Greek and Roman Gallery Progress from October to December 2008
I started work on the 18th October, and my first months have flown by. I've been busy finding my way around the museum, meeting the staff, and discovering the collections. I feel as if I have lots to catch up on at the moment, but my priorities are focused on three main areas: finalising the draft floor plan so that we can apply for planning permission; deciding which themes will be illustrated in different areas of the gallery and which objects need to be included; liaising with my colleagues in the Classics Faculty and gathering their opinions as to how we can best display current advances in research into the classical world.
Lucilla, Julie and Karl, our designer, had already done a lot of work on the overall arrangement of the gallery, and finalizing the floor plan design was well underway when I arrived. However, it still took another three months of incorporating new suggestions and redrawing plans to finally agree the position of the display cases and plinths for heavy sculpture. Much of the discussion happened by e-mail, since Karl is based in London, but an on-site visit in December helped to resolve some final details. The draft floor plan needed to be agreed in time to apply for listed building consent in early January.
The application for listed building consent is an important process, since the gallery, like the rest of the Museum, is Grade I listed and therefore the plans need to be approved by both the local planning authority and English Heritage. Even new holes in the wooden floorboards are not allowed without express permission. At the beginning of December representatives from English Heritage and the planning department of Cambridgeshire City Council came to visit the gallery and give their opinions on the design. This is so that any issues they have about the proposed plans can be addressed before the planning application is submitted.
One of the reasons for the creation of my post (funded by the AHRC) is to promote links between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Classics Faculty. My background is in classics as well as in museums and you could call me the glue between the two! One of my first tasks was to organise an AHRC project committee meeting with our co-opted colleagues in Classics to discuss progress with the gallery and future plans. At the same time Lucilla and I were speaking with colleagues who specialised in different periods of Greek and Roman material culture to hear their views on the themes we intend to emphasise.
In November and December the Cambridge-based company of Rattee and Kett, specialist stone masons contracted from outside the Museum, arrived with their heavy lifting equipment to move the few antiquities still in the gallery. It only took a few days for them to move the solid stone altars, the Newton Hall Athena, several heavy stone inscriptions, and a large palmette mounted high on the wall adjoining the Cyprus gallery. However, the relatively quick job had to be spread over a number of weeks, since the temporary corridor through the gallery needed to be taken down (by another company) to allow access to the wall-mounted stone palmette, and much of the work was carried out on successive Mondays when the museum is closed to the public.
There was also the perennial problem of finding somewhere to store the pieces once they had been moved, which involved rearranging the basement storage area. Some of the heaviest sculpture which will be in the new display was left in the gallery, but moved onto the stone footing of the columns, and boxed in to protect it from damage during the building works.
In early December Lucilla and I had our first opportunity to talk about our progress to people outside the Fitzwilliam and the immediate project team when Professor Lin Foxhall and a group of Museum Studies MA students from the University of Leicester visited for a two-hour seminar. As well as presenting a potted history of the museum collection we discussed the process and progress and unexpected difficulties encountered in this redisplay. We finished with a visit to the gallery itself, empty but atmospheric.
As soon as I started working here, I was plunged into preparations for the temporary exhibition 'I Turned it into a Palace': Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Several Greek vases that will be displayed in the new gallery were also going on display in the exhibition, so it provided a good opportunity to start thinking about the conservation practicalities and issues that will arise during the Greek and Roman Gallery Project. The vases had not been conserved for decades, so it was also a chance to improve their condition and appearance using modern conservation methods and materials.
One of the vases in the exhibition is a huge black-figure eye cup ( GR.12.1937), given to the Fitzwilliam in 1937 by the artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. This cup is a good example of the typical conservation problems that we will face during the next year. Like most of the Greek vases in the Museum, it had already been restored: the fragments had been stuck back together and gaps had been filled with plaster and painted. However, the restorations were very unsightly and detracted from the visual appearance of the cup while it was on display. The picture on the left shows an area from the outside of the cup: the filled and painted areas are a bad colour match with the surrounding ceramic. Repainting these filled areas so they are sympathetic without being deceptively close to the original was quite challenging!
In September, we were joined by Pia Edqvist, who is a final year student on the conservation course at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Pia is doing a four-month internship in the Department of Antiquities, and will be working with the department's conservators on ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian objects. The picture below shows Pia cleaning a bronze statuette ( GR.10.1928) that is part of the Cockerell exhibition.
In early November, I went to the Getty Villa, part of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to bring back one of our bronze statues that had been on temporary loan there. While I was there, I met the conservators who work on the Villa's ancient Greek and Roman collections and had a look at the facilities and techniques that they use. My visit coincided with the final preparations for three conservation-focused exhibitions in the Villa: Reconstructing identity, Fragment to vase, and The Getty Commodus. I came back from my trip with lots of new ideas about the conservation of ancient Greek objects!
I spent the rest of November and December examining and conserving vases from the Ricketts and Shannon collection of Greek objects. Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) and Charles Haslewood Shannon (1865-1937) were two artists and collectors who bequeathed their collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum following Shannon's death in 1937. We hope during this project to find out more about the past history of the collection, including more information about when the vases were acquired, and when and how they have been restored.
This sort of investigation begins with a thorough visual inspection of the object. Among the methods used by the conservator are optical microscopy, examination with raking light and ultraviolet (UV) fluorescence photography. These techniques can give us information about the materials, conservation history and surface condition of an object that is not always apparent from just looking at it.
The picture on the left shows a detail from an amphora ( GR.21.1937)bequeathed by Ricketts and Shannon. Examining the surface with raking light (that is, with a light that is shone across the surface of the object, nearly parallel with it) shows several features of surface texture that are not otherwise obvious. The indented lines in the legs are the preliminary sketch lines, caused when the vase painter marked out details of his design in the wet clay using a stick of charcoal or blunt tool. These can tell us whether the artist changed his design in the process of composition. The thin, black, raised lines used for the outlines have been made using a clay slip (a mixture of clay and water). The same slip was used on the solid, black, glossy areas that cover most of the vase - but the slip used for the outlines must have been much thicker, which is why it appears as a thin, raised line in raking light.
Another technique conservators use to examine objects is UV fluorescence photography. Some substances fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light and this property can be used to distinguish restoration materials from original areas of an object, or to identify materials that have a characteristic fluorescence in UV. The photographs above show details from a kyathos, or ladle ( GR.10.1937), that has been examined under longwave UV. Although the kyathos appears to be complete, it is actually in several pieces and the broken and filled areas have been completely disguised with overpainting. In plain (normal) light, these restorations are barely visible (left). When the kyathos is examined under longwave UV, however, the modern paint fluoresces white or orange (right).
More information about the photographic and analytical techniques that conservators use to examine objects can be found on the website of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the paintings conservation department of the Fitzwilliam Museum.