Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mr Archibald and his fountain

We are conserving the Archibald Fountain in Sydney’s Hyde Park North at present. It’s quite a privilege as it is widely regarded as the finest fountain in Australia. It’s full title is the J. F. Archibald Memorial Fountain, and it was unveiled on 14th March 1932 by Sydney’s Lord Mayor Samuel Walder, just five days before the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Mr J.F. Archibald, the founding editor of the Bulletin, after whom the Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald portrait prize is also named, bequeathed the funds necessary to build the fountain, with one specific request – the fountain had to be designed by a French artist. Archibald had a great love of French culture, and wanted the fountain to commemorate the association of Australia and France during World War One.

The French artist François-Léon Sicard was chosen to design the fountain. Sicard was one of the foremost sculptors of his day but had never been to Sydney, so had to work with photographs and sketches of the proposed site. He chose a number of classical themes to celebrate the French-Australian liaison. Atop the fountain is Apollo giving life to nature, with the three side piers containing respectively Diana, Goddess of Hunting bringing harmony to the world, Pan watching over the fields (see photo below of his wonderful head) and the powerful figure of Theseus conquering the Minotaur, symbolising sacrifice for the common good (see photo below of all that rippling muscle).

The story from concept to completion was not an entirely easy one. Archibald’s bequest required the funds set aside for the sculpture to be held for seven years after his death in 1919 before it could be touched, by which time it had grown to the considerable sum of  £17,000. The sculpture was commissioned and completed in Paris in 1926, but upon arrival in Australia £675 of customs duty was assessed as payable. By this time however the funds from the bequest were exhausted and for three years the sculpture sat in packing cases, whilst bureaucratic madness reigned, until finally the Federal government stepped in and waived the duty, allowing the fountain’s opening to proceed in March 1932. Sadly M Sicard never visited Sydney to see his masterpiece in position.

The current conservation work being undertaken for the City of Sydney involves the careful cleaning of all the elements, the waxing of the bronze figures and the repointing of the granite base and surround. We are happy to report that the fountain is in good shape. The waxing helps to not only bring up the colour of the bronze, but more importantly to protect the surface from the corrosion that results from traffic pollution and salt in the sea air. However, in time the wax breaks down so these regular visits (every five years or so) ensure M Sicard’s work continues to delight both Sydneysiders and visitors alike.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Vale Ian Waterhouse

Eryldene, that little gem of an historic house in Gordon on the upper North Shore of Sydney, recently lost its last direct contact with the family who built it, with the death of Ian Waterhouse.

Ian, who was in his 90s, was the last surviving of the four sons of Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and his wife Janet.  E.G. Waterhouse, as he was known, commissioned Hardy Wilson to design Eryldene in the Greek Revival style at a time when such architecture was not in favour, and together with its pavilions and world famous camellia gardens they created what Peter Watts (ex director of the Historic Houses Trust  of NSW) has described as ' the most exquisite house in Australia'.

Despite the house having three bedrooms, the four boys were brought up sleeping on the enclosed verandas whether in summer or winter, as various relatives came to live with the family long term.

Ian told me that the each boy had a drawer for their clothes in their parent’s bedroom and a box for their toys in the study - a far cry from today's child's material possessions!
Ian had a distinguished career as an academic specialising in pyscho analysis and as one of the founding professors of Macquarie University.  He was a delightful man with a quick wit and a warm smile for everyone. His stories about growing up at Eryldene provided that primary resource which is invaluable in understanding any historic house and its context.

One great story particularly stands out for me. In 1934 his father, by this time professor of German at Sydney University,  took a sabbatical and travelled to Europe. There he met with Mussolini through a link engineered by the Italian consul general in Sydney and had a good old natter with Il Duce in Italian about the merits of the leader's beautification of Rome then underway, and the fact that all the trains now ran on time.

From there he travelled to Berlin, and amazingly managed to snare a meeting with Hitler, based on the premise that Hitler (as with Mussolini) was interested in how his native language was being taught overseas. Bear in mind that this was 1934.

Anyway between the appointment being made and the appointment itself, the Night of the Long Knives occurred and Waterhouse was sure his meeting would be cancelled as the country was in turmoil.  However, he received notification that Hitler would still meet him and headed off through endless security points to meet the Fuhrer. He found Hitler looking exhausted and (he suspected) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After some initial chit chat about Waterhouse’s work at Sydney University, Hitler launched into a tirade against the international media’s criticism of his recent handling of events.
Waterhouse replied in forthright fashion with words to the effect that if he, Hitler, went around executing opponents without trial, then he is likely to be criticised. Whereupon Hitler let fly about how he alone had saved Germany from civil war and  why didn’t the world understand. A ranting Hitler foaming at the mouth whilst sitting next to Waterhouse on a sofa was clearly a highly discomforting experience, with Waterhouse remarking that not only did he end up sweating profusely but that he also concluded he  was in the presence of a madman.

Great stuff and what an experience to have anchored back to Eryldene, where no doubt the story was told to many a guest around the Waterhouse dining table. As so often it is the stories around these historic houses that bring them to life, rather than their physical elements.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Environmental Guidelines - Directorial interest at last

Arriving at the Museums Australia annual conference in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be greeted by the news that CAMD (the Council of Australian Museum Directors) had the day before agreed to put sustainability as a priority action item for their next period of operation.  As Andrew Sayers, the soon to depart Director of the National Museum of Australia, summed it up in an article in the Canberra Times;

The costs of maintaining collections are rising dramatically and museums worldwide are sharing ideas about how to make operations more cost effective. When I began working in art museums 30 years ago, it was a matter of pride for museum managers to maintain temperature and humidity settings within very narrow bands of variation all day, all year. Nowadays we recognise such conditions come at considerable environmental cost. The profession is looking, with some urgency, at ways of achieving acceptable conditions without the giant carbon footprints.

Read more here.
We, who have been talking this talk for the last few years, have always known that the key to moving forward was to get the museum and gallery directors on board with the issue. Some have been there for a while, witness Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, at the IIC Climate Dialogue in London in 2008 saying he had no problem asking visitors to wear overcoats in winter rather than turn the heating up. Or these acerbic comments (and backhand slap to conservators) from Maxwell Anderson, formerly director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and now director of the Dallas Museum of Art, when he said this:
Throughout their history, art museums have spawned and fostered a subculture indifferent to developments in the world at large. Our ocean liner-like art galleries are slow to change course even in the face of evidence demanding it. A critical illustration of this habit is the rigid formula arrived at long ago that prescribes the set points of relative humidity and temperature in our museums.
It remains an unshakable conviction for most conservators and administrators that unless a museum can guarantee lenders that its interior climate is 20 degrees celsius and 50 per cent relative humidity (with an allowance for minor fluctuations), it has no business asking for loans, and cannot be trusted with its own collection. That conviction informs many facets of a museum’s operations beyond the cost, including how art is borrowed, lent, shipped, installed and stored.
I was then quoted in The Australian the week following the Conference on the issue, which you can read about here.

There is at last traction in this space, but as I wrote about in my previous blog on this issue, there are going to be no easy answers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Photography in Museums

I was sent this image by a colleague in the UK, questioning whether this is a standard Aussie museum greeting. It's so bad that I thought initially it must be a set up. I hope it is, but next time I am in Parramatta I shall check it out.

It does however raise the ongoing issue of whether or not to allow photography in museums. This is being discussed at present on various professional forums and is the subject of a specialist article in the latest edition of the UK  Museums Journal ( December 2012) The standard response in the past has been a no-no particularly in art galleries, for two basic reasons:

1) that the high lux level of the camera flash significantly increases the rate of fading of artworks and

b) that the process of photographing an object is a disturbance to other visitors.

The reality in 2013 is that almost every visitor carries a camera with them in the form of a mobile phone. Moreover many visitors live in a world where the sharing and commenting on photos is almost as ubiquitous as the exchange of messages.  Museums are also increasingly using the technology of mobiles to allow access to further information, whether through QR codes, NFC ( near field communication) , or visual recognition ( see the Getty's experience of this).  All require the phone camera to be offered up to the object or associated label, so how is a poor gallery attendant going to work out whether an actual photo is being taken.

Added to this , the UK National Gallery has studied the fading effects of flash, and has concluded it is absolutely minimal, needing millions of flash events before any damage can be detected.

On top of this a recent UK Museums Association survey that showed 83% of museum staff believe visitors should be allowed to take photos, as it actively helps engagement, and by the sharing of images through Instagram and Pinterest can be used as part of a marketing strategy.

So it seems the only sensible thing to do is to work out how to maximise the benefit to the museum, and actively encourage it.

Two words of caution however. One is to watch out for copyright issues, particularly when allowing photography of loan items - many museums are advising that such objects cannot be photographed for this reason. The other is to ask visitors to turn their flash function off, so as to limit the disturbance to other visitors.