Secrets of the Museum

Secrets of the Museum

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, curator Katharine wants to celebrate a famous artist’s less well-known works. She has unearthed a series of landscape prints made by John Constable. Although he is now world renowned for rural scenes like The Hay Wain, during his lifetime Constable’s landscapes didn’t sell well, and he was forced to earn a living painting society portraits. To gain greater recognition for his landscapes, he embarked on a collaboration with printer David Lucas to create a series of prints from his own oil sketches of the countryside in Suffolk, using the mezzotint technique.

To understand the mezzotint process better, Katharine visits contemporary artist Sarah Gillespie in her studio. Sarah can spend days laboriously engraving a copper plate to hold ink, before printing an image from the metal sheet. Sarah comes in to the V&A and is moved to see Constable’s original prints.

Meanwhile, theatre and performance curator Kate has travelled to Dungeness on the Kent coast to meet multi Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell. But Kate’s not here to receive a costume from a movie. In 2020, Sandy turned herself into a living autograph book, wearing a plain white suit to awards ceremonies and asking stars to sign her outfit. She then auctioned off the suit to raise money for a cause close to her heart – the preservation of the late artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s cottage on the shingle at Dungeness.

Jarman gave Sandy her first job in the film industry, and now Sandy wants to keep his memory alive by turning his former home into a creative space for artists. After the autographed suit was sold, the new owner, Edwina Dunn, donated it to the V&A. But before it can join the collection, conservator Susana must clean the suit carefully, making sure she doesn’t erase the autographs of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro and many others.

The V&A is also preparing a new exhibition examining the less familiar work of a household name – the world-famous goldsmith Carl Fabergé. He is best known for his bejewelled Easter eggs, and the new exhibition will bring to light Fabergé’s work for British clients – including many pieces designed for the royal family. Fabergé opened a London shop in 1911, designing pieces for aristocrats, celebrities and royalty. The Royal Collection Trust has almost 600 pieces by Fabergé, and the Queen is lending 70 of them to the new exhibition.

Going on show will be a hidden gem, rarely seen in public, that tells the story of a royal love affair. It’s a beautiful gold cigarette case covered in blue enamel and set with diamonds in the pattern of a snake biting its tail. It was given to King Edward VII by his mistress, Alice Keppel, as a memento of their 12-year-long relationship. The unusual snake motif is said to represent infinity – while also hinting at forbidden love.

Curator Kieran is also taking delivery of 15 Fabergé eggs. The eggs are synonymous with Fabergé, but few people realise that Carl Faberge didn’t make them himself. The Cradle with Garlands egg, which Kieran examines for imperfections under ultraviolet light, was actually made by Finnish goldsmith Henrik Wigstrom, head workmaster at Fabergé.

In V&A Dundee, a famous face is making way for a less familiar figure. Original artwork of Beano star Dennis the Menace has adorned the walls of the museum since it opened in 2018, but now curator Meredith is taking down Dennis and replacing him with new artwork of Minnie the Minx, loaned by local publishers DC Thomson. As the first female artist in the Beano’s 80-year history, Minnie’s illustrator Laura Howell is able to give Meredith a unique insight into this icon of girl power. “If someone told me there was any job that I shouldn’t do because I’m a woman, I would laugh in their face I think! Maybe there’s a little bit of Minnie’s rebelliousness that’s rubbed off on me,” says Laura.

Secrets of the Museum – Wednesday 8pm on BBC2

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