The only scheduled thing today is the “Behind the Scenes” tour at the Victoria & Albert. I’ve been looking forward to this inside look at the conservation departments of a real museum, and my friends at CHM were envious.
Big disappointment right off the top: no photos allowed! Our tour group with a nice docent lady was escorted by Robin, a burly security guy in a blue suit, who had the keys to open all the “staff only” doors for us. There were so many times in this hour when I craved to take a picture, and couldn’t!
There are several conservation rooms, and they look alike. That’s because the North (I think? or maybe East) end of the original building was originally the School of Art. The original purpose of the V&A was to teach and promote British artists and artisans. The collection was to provide examples for study. To give art students the proper working conditions, they were provided with studio spaces, and these are very high-ceiling rooms (25 foot at least) with windows from five foot to the top. These bright tall spaces are now the conservation rooms. (They didn’t call them “labs” although that would be appropriate.)
We went through the paper conservation room, the book and painting room, and the fabric and clothing room. All were these tall rooms with tons of indirect light. All had lots of open tables or benches, and lots of storage cabinets. An unexpected feature of all the rooms were “elephant-trunk evacuators”. Hanging from the ceiling on pantograph arms were six-inch corrugated ducts. A worker can reach up and pull one of the elephant trunks down to provide a flow of exhaust air, to carry away dust or solvent fumes.
The paper room had a stack of “carry boards”, big flat boards painted red. Conservators could stick a poster or print down to a carry board with dabs of wheat gluten paste at the corners. Then any opening in the print would show the red color through. We didn’t see anyone actually working on paper.
The book room had a lot of steam-punk looking screw presses and an awesomely large paper cutter. It also has some kind of computerized machine for making their own, custom-sized, acid-free storage boxes. I thought the docent said it was the “Kund machine” but that doesn’t google, so maybe I mis-heard her.
The painting department was at the end of that room. They had a bunch of big wooden easel/frames that could adjust to hold a painting. Off to the side I noted a binocular microscope mounted on a mobile, vertical frame so you could scan it up and across the face of a painting. Only one painting being worked on, a gentleman in a suit who showed an elaborately flowered waistcoat under the suit coat. What made this special was that the family that donated it, had preserved that waistcoat for 200 years, and donated it together with the painting. So now I guess the conservators were using the original garment to color-check the painting.
The apparel department was the largest room, and it was jammed with all sorts of mannequins. The V&A has a very large collection of garments. There is a rotating display of clothing, on mannequins, just off the main entry hall. We were told that each garment can be on display no more than two years out of any ten years. The other time it is in storage away from the light. So when a dress or suit comes out of storage, they need a mannequin of the proper size to stretch it out on and tidy it up.
The apparel department was busy because they were just at the start of taking down the current special exhibit of Mary Quant styles (remember Mary Quant? I did not pay the extra fee to tour that exhibit) and getting ready to put up a special display of kimonos. We were told the museum has a big collection of kimonos, but for this exhibit they are getting a lot of loans from private collectors. We got to look at one of these: a blue silk kimono with embroidered humming birds and flowers. The flowers were orange, and we were told that it was safflower dye, which is “insanely light-sensitive” so it has to be kept covered most of the time. Do you ever wash them, one of the guests asked. Shake of the head from the conservator, we only very rarely put water on anything. She went on, “You see these gold threads?” (in the kimono) “They are made by wrapping paper around thread, and gold leaf around the paper, and if they get wet the paper dissolves and the gold goes away.”
We couldn’t get into the sculpture conservation room because some kind of training class was being held. But they had big tables for work, and lift-tables much like one at our warehouse, for raising heavy objects to the work surface. Oh, I also spotted a couple of vacuum cleaners like the one at Yosemite. And there were a couple of electric fork-lift trucks out in a hallway. And I spotted twill tape in the book department, used to tie bundles of pages together.
I wanted to ask about how they track the location of objects. They have roughly 50 times as many artifacts as CHM does, a few thousand on display, and from what I could see, probably a few hundred circulating through the conservation department. What is their computer system like? How do they keep locations updated? I wasn’t able to ask anyone who knows. There were many computer screens around, but I did not see a single bar-code or bar-code reader, so probably not that way.
The tour was over; it was after 12. What should I do now? I thought I might go hat shopping. I’d noted the addresses of a few men’s hatters. One was not too far away, so I walked there, near Harrod’s, in light rain. Unfortunately from the street it appeared to stock only, or at least mainly, women’s hats, so I came away. I got some lunch at a rather posh tea room: soup and a side of chicken liver pate.
Now what? OK, a definitely gentlemen’s hatter was Bates, over in the posh shopping district off Picadilly. I walked back past all the museums to the South Kensington tube station. Passing the block-long massive queues of parents and kids outside the Natural History Museum in the rain. Note to self: never go to London in the half-holiday week.
At Bates I only bought a cap. I’ve been wanting a British cap for some time. They also had a lot of really intriguing fedoras, but I just didn’t feel like trying to select one today. I was getting pretty tired (huh, what a wus, only gone 10,188 steps/4.6 miles) and came on home. Later tonight I’ll go out somewhere local for supper. Then try to plan something to do in the morning, before starting for Heathrow at noon.