Home to more than 2.3 million objects spanning 5,000 years of human ingenuity, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection covers fashion and photography, sculpture and ceramics, architecture, theatre and performance.
Last year, due to the pandemic, it closed for the first time since a brief shutdown in the Second World War, but the break gave its conservators, curators and technicians the chance to restore some of the artefacts.
Now a new series of Secrets Of The Museum takes you behind the scenes, and tells the stories behind the priceless objects…
SHIRLEY’S LICENCE TO THRILL
A new series on BBC2, Secrets Of The Museum, tells the stories behind some of the priceless objects at the V&A Museum including Dame Shirley Bassey’s favourite ostrich-feather catsuit
She wore the outfit on the record cover for the Bond theme tune Diamonds Are Forever and it originally had bell bottoms decorated with turquoise feathers, but was later adapted with straighter legs (pictured)
Dame Shirley Bassey’s favourite outfit from a career that began in 1953 and shows no signs of stopping is this shimmering nude-coloured silk chiffon and net catsuit.
Heavily embroidered with glass beads and sequins, it was snapped up by the V&A at a charity auction. ‘We were lucky,’ says senior curator Simon Sladen.
Now aged 84, the Tiger Bay singer has worn the catsuit many times. It was designed in 1969-70 by Douglas Darnell, who said of Dame Shirley, ‘I know her figure inside out, and which are the best bits to show.’
The catsuit originally had bell bottoms decorated with turquoise ostrich feathers, but was later adapted with straighter legs. As she twisted and moved on stage though, the fabric suffered splits.
Once repaired, the catsuit is displayed on a mannequin with a matching full-length cape, embellished with aquamarine sequins and the ostrich feathers.
Shirley was pictured wearing the outfit on the record cover for the Bond theme tune Diamonds Are Forever, and under the light Simon spots that the sequins are in a diamond pattern.
‘Another link to Diamonds Are Forever,’ he says. ‘I hope we’ve done her justice.’
A BEAR WITH A BIG FUTURE
Little Tommy Tittlemouse, a light brown bear, now 112 years old, (pictured) will have a starring role in a new display once the Museum of Childhood in east London, run by the V&A, has had a major refurbishment
He’s only 5in tall, but this light brown bear, now 112 years old, will have a starring role in a new display once the Museum of Childhood in east London, run by the V&A, has had a major refurbishment.
It all hinged on what kind of shape Little Tommy Tittlemouse was in. Textiles and organics conservator Nora Meller explains in the programme that it’s bad news the bear is looking a bit dusty.
‘Dust attracts moisture and that attracts insects. He’s made of mohair with a cotton backing, which insects love.’ After careful inspection, she declares him free of insect attack and delicately removes the dust.
Made in Germany, Tommy has the long snout and limbs of teddies from their earliest days, and was donated in 1965 by James Gowan, who sent him a birthday card every November.
James’s granddaughter Antonia arrives to celebrate his birthday and explains that he spent his first six years in India with James. She helps open birthday gifts for Tommy before he’s packed away in preparation for his starring role.
DEDICATED TO DRINKING
This 3ft vibrant vase, dedicated to Bacchus, god of wine, was donated to the V&A two years ago and is restored to its gleaming best by conservator Sophie on the show
This vibrant vase, dedicated to Bacchus, god of wine, had been in storage since it was donated to the V&A two years ago. But the museum has found the perfect place to show it off – the cafe, where a new marble floor is being laid.
The 3ft vase was made at the Minton factory in Stoke-on-Trent in 1883 and is a leading example of Majolica earthenware, a technique that allows surfaces to be painted in glowing colours then fired at low temperatures.
The Bacchus vase has paint spatters, dust in crevices and abrasions. Conservator Sophie gets to work, partly using medical tools she inherited from her doctor grandfather.
Restored to its gleaming best, the vase is placed in the refurbished cafe where light pouring through its windows bounces off it. The effect is dazzling.
WAITER MANUEL’S FAWLTY OUTFIT GETS A MAKEOVER
The soup-spattered outfit worn by Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter in 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers, is going on show and must be cleaned but without removing the food stains
Destined for its Laughing Matters exhibition is a costume the V&A hopes will evoke a comic roar of approval. The soup-spattered outfit worn by Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter in 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers, is going on show. It is among the archive of the late actor Andrew Sachs, donated by his family.
‘The bow tie is the icing on the cake,’ says curator Simon Sladen, ‘but the food stains are important. This is part of the history of the character.’
As such, the jacket must be cleaned but without removing the signs of the many meals served by Manuel. Textile conservator Nora Brockmann immerses the jacket in a flat, shallow bath and uses a sponge to get the gentle cleaning agent into the fabric. For a moment she fears she’s lost the stains but fortunately they emerge intact.
Photos of Manuel in action are studied before a mannequin is dressed and posed like the waiter. Then Andrew Sachs’s daughter Kate is invited along to see it. ‘I used to walk through the costume department of the V&A with my father,’ she says. ‘He’d have been shy to see this.’ But her pleasure can’t be dimmed.
DRESSED FOR THE TOP SPOT
Jim Lea, (left) former bass guitarist of 70s chart-toppers Slade, decided to clear out his loft. There he found the red lurex suit he wore in 1971 to promote Slade’s No 1 single Coz I Luv You
The iconic suit was donated to the museum where it was restored by textile conservator Joanne Hackett after it had split over time due to Jim’s energetic performances
Jim’s platform shoes from the 70s arrive which he wore with the suit and Jo mends a split in the tongue using an adhesive favoured by plumbers
It was the V&A’s lucky day when Jim Lea, former bass guitarist of 70s chart-toppers Slade, decided to clear out his loft. There he found the red lurex suit he wore in 1971 to promote Slade’s No 1 single Coz I Luv You, and donated it to the museum.
Jim, now 72, says the suit split over time due to his energetic performances. Textile conservator Joanne Hackett uses a membrane that goes under driveways to stitch on a silk patch where the suit has been weakened.
Later Jim’s platform shoes arrive and Jo mends a split in the tongue using an adhesive favoured by plumbers. Jim is delighted when he sees the outfit. ‘It looks fantastic. I must have been a lot thinner then!’
A MICHELANGELO MODELLED IN WAX
Michelangelo’s 500-year-old wax model, A Slave, (pictured) was created in 1519 as the model for a statue planned for Pope Julius II’s flamboyant grave. However, it was then scaled back to a modest wall monument and Michelangelo’s statue was never carved
Sensors at the V&A measure temperature and humidity across its 145 galleries, but some items are particularly vulnerable. Staff worry about items like wax sculptures when it gets hotter than 25°C. ‘They start to sweat and look uncomfortable,’ says objects conservator Victoria Oakley.
At the start of the pandemic last year, Michelangelo’s 500-year-old wax model, A Slave, was rushed into cold storage in case it melted when the museum was closed. ‘Curators are very close to their objects,’ says Peta Motture, who’s in charge of sculpture. They must take great care when bringing wax out of ‘hibernation’ after five months, and this one is padded to prevent movement as it makes the journey to the gallery on a trolley.
A Slave was created in 1519 as the model for a statue planned for Pope Julius II’s flamboyant grave. However, it was then scaled back to a modest wall monument and Michelangelo’s statue was never carved, but the wax exists as a guide to what he had in mind. He mostly destroyed his models but friends secretly kept some as mementos.
The quality of repairs made nearly a century ago are checked. A clumsy visitor bumped into its case in 1924, shattering the glass and smashing its limbs. A set of photos had just been taken and they were used as the basis of the repair, which used pins to hold the limbs together. The restoration, it seems, is holding up well.
VIVIEN, LADY OF LETTERS
In the days before emails and texts, correspondence by letter was de rigueur. If you were a well-travelled Hollywood star like Vivien Leigh (pictured in 1941), a writing case was essential
Her beautiful red writing case, with slots on the inside of the lid for stamps, a calendar, paper and envelopes, was part of an archive of 20,000 items donated by her grandchildren
In the days before emails and texts, correspondence by letter was de rigueur. If you were a well-travelled Hollywood star like Vivien Leigh who filmed all over the world, a writing case was essential.
Her beautiful red case, with slots on the inside of the lid for stamps, a calendar, paper and envelopes, was part of an archive of 20,000 items donated by her grandchildren. It was made in 1955 when she was in her early 40s, had won her two Oscars and was married to Sir Laurence Olivier.
Dr Lucia Savi spent two years curating an exhibition on handbags, cases and trunks called Bags: Inside Out. She wanted to include the case along with Vivien’s three address books with entries for friends including Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland. ‘Yes, I peeked at the names,’ says Jane Rutherston, principal book conservator. ‘But I had to check for tears.’
Dr Savi wanted to find some prime examples of Vivien’s correspondence to go on show, and she was in for a surprise. For the exhibition also included a 100-year old red despatch box that had belonged to Winston Churchill, and Vivien’s stored letters included many from Winston as they turned out to have been great friends.
Secrets Of The Museum begins on Tuesday at 8pm on BBC2.