Monday, February 14, 2011

Conservation in troubled areas

As a conservator by training, I cannot help but take interest in heritage events where conservators are involved, particularly where our work is part of a bigger story. The following is a recent selection.

I blogged last year about the Cyrus Cylinder, and ruminated at the time that I could understand the hesitancy the British Museum was showing in sending such a treasure to Iran, and that the reasons given (more research required) were probably a spurious front. I now discover from my British Museum friends, and as reported in The Art Newspaper, that the real reason was that a fragment of the cylinder belongs to Yale University and was on long term loan to the BM. It was deemed prudent to remove the Yale fragment before sending it to Tehran.

However the removal by the BM’s conservators and other conservation work resulted in the Cylinder looking different at the ends, resulting in rumours in Iran that the BM had sent a replica. Not a good look and one that had to be strenuously denied by the BM’s trustees. But all’s well that ends well and the relationship with the National Museum of Iran is so good (and the exhibition has been so popular - 200,000 visitors to date) that the loan has been extended from January to April.

Further south in another trouble spot, Egypt, we are holding our breath that the great Egyptian museums do not suffer the same fate as the National Museum in Iraq, looted as the Americans moved in.

There have been a couple of statements made on the threat to Egypt’s invaluable cultural heritage by Blue Shield, UNESCO, and The Hindu in Delhi has picked up on the issue as part of wider story on challenges confronting Indian museums. In their words, ‘ordinary members of the Egyptian community’ have been standing guard at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to prevent protestors from looting the treasures inside.

Not quite sure how successful they have been, as The Art Newspaper reported on 31st January that looters had got into the Egyptian Museum, ransacked the shop and managed to get into the Tutankhamen galleries, where they turned over some vitrines looking for antique jewellery, decapitating a couple of mummies in the process. Luckily the gold mask was in another gallery and was not reached before the army turned up. However, there is news today (14th February) on ABC Radio of further looting including the loss of a gold statue of Tutankhamen.

And finally a bit closer to home, conservators have been doing a great job assisting Queensland get to grips with cleaning up after the disastrous floods, which were followed by Cyclone Yasi. The biggest collection of historic photos, negatives and cameras in Queensland, owned by Sandy Barrie in Ipswich, went under the water and now there's a huge project underway to try to save what can be saved. Conservators are under pressure to work fast to stop mould and fungus getting into the collection on top of the mud and water, and to date over 200 hours of volunteer hours by both public and private conservators has been put in to stabilise it. Although the damage to collections held by the state museums was minimal, sadly the full extent of loss to smaller local and privately owned collections is only now becoming apparent.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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