Behind the scenes at the V&A Museum


Kate Hay gives a glimpse into the life of an assistant curator


By Laura Wignall

In the midst of some of the most publicised and eagerly awaited exhibitions in recent months, I went backstage at the V&A to interview a highly experienced assistant curator and discover more about the demands of the role.

Currently, the major exhibition is The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, and in the fashion gallery, a very popular Wedding Dresses retrospective. It is part of the curator’s role at the V&A to come up with ideas for new exhibitions and put a proposal to the exhibitions committee.

William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain,was co-curated by the V&A alongside the Bard Graduate Centre in New York. This captures the responsibility of a curator; to provide access through exhibitions as well as conserving and protecting objects.

Kate Hay has been at the V&A as an assistant curator for almost 30 years.

“The V&A is a wonderful place to work.If you get a job here, you stay,” she said.

Kate is an Oxford graduate who, after five years in the civil service, decided instead to work in the field she was passionate about. She began her career in the Far Eastern department (now part of a larger Asia section) featuring Chinese and Japanese collections. Kate started out by helping with the photography of Chinese lacquer boxes.

She joined the Furniture department in 1991, now the Department of Furniture,Textiles and Fashion. Her roles and responsibilities have grown over the years. Kate used to handle long-term loans of furniture to other museums and galleries, but now she is managing the British Galleries in the musuem, among many other responsibilities.

The British Galleries, opened in 2001, are a major suite of 14 galleries over two floors.

“They are the flagship of the museum and internationally acclaimed,” said Kate proudly.

There is constant work to do to maintain a permanent gallery and they were the first major suite to be updated.

An important task is rotating displays of light sensitive material every three to five years, which Kate describes as a really fun part of her job as it includes working with colleagues from other departments.

Each object must work within the theme of the display which is quite a challenge,and often it is necessary to acquire a new object to display in another’s place.

The Europe Galleries are the next major project, which will be open to the public from December 10 2014. People across the museum will contribute towards it.

Kate explained that it is tough to get a job as a curator today.

“It is essential to have a background in History of Art. Many people who apply for graduate roles at the V&A have a Masters or even a PhD as well as practical experience,” she said.

If you are lucky enough to be taken on, it is no longer a permanent role – you embark on a five-year apprenticeship and can only stay if you are promoted.

Kate’s long career at the V&A testifies that if you were given the opportunity, you would not want to pass up the chance to work for such an inspiring institution.

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