to see the precious family heirloom go on display at the V&A.

Christine has also taken delivery of a new object for the forthcoming show – a colour photograph by London-based Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. The print, from a photograph taken in 1971, is of a well-dressed woman carrying brightly-coloured bottles, and was used as a guide for the correct reproduction of colour. Barnor established the first colour processing lab in Ghana, but he also documented life in the country as it was becoming independent, as well as capturing the swinging 60s in London. Christine and co-curator Hana invite 92-year-old Barnor in to the V&A.

Some of the objects in the V&A's collection are still shrouded in mystery. Curator Nick has recently made a puzzling discovery – an object he's never seen before. Acquired by the V&A in 1855, the large wooden dish or tray was given the attribution ‘Ancient Persian, 17th century', but Nick suspects that may be incorrect. He has a hunch that the highly-decorated tray may be a rare example of a ‘barniz de Pasto' object.

There are no more than 20 known barniz de Pasto objects in Europe, and the V&A holds five. Nick wants to find out if they have a sixth.
Barniz de Pasto refers to a style of decoration applied to a range of wooden objects made from the 17th century onwards in the Spanish colonies of Latin America. It's distinguished by a particular kind of varnish applied to the objects, known as mopa mopa.

To find out if his tray is indeed varnished with mopa mopa, Nick asks senior conservator Dana to take a small sample from the surface, which is analysed to find out if the molecular signature of mopa mopa is present.

Even objects on permanent display have little-known stories to tell. Among the V&A's most celebrated collections are 24 sculptures by Auguste Rodin, on show at the museum since 1914. They include Inner Voice, a bronze statue depicting a young woman lost in her thoughts. Attacked by many critics when it was first unveiled for its daring new approach to the human form, Inner Voice is now considered a masterpiece. The statue is being sent on loan to Switzerland, but before it leaves, curator Melanie wants to uncover the strange story of how so many Rodin works ended up in the museum a century ago.

She tracks down correspondence between Rodin and the V&A, and discovers that the artist offered his works to the museum after the First World War broke out. The director of the V&A at the time, Cecil Smith, admitted that he personally detested Rodin's work, and yet he believed the sculptor would in time be recognised for his huge contribution to modern art.

In Dundee, curators are turning the page on one of their biggest objects – literally. It's a giant pop-up book made by artist John Byrne, used as a backdrop for a touring stage production of the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, which made a huge impact on audiences across Scotland during the 1970s. The book is on long-term loan from the National Library of Scotland. To protect it from too much light exposure, a team from the National Library and V&A Dundee have devised a plan to carefully turn the page of the huge but fragile pop-up book, revealing a new scene.

S03E05 - Episode 5 Air Date: 21 April 2022 19:00 -

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The spotlight falls on objects representing industry and design.

Curator Martin is preparing for a new exhibition showcasing a leading postwar photographer, Maurice Broomfield. Broomfield captured British factories, steelworks, laboratories and plants in their heyday, when manufacturing was booming in the 1950s and 60s. Before his death in 2010, Maurice donated his entire life's work of 30,000 prints to the V&A. Martin is choosing the best to put on display. But some of the prints are now 60 years old and need painstaking conservation before they can go on show.

Martin travels to meet Maurice's son, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, to learn more about his father's fascination with machines and mechanical marvels – including an array of cameras that were the tools of Maurice's trade.

Another new donation gives an insight into a postwar success story – the much-loved fashion brand Biba. Collector Danuta Laughton is donating a range of outfits made by Biba in the 60s and 70s, but curator Jenny is amazed to learn that Danuta also wants to donate a rare survival that reveals how Biba operated. It's a production file, containing orders and instructions to a factory for making 120 different garments. The file shows how very short production runs of garments was one of the keys to Biba's success. Jenny describes the production file as ‘one of the most exciting things I have ever seen' – especially when she learns that the file was saved for posterity from a skip.

Biba's founder, Barbara Hulanicki, flies in from Miami to see the production file and to meet Danuta and Jenny. Barbara was born in Poland but grew up in Britain and founded Biba in 1963. Biba was to revolutionise high street retail, offering not just clothing but a whole way of life to its loyal customers.

The V&A doesn't just celebrate works of Western design and manufacture. Curator Avalon wants to display a work acquired by the museum in 1852 but never exhibited. It's a jamdani stole, a fabric of exquisite and painstaking design made in what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dhaka was home to a whole industry of textile weavers famous for their intricate decorative work. Their fabrics were so fine they were almost transparent, earning them names meaning ‘running water', or ‘woven air'.

But before this unseen textile can go on show, conservator Elizabeth-Anne must remove decades of dust and grime. Despite three hours of handwashing in a custom-made bath using museum-grade detergents, the stole is still looking less than perfect. So Elizabeth-Anne deploys her secret weapon – an ultrasonic wand that releases tiny bubbles to dislodge the stubborn stains.

In Stoke-on-Trent, curators Catrin and Rebecca at the V&A Wedgwood Collection are celebrating the experiments and trial runs of pioneering potter and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood transformed English pottery from a cottage craft to a world-beating industry in the late 18th century, and his trial runs show how he did it. Catrin and Rebecca are handing over 500 individual trial pieces to ceramic artist Neil Brownsword, who wants to display them in an exhibition nearby. These small fragments reveal Wedgwood's rigorous approach to making the perfect pottery as he experimented with different glazes and firing temperatures to produce the affordable and robust creamware for which he became famous.

S03E06 - Episode 6 Air Date: 27 April 2022 19:00 -

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Conservator Adriana is cleaning a beautiful sculpture thought to have been designed by the Renaissance master Donatello and produced in his workshop, almost 600 years ago. Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels is a work known as a relief, in which three-dimensional elements stand out against a flat base. Once a layer dirt is lifted, Adriana discovers ancient varnish, which she must remove without damaging the paint surface below. And as she cleans, she makes a discovery about the piece which helps to explain how it was originally used.

Theatre and Performance curator Simon has just taken delivery of a costume from the 2013 stage play The Audience, in which Helen Mirren played the Queen across six decades of her reign. The dress, a regal outfit inspired by a 1950s gown from royal couturier Sir Norman Hartnell, has a secret that explains how Mirren was able to undertake up to 10 quick changes each night during the show – it zips up at the back like an enormous coat. After conservator Gesa makes a mannequin in the shape of Helen Mirren on which to display the dress, Simon invites its designer, renowned theatrical designer Bob Crowley, to the V&A for a reunion with his royal creation.

In Devon, archivist Christopher is meeting up with a 91-year-old master of his craft, a man whose creations have made all our lives easier. Sir Kenneth Grange designed the Kenwood Chef, the parking meter, the famous blue-and-yellow Intercity 125 train, Parker pens, and a breakthrough Kodak camera – as well as hundreds of other products – in a career as a designer spanning 60 years. Now, he's donating the archive of his life's work to the V&A, and Christopher faces the daunting task of selecting just a few key pieces for a display in the new V&A East Storehouse. Sir Kenneth is also donating his sketchbooks to the museum, containing a day-by-day record of his thinking as he set about creating products that many of us have used for decades.

At V&A Dundee, the team have recruited contemporary artist and designer Yinka Ilori to help them fill the enormous entrance hall at the museum, one of the largest exhibition spaces in Scotland. Yinka, a designer famous for filling public spaces with giant and very colourful works of art, is proposing building a 170 sq metre technicolour maze, for children of all ages, filled with zip-up panels to allow you to slip through from one section to another. But will the result meet with the approval of a focus group of local children?

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