V&A brings Japanese craftsmanship back to life for gallery reopening

Of the 550 pieces going on display in the new gallery, more than 400 needed conservation work, a project that has taken years of work by specialists in paper, metal, ceramics, lacquer, leather and textiles, a complex project coordinated by Victor Borges, senior sculpture conservator at the V&A. The lacquer pieces needed particular care, which senior furniture conservator Dana Melcher explained was unnerving for her team, because some of it went against a fundamental principle of modern western conservation practice, that all their work should be reversible. Many of the objects still look perfect to the naked eye, but under a magnifying glass minute fragments of gold leaf, mother of pearl, and gemstones in the decoration can be seen lifting and detaching. Not only is the traditional Japanese urushi lacquer derived from highly toxic tree sap – children of the traditional craftsmen are said to have been fed tiny quantities from babyhood to develop an immunity – but once applied and cured, it is irreversible and cannot be removed without destroying the object. Unlike painted surfaces, the lacquer also only sets at a high humidity level, so the treated objects have had to go into a vapour cabinet watched over by an anxious curator. Too much humidity and the gleaming surface will dull and spoil; too low and it will never set. Each piece finished and signed off has been a great relief to the team.

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