Greek and Roman Gallery Project in December 2009
Back in August Louise talked about the process of making steel mounts for the large stone sculptural reliefs and inscriptions that will hang on the gallery walls. She described how she and Bob made perspex templates for backplates with mounting clips, which were then to be replicated in steel. The idea was that once the ancient object was sitting securely in its steel backplate, it could then be mounted onto a wallplate (also of steel), using split batons on both the backplate and wallplate. Image4 Fabrications Ltd from Stourbridge were chosen for the job, because of they could work closely MER, the plinth manufacturers (they have neighbouring workshops).
Although the process started in August, it has only been completed this month! The system was far more complicated than we had anticipated, partly because of the sheer numbers of objects to be mounted (each with custom-made mounts), partly because of the irregularities of each object, and partly because of the limitations of steelworking (steel is bent, not cast, which means it is very difficult to produce an exact copy). Instead of handing over a template and receiving a steel replica which fitted the piece perfectly, Pat Batham and Colin Wheeldon at Image4 Fabrication had to come to the museum and give each ancient object several 'fittings', noting slight corrections, then returning to their workshop outside Birmingham to adjust the steelwork.
After Pat and Colin had made many more visits to the museum than any of us had anticipated, the last of the mounts were finished, and the first wall-mounted objects went up in the gallery. We are only installing the pieces that need to have plinths put in front of them (which will make access to the wall difficult once the plinths are in place). These are heavy objects that need an A-frame or scaffolding to lift them into place. The other pieces will wait until January to be installed, when the contractors have all finished. The first stage in the hanging process was for the men from MER to fix the steel wall-plate to the wall using custom fixings. Then, the object, already mounted on its backplate, was lifted onto the wall-plate engaging the split-batons. As always the team from Rattee and Kett were on hand to do the heavy lifting!
This whole system may seem overly complicated, but we in the museum think that it is worth the trouble. It is stylish, and will complement the modern look of the rest of the gallery. It allows the whole depth of the stone slab to be shown, something with didn't happen in the old display, when these same pieces were put into a false wall and artifically displayed as all of the same depth. But most importantly, it ensures that the object is fixed safely and securely, while at the same time being easily reversible if, at some point in the future, we need it de-mounted.
We have brought the Clazomenian sarcophagus up from the basement (where it was put back into storage last September) to continue treatment. I am now working on the sarcophagus in our Cyprus gallery, which was closed at the same time as the Greek and Roman gallery last year so we could use it as a temporary storage area. The coffin is on a table by the large window in this gallery, as the natural light is useful when doing detailed work and also gives the same sort of lighting conditions as the Greek gallery next door. It is nice to be right in the middle of things, and to see the gallery taking shape very rapidly as cases are finished and sculpture is installed. The downside is that there are currently lots of contractors drilling and hammering in the Greek gallery, so I have started bringing my MP3 player into work to block out the noise!
When the sarcophagus was put away in September, lots of the old restoration paint and plaster that was disfiguring the original surfaces had been removed. Although the coffin is now much improved in appearance, the removal of the plaster has left it weaker than it was, so gaps and joins need filling and reinforcing. Ceramic objects, like this one, are usually restored with plaster, as it is a similar density to the ceramic, strong and durable, and can be moulded and worked down to a smooth surface. If it is not used carefully, however, the plaster dust can become embedded in irregular or porous surfaces, creating a 'ghost' around a fill. Removing old plaster restorations can be very difficult, as I found when conserving this coffin! Careless filing down of the plaster can also leave deep scratches in the plaster fills, and can even damage the original surfaces that surround them. There is much evidence of all of these things on the Clazomenian sarcophagus.
For these reasons, and for other practical reasons, I decided not to use plaster when creating new fills in the coffin. I needed to find a material that was strong enough to support the coffin effectively when it was upright on display, but that could be easily removed in the future. I decided to use Japanese tissue paper, which is used in a lot of conservation treatments because of its stability and its long fibres (which make it very strong). Although the paper is not very strong on its own, it can be coated or impregnated with a synthetic, conservation-grade resin. This results in a material that is nearly as flexible as paper (meaning that is can be cut, folded and shaped), but which is also very hard and strong.
The pictures above show me filling gaps along the sides: in the picture on the left, I am putting little twists of resin-coated Japanese tissue paper into the gaps in the side of the coffin, and on the right, I am injecting acetone into the gaps with a very fine pipette. The acetone soaks the tissue twists, reactivating the resin and causing it to 'set'. Once it has set fully, the tissue-and-resin fill fits snugly into the gap but is also very strong and durable. It can be removed by injecting more acetone into the gap to soften the resin and allow the paper twist to be pulled out again.