Greek and Roman Gallery Project in October to November 2009
Over the last months, Lucilla and I have been working on the 'information strategy' for the gallery. The size, position and content of information panels and labels is almost as important as the position of the objects themselves. We are very aware that too much information can be off-putting, and can detract from the objects, but we want to include enough information to put the objects in context and bring them to life for our visitors. We decided that, because of restrictions of space, the labeling of objects in display cases should be slightly different from those pieces of sculpture displayed outside the cases.
As you have seen from Lucilla's news back in June, we decided on the arrangement of objects in the cases earlier this year. As part of this process we also had to decide what 'stories' the objects would tell about antiquity, so that they could be grouped accordingly. So we had an idea of the themes and information we wanted to emphasise, but were still undecided as to the best format for conveying this information. We spent some time looking at what had been done in other museums, and were very much taken with the 'gateway object' approach. This means that one or two objects are used to introduce the themes and wider issues for a larger goup of objects. These 'gateway' objects are not necessarily the finest or the most important pieces, but the most representative. This approach means that a visitor is encouraged to look at an ancient object straightaway, while at the same time learning about the wider context.
In March we began a consultation exercise within the museum to determine whether this 'gateway object' panel worked better than a traditional information panel. A combined introduction and gateway object panel proved to be most popular by a very small majority. We also wanted to find out what sort of information most interested people, given that any label is too small to mention everything. Questionnaires and different types of labels drafted by Lucilla and I were sent out to a number of schools, community groups and the Fitzwilliam Friends by Gill Hart and Nicola Wallis in the Museum's Education Department. The responses showed that everyone was interested in different things!
By July we were ready to start drafting the information/gateway panels for the display cases, and the labels for sculpture outside cases (click here to see the label for the Caryatid, GR.1.1865). Both these will be designed and printed by a graphics firm outside the Museum, and so need to be finalised well in advance of the opening. Once written our draft panels were sent to a number of people for their comments. Chief amongst these were Robin Osborne, Carrie Vout and Mary Beard from the Faculty of Classics and Gill and Nicola from the Education department. We now have all their comments back and are currently engaged in the frustrating task of rewriting the information to incorporate some of the comments. These panels must be finalised and sent to be printed in December, at which point we can begin the smaller object labels to go at the bottom of each display case. The object labels can be more last-minute, since we will be producing them in the museum.
We have also been working with the Museum's Marketing and Press department on the opening publicity and events. Until recently we were hoping to open at the end of November or in mid December, but a series of delays means that the contractors are still on site and we won't be able to start installing most of the objects until December. However, it is important to give ourselves (and the contractors) a deadline to work to, so we have decided to fix the opening date for the last week of January. Events are being planned, invitations for the Benefactors' Opening Party are being designed and printed, and there's no turning back now!
Holly Clarke, a third-year undergraduate studying Conservation and Restoration at the University of Lincoln, has joined us for a two-week internship. Holly describes below how she conserved a black-figure amphora from our collection:
"During the autumn I had the privilege of spending six weeks on work placement at the Fitzwilliam Museum, improving my conservation skills in a professional environment as part of my undergraduate course at the University of Lincoln. Two of the six weeks were spent in the Antiquities department, where the new galleries were quickly taking shape. Julie and Christina asked me to conserve an Etruscan amphora that was intended for display. I was initially hesitant due to its age and the ease with which ceramics can be damaged but also excited to work on such an object.
"This amphora (GR.23.1864)depicts Lapiths fighting a giant and a centaur. Found at Vulci, north of Rome, the amphora has been dated to 6th century BC. The condition of the amphora is reasonably good, despite some missing black slip and a greasy, spotty appearance to the body.
"However, turning the amphora onto its side reveals multiple paint layers, including some seemingly strange colour choices for a plaster fill to the base. The reasoning for pink and purple paint is something only the original restorer could tell us! The fill seems to have been carried out sometime between the amphora's accession to the collection in 1864 and photographs taken in the 1930s.
"It was during removal with acetone of the unsightly black overpaint from the base that I found that the black paint was not only obscuring original body, but original slip also. During examination I had use UV light photography to gain information about the restoration materials and it was again used during treatment. The restoration paint fluoresced a dark, bottle green, whereas the original slip did not fluoresce. I used this information help determine the extent of the paint to ensure thorough removal.
"Retouching the base fill was not an easy task, as the convention for these types of objects is to paint fills one solid colour. This colour must be cohesive to the overall appearance, but ensures that viewers are aware that restorations have taken place.
"However, the planned placement of the amphora in an island case meant that a solid colour fill exposed the junction between fill and body due to the varied appearance of the pot body. Unfortunately it was not an option to mimic the damaged slip patterns, as this would be deceitful to viewers. After much head-scratching and many samples, my compromise was to add darker and lighter tones to the fill and to soften the colours with a conservation sponge. At the junction between fill and pot I used a very fine brush to add darker areas to minimise, but not disguise, the appearance.
"I was finally happy with the effort and luckily, so were the staff in the department, who I would like to thank for being so helpful and supportive. I loved my time working at the Fitzwilliam Museum and am excitedly looking forward to the reopening of the galleries to the public so I can view the objects I conserved."
Holly has also been helping me to clean some of the stone sculpture and inscriptions collected by John Disney. It can be very easy to overlook inscriptions in a gallery, especially as so few people now can read the Latin or Greek necessary. However, I found the inscription on the right (GR.80.1850) rather touching once I understood more about its history. It was set up as a grave marker (or stele), in memory of a 13-year old boy called Tiberius Claudius Threptus. The stele was erected by his parents, who were public slaves. Commissioning a marble slab like this one would have been very expensive, especially for slaves, so the very cost of this object shows how much they valued their son's memory. This feeling of connecting with people in the past is one of the aspects that I most enjoy about working on such ancient objects.
The lettering would originally have been picked out in red paint, but the paint that we see now is (relatively) modern, and was probably added while the inscription was in Disney's collection. Underneath this paint, we can still see a few grains of what may be the ancient paint (we will be taking microscopic samples of this and analysing them in the future). The fact that earlier collectors bothered to repaint the inscriptions like this suggests that, even 1800 years after a stele was first made, people still cared about reading what it said. Before it came into the conservation lab, this inscription was very grimy - these pictures show the difference that cleaning can make! I hope the newly-cleaned surface encourages more people to look at this object, and to experience the same 'connections' that I have.