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Finding out the secrets of the museum

An exquisite 18th century portrait, a colourful Dior dress and dozens of delightful curiosities. These are just some of the fascinating secrets revealed in a new six-part OU/BBC co-production that lets cameras go behind the scenes at the world-famous Victoria and Albert Museum.

Starting on Thursday 6 February Secrets of the Museum begins on BBC Two at 8 pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer afterwards.

Only a small part of the two million wonders in the collection are on display to the public. This new series takes viewers behind closed doors to explore all the treasures of art, design and performance the museum has to offer.

The series follows experts and conservators at work in this treasure trove of the nation’s favourite objects, as they breathe new life into fragile marvels, uncover hidden stories, and battle to keep the past alive.

Dr Leon Wainwright, reader in art history, and OU academic consultant on the series with colleague Dr Clare Taylor, said:

“If anyone thought that the V&A was nothing but a big repository of crockery and carpets, this series will be a bit of a rude wake up call. Kylie’s wardrobe – a stormtrooper from Star Wars – the film prop of Frankenstein’s monster – one of Beyonce’s rings – a customised low rider car from the US – the content is hip and widely ranging.”

Academic consultants Dr Leon Wainwright and Dr Clare Taylor

Dr Clare Taylor, senior lecturer in art history, is an academic consultant on the series. She said it offers “a real chance” to see parts of the museum which are not normally open to visitors: storage areas and workshops, preparing items for display.

“For example, seeing how the museum moves its objects around the galleries (so how do you move dressed mannequins?) and how objects are X-rayed to find out what it going on underneath the surface.

“When you see an object displayed in a glass case you don’t tend to think about the many people involved in getting it to that stage.”

She explained that the six-part series looks at maintenance on a grand scale at the museum, such as “routine” cleaning:

“These routines aren’t like those we might do at home, such as dusting the huge Chihuly chandelier which hangs under the dome in the museum’s main entrance.”

Viewers will see objects of many dates, from Beatles films to a medieval ring, from a customised car to a tiny portrait made in the eighteenth-century.

Dr Taylor’s passion for history began when as a schoolgirl she visited the V&A and saw the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (which feature in the interactive quiz the OU has produced to go with the series).

Leon Wainwright, reader in art history, said the series shines a light on more than the museum’s artefacts:

“The series offers a rare insight into what drives curators, conservators, technicians and archivists; what guides and excites them; what terrifies or perplexes them; what struggles they experience with the materials that they keep and care for, with the built spaces they occupy, with the tools and means at their disposal.”

In all of this the attention of staff is steadily on the public they serve. Viewers will find the swan on water analogy – paddling away like crazy under the surface – surely applies. The series might lead some viewers to consider careers in the museum, arts and heritage sector and so study art history in more depth.  

The scope: The series cleverly puts the conservation challenges for these on a continuum with those of cleaning rare casts of architectural sculpture from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, or finding display solutions for one of the first items ever placed in the V&A collection, a writing case from India.     

The OU’s OpenLearn has extensive content in connection with the series subject areas; watch the V&A’s skilled curators share an exclusive behind the scenes perspective of life at the museum and try your hand at curating priceless artefacts yourself.

BA (Honours) Arts and Humanities (R14)

BA (Honours) Art History and Visual Cultures (R27)

And modules:

Exploring Art & Visual Culture (A226)

Art and its global histories (A344)

Cultures (A112)

The series was commissioned for the University by Dr Caroline Ogilvie Broadcast and Partnerships. The OU Nominated Academics are Dr Clare Taylor and Dr Leon Wainwright, and the Media Fellow is Dr Joanna Paul. Broadcast Project Manager is Mathew Ray

Digital Content Producer: Georgia Axtell-Powell

About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She is doing an MA in Philosophy with The Open University; she focuses on FASS stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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