Monday, February 8, 2010

Conservators to the rescue – two losses and one find

We conservators generally achieve our five minutes of fame when one of three events happen – something priceless gets broken (can we fix it?), something valuable is found and needs conservation, and an artwork gets re-attributed whilst undergoing conservation (being no longer a Rembrandt, Monet etc or as a newly ‘found’ Rembrandt, Monet etc etc).

Well, my colleagues at the Met in New York have been in the media this week due to damage to Picasso’s The Actor. Apparently a visitor attending a class ‘lost her balance’ and ‘fell’ into the painting, tearing the canvas in (luckily) a background area in the lower right hand corner. The Museum’s painting conservators have come to the rescue and expect the repair can be achieved ‘unobtrusively’, which in technical parlance means you will have to look very closely to see any evidence of it.

It reminded me of the conservation in 2006 of the three Qing vases at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK. Amongst the Museum’s best known artefacts, they were comprehensively smashed also by a visitor (see below photo). One Nick Flynn apparently tripped on his shoelaces and fell down a staircase before crashing into the vases on a window sill (what IS WRONG with these people??). Rather bizarrely the Fitzwilliam’s response was that they were lucky that at least 9 million people had walked past them before they were broken! However once again conservators to the rescue, in this instance ceramics conservator Penny Bendall, who by all accounts did a fabulous job.
But to happier times, and hot off the presses (media release 5th Feb 2009) is news that conservators are going to work out how to thaw and preserve crates of Scotch whisky, which have been found in the ice under Shackleton’s Hut in Antarctica. This is part of a long term project conserving the huts and contents left behind by the early explorers, for which we have acted as technical advisers. We have known for a few months that the whisky was there, but it was only in the last couple of weeks that the team has been able to get access to the area and discover there are no less than five unopened crates, three of whisky and two of brandy (see photo below). Alcohol freezes at much lower temperatures than water so the sound of liquid sloshing around in these frozen crates is exciting, not to mention the strong aroma in the air during excavation suggesting that at least one bottle has broken. Quite what happens next is being debated, but it will be conservators that work out how to safely thaw them and possibly extract some of the whisky for sampling. But that is where the fun starts as the original whisky manufacturers , Whyte and Mackay , are truly excited about it , describing it as a gift from the heavens for whisky lovers. If the contents can be confirmed, safely extracted and analysed, the original blend may be able to be replicated. Given the original recipe no longer exists this may open a door into history being able to analyse the blend. For more on this, visit this blog.

All in a day’s work for conservators, we could justifiably say

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