Greek and Roman Gallery Project from January to March 2009
I came back to work in mid January, after presenting a paper at the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting in Philadelphia, and was just in time to see the final stage of the gallery clearing.
The old wooden cases which spanned the gap between the columns and the wall, and which have stood empty for months, were dismantled and taken away. The space is now empty and we are finally able to get an idea of how the new gallery design will work, leading people around the sides of the gallery instead of restricting them to the central channel with side bays. The gallery looks a lot clearer, but one of the downsides of removing the cases is that much of the lighting has disappeared. Since there are no ceiling lights, fluorescent tubes used to be mounted on top of the old display cases, and now that the cases have gone, there is nowhere to put the lights. In the new gallery design lights will again be mounted on the top of the new showcases, but in the meantime we are basically reliant on the winter sunlight from the huge windows on one side.
For me these three months have been spent in detailed planning of the objects to be included in each area of the gallery, both inside and outside the display cases. The heavy stone sculpture which stands on plinths or is mounted on screens against the wall was selected before Christmas, but now we need to agree the arrangement of these pieces. At this stage we also have to think about the practicalities of mounting each piece in its chosen location. Specialist companies will be asked to build the plinths, screens and large mounts to a number of models, but then the individual objects will have custom fixings and mounts made in-house by our technicians, Bob and Louise. See Bob's News below for examples of their solutions to mounting problems.
Lucilla and I are also working on lists of the objects which will go into the display cases (vases, bronze items, and small sculpture). We already have an idea of the time period each case will focus on, but now we need to think about the stories that can be told with the museum's collection. This is a difficult process because there are so many objects to choose from and we are in danger of over-crowding the cases - something Karl, the designer, is not happy about! As well as narrowing down the selection of pieces we are thinking about how they will be arranged within the case, and about the sort of information that will go with them. I find it easiest to actually 'mock up' sections of the case to make sure that pieces will fit. I'm using a case in the Cyprus gallery that we have emptied for this purpose, but we don't have any cases of exactly the right size, so it's not straightforward. And these trial runs are just for the cases that will go against walls. The freestanding cases in the centre of the gallery are even more difficult to imagine or mock up.
Deciding on the shelf arrangement and where the pieces will go is an important process, but more urgent is finalising the new design of the cases themselves, so that they can be sent out to tender to a number of showcase manufacturing companies. It is only when we have quotes from several companies that we can chose which company to work with and start the actual manufacture of the cases. Julie, Lucilla and I, together with Andor Vince (an HLF/ICON sponsored intern working on preventive conservation issues Museum-wide) have to think about the objects that are going into each case, and what environmental controls they need, so that the generic draft case-specifications prepared by Karl can be refined to reflect our specific needs. There are also practical issues, such as making sure the cases are large enough. Obviously, Lucilla and I would love to have large cases because there are so many objects we would like to display, but the case for the huge painted clay sarcophagus from Clazomenai (GR.7.1902) is one example where the object truly dictates the size of the case!
This is an ideal opportunity to make sure that our object records are correct and up to date. As you can imagine, with a vast number of objects that have arrived at the museum over a number of centuries, there is an ongoing process of updating records, and details are often missed. You may be familiar with the museum database OPAC, and notice that some individual objects do not have images or measurements. In late December Abigail Baker started as a volunteer, working with me one afternoon each week measuring and photographing the objects which will be part of the new display. This is a good introduction to the objects for her, and another set of hands for me.
At the end of January the regular Museum-wide meeting to decide what public events should be offered in the next print issue of 'What's On', which covers May to August, really brought it home to me how important it is to start planning publicity events immediately. In February Lucilla and Julie presented a public lunchtime talk on what has been happening so far "Behind the screens in the Greek and Roman galleries", but we are planning several more events to tell people about what we have been doing and why. This will include more lunchtime talks both from Christina and me, and from Mary Beard and Carrie Vout, our colleagues in Classics.
Find out details.
In January we started investigating a particular group of vases called white-ground lekythoi. This type of vase is associated with grave contexts and probably contained oil as an offering to the dead person. Although white-ground lekythoi are made from the same type of clay as the red and black Attic vases found elsewhere on this page, they are covered with a layer of white, kaolin-rich clay. This provides a pale ground layer that can be decorated either with a glossy clay slip or with pigments.
The white-ground lekythos above is decorated with several different fired clay slips. A slip is a fine layer of dilute clay that is painted onto a ceramic before firing. The details of the woman's arms and face show that these have been made from a so-called 'second white' - that is, a white slip. The second white on the lekythos above looks very different from the white background, so we will be investigating both of them to see how they differ in composition and manufacturing technology. Over the coming months, we will also be investigating some of the pigments used to decorate the Museum's white-ground lekythoi.
The photographs above show a type of vessel known as a glaux, after the Greek word for an owl. This particular glaux (GR.12.1955) had a partially-restored handle that now looked a bit crude and lumpy for display. The whole handle and surrounding area fluoresced blue/white in longwave UV, suggesting that the restored areas were more extensive than we had originally thought. When we investigated further, removing all the restoration paint, we discovered that the whole handle was a modern restoration that had been modelled in plaster, attached to the pot and then painted black. After removing this handle we discovered that part of the glaux underneath was missing and had been filled with a fired ceramic sherd. Restorations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes used fragments from real Greek pots that had been filed to the right size and shape and abraded to remove the original surface design. We have not yet finished investigating the sherd inserted into this glaux but when we have, it should be possible to see whether it is part of another Greek pot, or whether it is a modern ceramic piece that was made especially to fit into gap.
In January, we held a retouching workshop in the conservation lab, to explore different ways of dealing with losses on Greek pots. Lucy Wrapson, a paintings conservator from the Hamilton Kerr Institute, and Penny Bendall, the independent ceramics conservator who worked on the Fitzwilliam Museum's Chinese vases, joined conservators and technicans from the Museum in an all-day workshop devoted to theoretical and practical aspects of retouching (compensating for missing areas on an object or painted surface). In the morning, we had a discussion about approaches to retouching and it was interesting to hear how much practice varied between conservators from different disciplines. Paintings conservators tend to go much further than objects conservators when restoring losses because the completeness of the image is very important in a painting. It is common for losses in archaeological ceramics to be painted a single, sympathetic, 'neutral' colour that makes it clear where the restored areas are. However, we all felt that some Greek vases needed quite a high level of retouching because of the quality of their painted decoration. This is certainly going to be a topic that we continue to revisit over the next few months!
Lucy had brought in some of the materials that paintings conservators use for retouching losses in easel and panel paintings so we were able to try these out in the afternoon and see what effects could be achieved. Lucy and I had great fun making material to practise retouching on, including some mock Greek vases made from fragments of an old terracotta flowerpot!
Bob and Louise have been busy preparing some of the Greek and Roman heads for the new display. The heads were all mounted at different times and the mounts don't match each other. The plinths for the sculpture will be designed together with the rest of the gallery plinths to look the same, but Bob and Louise need to give the space between sculpture and plinth a uniform look. In the past metal dowels were secured in holes drilled into the broken underside of the heads. Bob and Louise have designed a metal 'collar' which hides the dowel and gives the heads a better support.
The process has several stages and here we show the whole process using a Roman head of Artemis GR.9.1865
Another problem they have had to solve is to replace some of the dowels which fix into the heads themselves. If we are lucky the heads were mounted on stainless steel dowels, but some very old dowels are made of cast iron which can rust and expand, damaging the sculpture. These have to be replaced, but the process must follow the best modern conservation practices. This means that no new holes can be made in the ancient sculpture and the dowel needs to be securely attached in a way that is fully reversible in the future.
Using a piece of modern marble with holes drilled into it, Bob and Louise have been experimenting to find the best method to do this.