Friday, March 27, 2015

Antarctic Matters

The heroic era of Antarctic exploration which ran from 1899 to the middle of the First War is the period which most captures our imagination, through the extraordinary exploits of, in particular, Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. There was then a lull in exploration proceedings, with only one expedition between the wars, the British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37. On that was a young Cambridge graduate, Lancelot Fleming, who after a stellar Antarctic career including becoming director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, turned his collar round (as my father would say) eventually becoming Dean of St George's Windsor and knighted by the Queen. I met him in his latter years, a distinguished tall and charming man who bothered to engage with a scruffy teenager (me).

Fleming was highly influential in encouraging Vivian Fuchs, better known as Bunny Fuchs, to lead the first major post war expedition, the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957-58. Forty years after Shackleton had tried to cross Antarctica and failed when the Endurance broke up in the Weddell Sea, the expedition's idea was to travel the 2000 miles across the continent via the South Pole.

As Fuchs needed a base on the far side of the continent from which food and fuel depots could be laid for him, he approached the New Zealand government for help. As that year was also the International Geophysical Year which brought together countries from around the world to carry out coordinated research in a number of the physical sciences, New Zealand warmed to the idea and appointed Sir Edmund Hillary, he of recent Everest conquest, to lead their part of the expedition.

The story of that expedition, its highs and lows, its risks and personality clashes is beautifully told in Stephen Haddelsey's 'Shackleton's Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica'. It's a great yarn, the two different styles of leadership illustrated by the form of transport used, Fuchs with his snow cats and Hillary with his converted Ferguson farm tractors. Visit the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand if you want to see surviving examples of both.

 Fuchs' Snowcats

Hillary's Ferguson Tractors

Anyway, this is all a preamble to an event which I was lucky enough to attend in Parliament House, Wellington last week at which the Antarctic Heritage Trust's Conservation Plan for the surviving hut that was built as part of that expedition was launched by the Prime Minister, John Key. Known variously as Hillary's Hut, the TAE (Trans Antarctic Expedition) Hut and the IGY (International Geophysical Year) Hut, it was the first building at Scott Base. The Plan was authored by Chris Cochrane, and I have been part of a peer review, so it was very special to talk to key men in the original construction, including Randall Heke who physically built it, Bill Cranfield who was on the expedition, and Hillary's widow, June. The hut marked the beginning of New Zealand's major contribution to Antarctic exploration and science, of which they are very justifiably proud.

Hillary's Hut at Scott Base

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Museum Effect and where technology fits in (or doesn't)

The American Alliance for Museums (AAM) has recently initiated a great chat site known as Museum Junction, which is continually throwing up useful information. One recent discussion was on museological books, and I was drawn to a contributor identifying The Museum Effect by Jeffrey K. Smith as being his best read of the year. Subtitled 'How Museums, Libraries and Cultural Institutions Educate and Civilise Society', it sounded like an interesting book.

And it delivers what it promises, albeit from a strongly art gallery focus, which is where the author's experience lies. I have a few gripes with its content and style, one being I don't see how the process of viewing art (described as 'The 'Right' way to look at art') can be discussed without reference in either the text or the chapter references to Kenneth Clark (see my blog on 'How to look at art' from September 2009) especially as the process described is exactly what Clark proscribed. Another is that two images turn up twice, one being a full page in each instance, which smacks to me of page filling.

However, having got that off my chest, two particular issues struck a chord with me. The first is the extensive discussion on visitor surveys, how to construct and run them, and what to make of the data they provide. This builds off the direct and extensive experience of the author whilst working at the Met, but it cites various case studies at other organisations as well - all very useful stuff for those in the business of such.

The second is the chapter on media available to present information to visitors. There is discussion on the options both current and future, including labels and wall text, audio tours, in-person tours, reading rooms and catalogues, and off-site website access. Finally there is mention of what are described as 'video tours'. The potential delivery technology for such is not mentioned, whether it is NFC, QR codes, or RFID readers, nor the vehicle for such whether they be smartphones, Google Glass, iPads, or even 3D visuals delivered through Nintendo game consoles, as is the case at the Louvre.

As I read I had pause to reflect that here was an expert writing from within one of the great art museums of the world, and making a very pertinent point "Do we really want to draw the attention of the visitor away from the work of art... with a video screen in competition with oil on wood or gouache on paper?"

Good point, Jeffery K. Smith, and for me as one who has long espoused the virtues of technology for enhancing the visitor experience, it is a salutary one.

Monday, February 2, 2015

British Museum conservation

The new British Museum conservation labs have been the talk of the profession since they opened late last year, so I was pleased to have a tour of them with Dr Anna Buelow, the acting head of conservation, two weeks ago.  

The raw data is that the BM has built a new £135 million facility known as the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre, which brings together all their conservation labs into one building over 18,000 square metres along with the Museum's exhibition operations and a new exhibition space.

A full description can be found in the latest News in Conservation, the free publication of IICso I will not dwell on the detail, but rather pick up my takeaways from the visit:
  • First and foremost is the flexibility that has been achieved. It seems to have become a key buzz word in the planning process, and it has resulted in spaces that can be almost infinitely reconfigured to suit the requirements of the objects being worked on. This is helped by almost all staff (some 80 at present) hot desking, thus ensuring it is easy for staff to relocate to another space that may suit the treatment better.
  • Alongside this flexibility is the benefits that have come from bringing all the disciplines under one roof, and encouraging cross disciplinary use of spaces. Thus, textiles and paper now share a wet space, which is not only more efficient but ensures the two sections work closely together in their planning. This process of cross disciplinary collaboration is further aided by a central break out area with comfy chairs, where for the first time in living memory all the departments can get together socially. 
  • And just as this brings about efficiencies of operations, so also ease of access has been massively increased. Previously any large objects had to be brought into the labs through the exhibition halls, thus meaning it had to be undertaken out of hours. Now with dedicated loading dock access (including the largest truck lift in Europe), all this movement can take place during normal hours.
  • Finally, what particularly struck me is that the labs are not full of sparkling new state of the art equipment, not that they don't present very smartly. The money has been spent more subtly on flexible furniture (see above) and quality finishes, such as beautiful polished concrete floors in the sculpture labs with much of the tried and tested equipment brought from the old labs.
Well done to the BM - Seven years of planning has produced a model to us all on how to develop a conservation facility for current times.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In defence of Egyptian conservators

Reading about the botched beard reattachment job on King Tut in the London Times on Friday, I had my doubts as to whether this was really the work of my conservator colleagues in Egypt. So I am glad to read in today’s Art Daily that the director of the Egyptian Museum, Dr Mahmoud al-Helwagy has denied that conservators were involved, strongly defending them, saying “This is illogical and inconceivable. These are conservation workers, not carpenters.”

But let’s recap on what we do know of the story so far (which I suspect has some way to run yet). It appears that a maintenance worker noted a light was out in the glass case that houses King Tutankhamun’s funerary mask in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, which  just happens to be one of the great treasures of the world. In the process of removal, the case hit the mask and it almost fell off its pedestal, saved by a lunging curator who grabbed it in his arms. Unfortunately the lunge was just not quite delicate enough (such being the nature of lunges) and the beard fell off. I can’t imagine what language was used at the time but it would have been a jaw dropping moment for all involved.

Whereupon all hell clearly broke loose, the loudest voice being the one that yelled ‘pass me the epoxy quickly’. A hasty repair was executed and the beard was soon back in its rightful position. Two problems folks, however, arise. Number one is that, although epoxy is used in conservation, it is extremely difficult to reverse and should only be used when no other adhesive can take the strain and after much discussion around the proposed treatment. Secondly and more obviously, the repair is clearly crooked, which is what alerted the outside world to the problem in the first place.

How can this happen, you rightly ask? Well, firstly, accidents do happen - check out my blog post from February 2010 for a few examples. Secondly, involvement of non-conservators invariably spells disaster. Again, witness the story of our old friend Cecilia Giménez and her restoration of the face of Jesus in the Spanish church of Santuario de la Misericordia near Zaragoza (September 2012). 

And thirdly, this is not a unique example of such an experience. Some years ago, an Australian conservator friend of mine couriered a clay artefact to an exhibition in Europe, seeing it placed in position and the display case locked, before she set off for her hotel.  Returning the next day to the exhibition for a final look before she headed home, she was surprised to see the display case had been moved. Checking the artefact through the glass, she detected firstly a crack and then some excess glue on the surface. The sorry tale was soon revealed – the display case had to be moved after my friend left, the artefact fell over and broke in two in the process and a panicking curator applied some Supaglue to try and make good.

But don’t blame it on the conservators!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Conservation according to IIC

So a second week of international conservation conferences has just concluded with the IIC (International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) 2014 Biennial Congress in Hong Kong wrapping up on Friday. And the first thing to comment on is that two solid weeks of conferencing has in the end gone in a flash and not been as exhausting as I thought it would be, helped by the very different nature of ICOM-CC and IIC conferences and the different locations (Melbourne and Hong Kong). I noted that 24 conservators from  around the world attended both.

450 conservators attended IIC with, by my reckoning, about 50% of them Chinese speaking. That meant for a quality of dialogue I have never been exposed to in terms of exploring east vs west approaches to conservation (and for some occasional word mis-conversions by the translators, the best of which unfortunately cannot be repeated online!).

Takeaways for me from the papers were:
  • the extent of the cross over between craft skills and conservation in Chinese conservation projects.
  • the extraordinary richness of early Chinese textiles (11th Century and earlier) excavated from Tang, Han and Ming dynasty tombs and the challenges of their conservation.
  • the challenges of climate change in subtropical climates, where mould and increasing pest activity are requiring greater vigilance in collection care.
A great social program with receptions organised every night at respectively the Museum of Coastal Defence, the Heritage Museum, the British Consulate and the Asia Society. The highlight was the conference dinner on the Jumbo Floating Restaurant complete with a dotting the eyes on the lion ceremony and face mask magicians. Like all good conferences, the receptions are a key part of the show, as not only do conservators like to drink (in moderation of course), but it is where invariably I find the most useful networking is achieved.

However, the big news for IIC coming out of the conference was twofold. Firstly, we managed through a panel session to get agreement on the Environmental Guidelines we had drafted at the ICOM-CC conference. These have now been formally declared as a joint IIC / ICOM-CC position on environmental conditions and without a doubt moves us forward in this complex area. The next stage is to build on this declaration to provide more specific details.

Secondly, and somewhat unexpectedly, IIC ended up signing a MOU with the Palace Museum in Beijing to cooperate on a range of initiatives including a training program. How this came about was that the Director of the Palace Museum, Dr Jixiang Shan, was invited to give the Forbes Prize lecture, which is the Congress' equivalent of the key note address.  So impressed was Dr Shan by IIC and the congress that he delayed his flight back to Beijing to work through with us how such a relationship would work.

Although it is very early days, fundamentally this means that the good will and professional exchange that has been established with our South East Asian colleagues over the last week now has a mechanism by which this can be built upon.

Genuinely exciting times for conservation!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Conservation according to ICOM-CC

I'm in the midst of a busy fortnight of conferencing, having just completed a week in Melbourne at the ICOM-CC Triennial Conference and am now heading to Hong Kong for a further week at the IIC Biennial Conference. The (conference) stars of these two international conservation organisations only align every 6 years for obvious reasons, and for the first time the governing bodies of each have tried to bring them into the same part of the world and to run them in successive weeks. Whether that really works I shall tell you in a week's time!

But I can report on the conservation world according to ICOM-CC or to give its full title, International Council for Museums Committee for Conservation. 650 conservators met in Melbourne with what appeared to be a good spread from around the world, except for Asia, which I hope will be rectified in Hong Kong. The format of ICOM-CC conferences is based around working groups (covering everything from paintings and metals to preventive conservation and education). So, after initial formalities, the week quickly broke up into concurrent sessions of the working groups.

What therefore works wonderfully for me as a self proclaimed generalist (though many years ago I do remember I was a furniture conservator) is the opportunity to graze across working groups, cherry picking issues of interest to me, whilst also trying to ensure I am broadly up to date with what the various conservation disciplines are engaged in.

My highlights were:

  • Two separate papers on Mark Rothko's Untitled (black on maroon) 1958. This was the story of how a painting famously graffiti tagged at the Tate in 2010 was conserved. The first paper was about the analysis of the graffiti paint and the damage it caused, a tour de force in technical examination and research, and the second about its physical removal, a tour de force in patience, not least because the conservator had a time lapse camera on her throughout the nine months that treatment took. 
  • The story of how English Heritage in the face of massive financial and staff cutbacks delivered a new archaeological and architectural elements store that has transformed the quality of storage and access, for about a third of the original budget. A classic example of how necessity can breed innovative thinking.
My broader takeaways were:
  • Our understanding of the cause and effects of mould and dust on objects is getting deeper.
  • Research into contemporary artists' methodologies continues to be a vital tool in informing treatments.
  • Assessing and prioritising the conservation needs of collections has now a number of practical and tested models.
Get hold of the conference preprints if you can, as they contain a vast amount of information on where conservation research and treatment in all their forms are at.

What I can also report is that we made some solid progress in advancing the environmental guidelines for museums debate, through a workshop the day before the conference and a plenary session during the conference. At the former I facilitated a series of discussions between Australian conservators and museum directors, and at the latter we developed a draft position statement on this complex issue. That statement now goes forward to the IIC conference for further debate, the aim being to establish a joint ICOM-CC / IIC position. I will blog further on the details at the end of next week.

Until then, it's Hong Kong here we come.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

War matters

Gazing out on the incomparable Austrian Tyrol landscape from Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden two weeks ago focused my mind on what was planned there. The Eagle's Nest is part of the former health resort that was converted into the "Fuhrersperrgebeit" or "Fuhrer's off-limits area", which in the end became a second seat of power alongside Berlin for Hitler and his cronies. The Eagle’s Nest itself was a 50th birthday present from Martin Bormann to Hitler in 1939, and remains the only relic of this large area in OberSalzburg, which centred around the Berghof, Hitler’s country retreat. The Berghof itself was bombed at the end of the war and then the ruins razed to the ground when the area was finally handed back to the state of Bavaria in 1952 to avoid it becoming a centre for neo-Nazi activity. Rather incongruously an Inter Continental Hotel now stands on the site of the Berghof. Up on the mountain above it, the Eagle’s Nest remains unscathed apart from missing chips of marble taken by allied troops as mementoes from the vast fireplace that Goering had given Hitler.

The US army were first to the site on 10th May 1945, 11 days after Hitler’s death in the Berlin bunker, and found amongst other things a collection of burnt paintings. Why they had been burnt and whether they were destined for Hitler’s proposed Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria is unclear. I blogged in March about the work of the Monuments Men in saving the looted art treasures of Europe, and I am looking forward to revisiting the issue again when I am part of a panel discussion at the Australian National Maritime Museum this Friday as part of the launch of the DVD of the film.

The War was of course a world one, and its tentacles reached all the way to Australia. We are currently working on the conservation of an air raid shelter sign at Sydney’s Town Hall station, reflecting how concerned the population was that Sydney would be bombed.

You don’t need to scratch the surface very hard to find more evidence - I came across another sign in a back corridor of the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo only last week, which reads 'A.R.P' standing for Air Raid Precautions.

There is a great summary of how Sydney responded to the threat of invasion at

Thursday, August 21, 2014

World War One Museum Commemorations

Simon Jenkins made his name as a journalist, most recently with the Guardian, but in heritage circles we know him as a highly successful chairman of the English National Trust from 2008 until earlier this year, and also as a 21st century Pevsner with his great books on English architecture, most notably England's Thousand Best Churches.

So when Jenkins writes in the Guardian saying 1914: the Great War has become a nightly pornography of violence, it is worth reading. He goes onto say 'Britain's commemoration of the Great War has lost all sense of proportion. It has become a media theme park, an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie'.

Great stuff, and blogging this from the UK , there is certainly no escaping the commemorations (not to mention the 'stay calm and carry on' World War Two slogan which is in serious danger of being completely overused). So I was keen to see the highly acclaimed new World War One gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Firstly, whatever Jenkins may think, there is no escaping the public interest. I had a four hour wait for timed entry into the exhibition, and the Museum was heaving with people. 

Secondly, it is a great exhibition on a subject I thought I knew a lot about, but came away knowing a great deal more. For instance, I didn't know that prior to the War the UK was producing nearly 80% of the world 's battleships, or that when Kitchener called for volunteers in 1915, he hoped for 100,000 and got 750,000, or that the Germans very nearly won the war in early 1918.

Thirdly, it is well designed with clear graphics and text, with content often repeated on other panels in slightly different ways, so one does not feel one has to read everything (impossible anyway given the crowds).

And finally, it has some really great objects. As often happens the mundane ones are the most powerful, a particularly striking one being an infantry officer's jacket with the left arm blown off. Explore the rest of that great museum if you make it there, the jacket having a parallel with a backpack that a soldier placed over a home made bomb in Afghanistan three years ago, when he hurled himself and said backpack on the bomb to save his comrades. Amazingly he escaped with bruising as his flack jacket was inside. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, but his back pack did not fare so well.

November 2014 sees the opening of the World War One galleries at the Australian War Memorial. From what I hear, they will rival those in London.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Context and Cragside

A constant challenge for house museum interpretation is contextualising the building and its contents. We all know how stories bring places alive, and the reality is that some house museums have more going for them in this space than others.

Cragside near Morpeth in Northumberland is one such house, and a recent visit confirmed what a sterling job the National Trust are doing with it. And what a story it has to tell. The owner, Sir William, later 1st Lord, Armstrong (1810 - 1900) was one of those great Victorian industrialists and engineers who brought Britain to world pre-eminence by the end of the 19th century. Famous for an ability to so immerse himself in solving a problem that his colleagues would wonder if he was still alive (note to self: must remember to try this in boring meetings), he would emerge from his trance with another mechanical solution.

Generally this was applied, as far as I could see, to building battleships for the Japanese at his shipyard in Newcastle. But with the fortune this provided him with, he set to in a remote part of Northumberland to build Cragside with the architect Richard Norman Shaw.

There he included every gadget he could think of to invent, from running hot and cold water (unheard of at the time!), to an hydraulic lift, an automatic spit for meat in front of the fire (every home should have one) to electric light powered by a hydro-electric power plant, the first in the world.

He even convinced the Prince and Princess of Wales to come and stay to savour these delights, building onto the house to accommodate their visit including the most humongous fireplace known to man.