The conservator took measurements

November 3, 2010

The object list was approved in July, by which time the design of the show cases was more or less in place. As the installation of the exhibition will happen on an unusually tight schedule, it was imperative that every aspect of the design be planned for in detail prior to the arrival of the exhibits. Therefore the V&A conservator Sam Gatley made a trip to the Palace Museum. The following is an account of her five-day sojourn in Beijing.

Walking into the grounds of the Forbidden City for the first time was quite an extraordinary experience. Firstly you are hit by the shear scale of the courts, the colourful elegance to the pagodas and then by the quality of detailed craftsmanship in every corner of the complex – from the intricate designs on a stone walkway to the perfectly formed gilded lions that stand outside the Palace of Tranquillity. Every vista was capable of transfixing me in awe, and so large! I later learned that staff members are dependant on bicycles to get around the grounds!

           Visitors inside the Forbidden City

I arrived at the Palace Museum on a Monday morning where I was greeted by the Head of Exhibition who was to be my translator for the day (my Chinese isn’t up to much). Having then been introduced to their curators and keeper of collections the methodical work of laying out each robe for inspection and measuring began. Laying large sheets of tissue paper on top of each object and then very carefully tracing the edge of the garment made patterns of each robe. The point of fastenings and the shape of each neck hole opening were also marked onto the paper.

          Palace Museum curator tracing pattern

Accuracy in this task was paramount, as the patterns would be used to enable Textile Conservation and the installation team at the V&A to prepare support mounts for each robe in advance of their arrival in London. The preparation of acrylic sheet and Plastazote mounts for each garment is essential for two reasons. The robes would largely be displayed on T-bar stands, the mount beneath the garment would give the whole area of the robe a surface to lie against thereby reducing strain on the textile and preventing creasing. Secondly, a well-fitting mount would hold the A-line shaped robes open, allowing the visitor to fully appreciate the magnificent quality and detail of the embroidery intrinsic to each garment.

Four of the robes will be exhibited on mannequin stands, in which cases the patterns corresponding to the robes were used to produce textile toiles – replicas that enable us to try the basic shape of the garment onto the mannequin. That way a good fit and correct level of support for the original textiles is ensured.

In addition to the robes there are a number of jackets, trousers and leggings, plus accessories such as hats, boots and jewellery. Where it was not possible to produce patterns of these items, measurements were taken to allow internal supports to be produced by the V&A team.

          V&A conservator making support mount

We are now close to completing all the support mounts needed in preparation for the arrival of the beautiful and astonishingly well-preserved artefacts from the Palace Museum. I very much look forward to finally seeing them grouped together in an exhibition that promises to give an insight into the extraordinary world of the Forbidden City, and the emperors, empresses and imperial concubines who once lived there.

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