Greek and Roman Gallery Project from April to May 2009
In late April, our quest for the perfect (yet affordable) showcase led us first to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and then to the Percival David Gallery at the British Museum in London. The Ashmolean visit certainly put our project into perspective: our colleagues there are coping with a radical building programme that includes the construction and fitting out of no fewer than 39 new galleries! (See the Ashmolean's project website for more information.) At the time of our visit the whole area was still a building site, full of exposed concrete floors and staircases, dangling cables, temporary lighting and various forms of heavy plant, peopled by a large and impressively equipped workforce of builders, electricians, forklift truck drivers - and showcase builders. The circumstances made it difficult to appreciate exactly what the cases would look like when complete, but we were able to see how well they would fit into the spacious new galleries, and also the skilful design that had informed them. And we were hugely impressed by the calm confidence of the showcase workforce who were clearly doing an admirable job in 'difficult' circumstances. We also admired the sang-froid of the Oxford conservators and curators, who seemed remarkably calm given that their programme required them to start installing objects in the first galleries in early May...
At the British Museum we found a much more tranquil situation, timing our visit for the day before the Percival David Gallery opened to the public. The Percival David Collection of Oriental ceramics has been lent by the University of London to the British Museum, where a new gallery has been created especially for it. Here, with the lighting working and the cases full of objects, we were better able to appreciate the possibilities of this manufacturer's 'house style'. We also benefited from the advice and expertise of the BM's chief designer, whose experience of showcases and showcase manufacturers stretches back over 30 years.
In opting for one make of showcase rather than another, we have had to take a number of factors into account. Price is of course crucial: we want the best we can afford but we don't want to spend more than we can afford at risk of compromising other elements of the gallery design and fit-out. We also have to judge whether the manufacturer is likely to be able to meet not just our specifications in terms of design and performance, but also our deadlines. We thought long and hard before coming to a decision: later this year you'll be able to judge whether or not it was the right one!
Christina's and Sophie's news
At the end of April, Christina was joined in the conservation lab by Sophie Rowe, who worked here during the refurbishment of our Egyptian galleries. Although Sophie is a specialist organics conservator, she was a potter in a former life - so her knowledge of ceramic construction and decoration techniques has been very useful during this project!
During April and May, we have been conserving geometric and Corinthian pots, some of the earliest Greek vases in our collection. One of the interesting aspects of working on these objects is finding out about the materials and techniques that were previously used to repair Greek vases. Sophie is currently working on an oinochoe from the 9th century BC (GR.1.1943). The beautiful geometric decoration on the vase was obscured by a layer of dark dirt, and the surface had a greasy, tacky feel. When we investigated further, we realised that the vase had been coated with a layer of dark brown wax, possibly beeswax. This was often done in the past to protect the surface of the vase from damage, and also to enhance the appearance by deepening the colours and adding more shine. In fact, we have several old reference books in the Museum that recommend waxing Greek vases for these reasons - but this is definitely not something that we would do these days!
Wax coatings can become soft and sticky in high temperatures, causing them to pick up a lot of dust and dirt. This is one of the reasons why the surface of Sophie's vase now looks so dark. Alternatively, wax can become brittle and opaque with age and if it has been applied too thickly it can obscure details on the surface a vase.
Sophie has been cleaning the surface of the oinochoe with a mixture of water and alcohol. This picks up a lot of the dirt that is trapped in the wax coating, and the vase is already looking a lot cleaner! The next stage of the treatment is to remove as much of the wax coating as possible. This is not easy, because the wax has sunk right in to the rough surface of the vase. Thicker layers can be carefully pared down using a scalpel; and more of the wax can be removed using white spirit (which dissolves it). However, it won't be possible to remove all of the wax coating. This is why conservators today try to choose treatments and materials that can be reversed later. It is very likely that our Greek vases will last longer than any conservation materials (adhesives, filling materials, paints, and so on) that we use on them - so we want to make sure that these can be taken off in the future and the vases can be reconserved.
We have been cleaning the stone reliefs that were taken out of the old Greek gallery last summer. These were embedded in a false wall below the caryatid in the 1960s. A wooden framework was built behind the wall, and the reliefs were attached to this using a variety of fixings. Sheets of hardboard were placed over the front of this framework, with holes cut out for the reliefs. The hardboard sheets were then plastered to give a smooth surface for painting. The plaster has oozed into any gaps between the hardboard and the stone reliefs. This meant that, when the reliefs were taken out of the false walls last summer, most of them had a ring of plaster around their sides. Unfortunately, the marble had also been scored round the edges as part of the process of lining-up and inserting the reliefs into the false wall, so there was plaster and paint trapped in these score lines. Altogether, the reliefs were a bit of a mess - and, given that we want to display them differently in the new galleries, we had to clean them up.
The plaster round the edges of the reliefs was carefully removed using a small chisel; any remains were softened with water so they could be swabbed off. There were traces of several different types of paint on the sides of the reliefs, from when the false wall had been painted (and repainted several times). Some of the paint (especially where it was very thick) could be gently removed with a scalpel. Other types of paint had to be taken off using various solvents. When all of the paint had been removed, the reliefs were carefully cleaned with a little water as they were very dirty around the sides and on the back. We have been working with our designer and several specialists to find a more sympathetic way of mounting the reliefs for display and now have a solution for most of the pieces.
We heard in May that we had received listed building consent for the alterations that we want to make in the gallery. Work can now begin. Among the objects that have to stay the galleries throughout are our two stone sarcophagi: the Pashley sarcophagus (GR.1.1835) and the Strigil sarcophagus (GR.46.1850). Although these will later be displayed in a different part of the gallery from their current location, there are structural issues that mean that they cannot be moved yet. We are trying to do as much of the cleaning and investigation as possible, while we still have access to the gallery.
Two of our technicians, Amy and Louise, have been cleaning the inside of the Strigil sarcophagus. This coffin doesn't have a lid, so the inside of it was quite dusty! Amy and Louise hoovered inside the coffin using a low-powered vacuum cleaner that is designed for museums. They then used a soft bristle brush to loosen the more stubborn dirt, and swabbed it away using a little deionised water.
After cleaning, the two sarcophagi were protected with foam, wrapped in plastic sheeting and then boxed up. While the building work in the gallery is going on, we will not have access to this area, so it is important to make sure that any objects that can't be moved are kept clean and well-protected.