Greek and Roman Gallery Project in August 2009
While many people were on their summer holidays, here at the Museum work on the gallery was gathering momentum. It is a year since the gallery was closed to the public and there is light at the end of the tunnel. The 'base-build' has been finished, and the electrics in the gallery have been replaced (including electrifying the window shutters, which previously needed to be cranked open and closed by hand every day). The whole gallery has been repainted, and the floor has been polished and protected. Now the work of installing cases and plinths can begin.
It might seem from my previous entries that most of our efforts have been concentrated on the showcases for the new gallery - choosing manufacturers, designing the cases and deciding object arrangements. However, the sculpture being displayed outside cases is equally important and we have also been hard at work on the plinth arrangements and mounting systems for these large objects. Each piece of sculpture has its own peculiarities, which means that each plinth needs to be tailor-made to a certain extent. For more about this see Louise's News below.
Back in May, MER Services was awarded the contract for manufacturing the plinths and related fixtures. Since late July, they have been making their own construction drawings, which are based on Karl's more impressionistic designs for plinths. Once approved, the 3-stage plinth construction process begins at their workshops in Stourbridge, near Birmingham. First, a steel frame is made, then it is clad in MDF before being finally covered in our choice of stone. MER are becoming adept at catering for our unusual requests and uncertain mounting information: some pieces have never yet been weighed, and others have modern restorations that must be investigated or removed before we can see what mounting system they need.
In mid August, our first objects were put in place in the gallery. Most of the ancient objects will only be mounted after the contractors and installers have left, but a few large pieces of sculpture do need to be put in their final location at this early stage (and then protected carefully!). Once all the plinths and showcases are fixed in place, it will be difficult to manoeuvre the largest pieces of sculpture - and in some cases there is simply no other room to store them.
The first objects to be mounted were two large Roman coffins (or sarcophagi) made of marble. Each has a highly polished, carved front and an uncarved back. One, GR.1.1835, is crowded with intricately carved figures and shows Dionysos, Greek god of wine, in procession with his followers the satyrs and maenads. This is known by us in the Museum as the 'Pashley Sarcophagus', named after the man who first published it (in 1837), Robert Pashley. The other, GR.46.1850, is decorated with a repeated, curved strigil pattern (so called because it looks like the marks left by a strigil, a metal instrument that athletes used to scrape off sweat and dirt), with an image of Dionysos in the centre. This is called the 'Strigil Sarcophagus' by us in the Museum. They are both beautiful pieces but they had been (literally) sidelined in the old gallery arrangement and were usually only glimpsed by visitors making their way through Greece and Rome on their way to the impressive coffin lid of Rameses III in the Egypt galleries. In the new arrangement they are stacked, one on top of the other on a carefully engineered steel frame across the centre of the gallery, centre-stage in the new display.
One of the planning difficulties was making sure that the gallery floor could take the combined weight of the two coffins (2265kg!) and their new metal frame. After many discussions with a structural engineer, it has been approved in its new position, which is over one of the structural 'sleeper' walls of the gallery. Manoeuvring the coffins onto their new frame was another job for specialist stonemasons Rattee and Kett. First, they used an A-frame to lift the Strigil Sarcophagus onto skates on the floor, then they wheeled it into position and lifted it on to the bottom of the steel mount, again using an A-frame. Next, the Pashley sarcophagus was rotated on its old mount before being lifted onto the top tier of the new mount with an A-frame. The really difficult part of the whole process was making sure that the two coffins were positioned centrally, which required many adjustments of a few centimetres at a time.
This new arrangement gives the two coffins pride of place in the display. They are perpendicular to the windows and so catch the light at an angle, showing off the carving. The 'Pashley Sarcophagus' is now at eye level, so that its complex scene can be properly appreciated, and we are planning a label strip to identify some of the figures. The 'Strigil Sarcophagus' on the bottom level will have special lighting to allow visitors to glimpse the inside of the coffin and see the stone 'pillow' at one end.
At the same time as work is happening behind-the-scenes, we also want to keep some antiquities on public display and to promote the forthcoming gallery. Some of our best small pieces from Greece and Rome are still on display in the Lower Gallery and in one case of the Near Eastern corridor, but we are constantly trying out new ways of engaging the public.
The school summer holiday is a time when we, together with volunteers from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, like to organise some sessions called 'Meet the Antiquities'. We take a selection of objects taken off display, or out of the stores, and show them to the museum visitors, giving them a chance to see some objects close-up, and to ask us questions about them. With the Greece and Rome Gallery closed it was an ideal time to do a 'Greek and Roman roadshow', focussing on several Greek vases and bronze statuettes. These sessions help us to understand the sorts of things that interest our audiences, and sometimes challenge our own preconceived ideas. One of the most common questions is "How old is this?", and several people have difficulty believing we are actually showing them the 'real thing', and not just a replica!
Bob and I have been very busy making templates for the mounts which will be used to display our sculpture in the new galleries. The mounts themselves will be made from stainless steel, so cannot be made in-house. Instead, we have been creating custom-made mounts from Perspex, which can be used as templates by MER (who are making the steel mounts). Sometimes we are able to reuse or adapt existing mounts, and sometimes we have to start from scratch. If (as is often the case) the object is not completely flat, we use small sandbags and a spirit level to prop it up. This enables us to keep the frontal plane level.
The object to be mounted is placed on a large piece of card, and its outline is drawn on the card. All necessary measurements are added, as are details about the type and placement of any existing fittings. Some of our objects have been mounted before and already have holes for dowels or brackets. Where possible, we try to reuse these holes when re-mounting the object. (We can't drill new holes in our sculpture when mounting it, so finding ways to support it safely requires a lot of ingenuity!) We note which parts of an object can be safely supported and if there are any weak points that should not have any pressure placed upon them. It is also useful to indicate on our card template which way up the object goes (up-down and left-right)!
Perspex 'tangs' or 'clips' are cut to an appropriate size and width (in relation to the size and weight of the object). These can be heated with a hot-air gun until they can be bent into the right shape. The tangs will be fixed to a plinth or metal backplate and then curve around the sides of the object, holding it in place. It is very important at this stage to indicate on the card template exactly where these tangs should be placed, because the objects often have undulating and irregular edges.
Once all of this information has been gathered, the card template and Perspex clips are given to MER, who make the backplate from spray-painted mild steel and the brackets from bead-blasted stainless steel.
We have been examining, moving and conserving some of our funerary sculpture recently, especially two incomplete stone stelae, or grave markers. The first (Loan Ant.19) has a carved relief of a loutrophoros, a type of jar that was used to hold water for ritual bathing. One of its uses was for a bride's ceremonial bath before marriage, so loutrophoroi are often found on the graves of women who have died unmarried. They later came to symbolise death more generally, however - and our stele actually marked the grave of a young man. It has a missing piece at the top, which was probably a small palmette (a fan-shaped ornament that resembles palm or acanthus leaves). The other stele (Loan Ant.52) is also incomplete and only the palmette top remains. This has a rectangular socket at the bottom, where it was once attached to the grave stone (now lost).
Although only one side of the stele would have been visible originally, our palmette is double-sided. The back is very roughly-cut, and it looks as if the mason started on this side then abandoned it and worked on the front instead. This may have been because of a fault-line in the marble: the central leaf on the front has broken off along a fault-line and the dowel-holes created to repair it are possibly ancient.
The palmette belongs to Trinity College and has been on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum since 1969. We don't know much about its history before this date, but there are rust and paint marks that suggest that it was once mounted with brackets. We knew from a 1972 Museum report that the palmette was "strengthened internally with stainless steel" and then remounted as a free-standing sculpture (which is probably when the cast concrete base and restored corner were added). However, we didn't know what the internal steel structure looked like, or when exactly the palmette was moved to a shelf above a showcase by the entrance to the gallery.
The palmette was removed from its place on the gallery wall in December 2008. This was another job for stonemasons Rattee and Kett, who found that the safest way to remove the palmette was to cut through the shelf that it was sitting on! The palmette was put into storage to allow the conservators to examine and document it. We know that many similar stelae were originally brightly decorated, and there is some evidence that our palmette was also once painted. There are traces of a red pigment on its central sections, and it is possible that the outer leaves were painted alternately red and yellow. We have taken microscopic samples of these pigments so they can be identified. We have also examined the palmette in strong raking light and ultraviolet light to see if these revealed more information (in this case, however, they didn't!).
The palmette will be mounted in the new galleries on a 'lamp post', about 2 metres off the ground. We have been working with MER to find a way to support it safely while also allowing both sides to be seen. We don't have the space or equipment in the Museum to deal with such large stone pieces, so we have brought in Cliveden Conservation. Cliveden came to the Museum in late July and took away some of our stone sculpture (including the palmette) for cleaning and conservation. They have removed the modern concrete fills and supports from the bottom of the stele, allowing us to see the stainless steel dowels that are inside.