Before the exhibition opened today I visited the gallery to see important conservation maintenance work going on. Costumes on open display need to have accumulated dust particulates removed. London is a dusty city: the Museum is located on a main road with heavy traffic and at present road works causing chaos in both Cromwell and Exhibition Roads. Inevitably the dust creeps into the galleries. There are also the inevitable particulates brought in by our visitors.
The question about whether costumes may be put on open display or cased is one taken very seriously by the V&A and throughout the Diaghilev exhibition dust levels are being closely monitored so that we become more effective at managing the problem. Susana tells me that the acrylic barriers in front of Chout and Sadko have really helped to reduce dust settling on the costumes, as has displaying costumes one metre away from visitors. The one metre gap is there for more than just a dust prevention measure, but also to impede the costumes being touched in a moment of excitement!Over the first month of the exhibition it has become clear that the accumulation of dust is greater and more in evidence on those groups of costumes closest to the AVs as visitors congregate to watch them.
To clean the costumes Susana uses a soft Japanese sable brush to gently brush any surface dust towards the nozzle of a small museum-grade vacuum cleaner. This cleaning will be done twice during the exhibition with more thorough cleaning before each costume is packed after the exhibition closes.
It is not only the costumes that need cleaning. As Susana worked on the costumes Keith was dusting the folds of the black backing cloth at the base of the two cloths where dust inevitably gathers. With the aid of a brush and vacuum cleaner he worked his way along the base of the Train bleu front cloth with the giantesses running above him. This is very particular job, and requires much care, as it is important to avoid disturbing the cloths as much as possible, in order to safe guard the delicate paint layers.