The time has come to install the Blue and White display!
Last week we said goodbye to the previous Gallery 146 show of Simon Carroll’s work, which has now been shipped off to the Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales. This has left the gallery empty and ready for us to start creating a mesmerising world of Blue and White.
Before starting this magical process, we firstly had to undertake the rather un-magical task of cleaning all the display cases. Who said the life of a curator was glamorous? Even if the cases don’t look particularly dirty, we clean them in between each exhibition to make sure no dust gets onto the new objects going inside. This also means visitors can see the objects and labels clearly, without looking through someone else’s finger smudges! (It’s surprising how many people also put their noses up against the glass… Perhaps they are conducting a survey of the smelliest museum objects?)
Armed with cloths, stepladders and bottles of glass cleaner, we set out to give Gallery 146 a good spring clean. However, this seemingly simple task was met with a big hiccup when we realised we couldn’t reach far enough to clean all the surfaces in the freestanding cases. Annoyingly this was where most of the dust and smudges lived, gloriously illuminated by rays of sun shining through the windows. Luckily Rebecca Wallis, curator of the display, had just the answer: the SQUEEGEE. As well as being the best word I’ve learnt in 2015, the ‘squeegee’ was our saviour. Our new extendable arm allowed us to reach far and wide and after 3 days of squeegeeing the cases to within an inch of their lives, they were clean and ready to go. (Please don’t tell us we missed a bit, we beg you).
As well as using lots of great ceramic objects from our own collection, the display also features objects loaned from the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, the Spode Museum Trust and the Wedgwood Museum, as well as a number of contemporary works loaned by artists. These objects travelled from around the UK to the V&A last week, so the next thing to do was check that they had arrived safe and sound!
We inspected the objects to make sure no new damage had occurred and took photos for our records. It was great to see them up close for the first time, instead of the cardboard cut-outs used in the mock-ups, and it was the first time curator Rebecca Wallis had seen them in nearly a year since choosing them for the display. Melting teapots by Livia Marin, a large ceramic garden seat from Spode, and a Wedgwood plate commemorating the coronation (which never happened) of King Edward VIII, were just some of the unusual objects we unpacked from the transit store.
Thankfully everything had survived the journey – a curator’s worst nightmare of opening a box to find a tragic pile of smashed ceramic fragments hadn’t come true. Needless to say we resisted testing how comfortable the Spode garden seat was. This may well have produced exactly that nightmare (see below for hypothetical reconstruction), and we always try to handle objects in the safest way possible. Most of the time this means going against all natural impulses and how they were designed to be used e.g not picking up a teapot or cup by the handle.
It did make me wonder who the last person to plonk their bottom on the garden seat actually was though… A respectable 19th century lady trying to sit elegantly without her petticoats and skirts getting in the way? Or did it pass down generations to a hot summer in the 70s, when a moustachioed man clad in brown flared trousers sat and took a break from his smoky BBQ as the funky beats of the Jackson 5 played over the radio? The answer is probably neither. Particularly as I have since done some high level investigative work, and found out who it was! None other than Robert Copeland in 1986, and there is even evidence to prove it (see below). Robert Copeland was the great-great-grandson of William Copeland, who joined the Spode partnership in the early 19th century, and many objects now in the Spode Museum’s collection were assembled by the Copeland family in the 1920s and 1950s. Still, even with the mystery solved, I don’t think we can discount the possibility that Robert was listening to the Jackson 5 when this photo was taken…
Moving on from condition checking objects and day-dreaming about unlikely scenarios for the garden seat, the next thing to do was install new labels in the cases. Each object and theme have descriptive labels which tell us more about the different ways that blue-and-white printed ceramics have been produced and used in Britain over the years. Below you can see Phil and Keith, the dynamic duo who print and install labels throughout the museum.
So with the labels in, the first week of installation preparation was complete. It goes without saying that you must come along to Gallery 146 when the show opens on January 31st, to see some of the V&A’s finest treasures: the most dazzling, sparkly, cleanest display cases in the whole museum. And if you have time, the objects inside them will be quite nice too! For more on those stay tuned for Installation Part 2, coming soon…