Gilding at the Soane Museum
Conservator Jane Wilkinson looks back on the first year of the Museum's dedicated Conservation Studio
On September 19th the conservation team marked the first anniversary of the opening of their refurbished studios. Thanks to the generosity of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, which funded the new John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Conservation Centre, the conservators have been enjoying the benefits of beautifully designed furniture, great lighting and up-to-date equipment, and all this within almost double the space they had before!
During this first year in the new studios the conservators have been busy working to tight deadlines, initially for the first phase, and now the second, of the Opening Up The Soane project. The conservation remit for this major restoration project is wide and includes cleaning and treating many museum objects, as well as liaising with a wide range of contractors. Through-out the project the conservators are also responsible for managing the impact on the museum collection from the on-going building works. In addition to these tasks they have also been busy working to fulfil a commitment to make the work they do more accessible to visitors and the public in general. This has included writing regular articles for the museum website, supporting the Education department, particularly Outreach, building research links with M.A. students, and whenever possible, showing off the new centre by opening it for public visits. Of course, all the permanent collections, arranged in the rooms of the house, continue to need attention and so the conservators are also busy carrying out day-to-day collections care alongside these other tasks
The varied and hectic timetable in the conservation department is often very demanding for its small team of conservators, however they have thoroughly enjoyed the last year, and have loved working in the fantastic new facilities which have definitely helped them meet the many daily challenges.
You can find more details on the work of our conservators in the dedicated Conservation section of our site. They will also be posting regularly to this blog.
The work we carry out in Conservation is not always to do with cleaning or treating objects. Moving and storing objects is also a key part of our jobs, and in recent weeks we have been doing a lot of this. In comparison to most other museums, there are relatively few objects in store at Sir John Soane’s Museum. As stipulated in the 1833 Act of Parliament, the unique arrangements in the Museum must be kept ‘as nearly as possible’ as they were at Soane’s death, and so we therefore do not normally acquire works of art (as most Museums do all the time) and we try to have all works of art from Soane’s collection out on display in their original positions. Although there are some objects in store which were not acquired by Soane, the majority of objects in store do have a place in the Museum. These objects are in store for a variety of reasons, the most common one being that they were originally displayed in an area of the house which has either been altered or, for necessity’s sake, has been used for a different function, over the years.
The next (second) phase of our Opening up the Soane project (OUTS) is the restoration of the rooms on the second floor of No. 13, including Soane’s Model Room, Bath Room, Oratory and Bed Room. For the last three years these rooms have been used for the storage of all Soane’s models and many other items displaced from No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they were on display prior to Phase 1 of OUTS. For the Conservation team, the first job in Phase 2 has been to empty these rooms of hundreds of stored objects. This was no small task!
As we do not allow works of art to be stored off-site for security reasons, it was necessary to be find spaces throughout the Museum in which to store the displaced objects. There is only one official store within the Museum and this was already quite full. We therefore had to think of some ingenious places around the Museum for storage. The atmospheric environment any object would be moved into was of critical significance: its new home needed to be as similar in terms of temperature and relative humidity as possible to the environment it came from. Much warmer and drier and organic materials such as wood, paper and leather might crack and become brittle; much more humid and damp and these materials might expand and develop mould. For this reason, each proposed storage space had its temperature and relative humidity monitored before it received any objects. Some environments were more stable than others, so we made sure only objects made of more inert materials, such as stone and plaster, were stored in these less ideal spaces.
All storage shelves were lined with foil backed paper to act as a barrier layer protecting objects from potentially harmful gasses the wooden shelves might give-off. Their width and depth and the space between them was measured carefully to help us decide which objects should go where. Some of the Soane cupboards were adapted to provide more space. This was done by our carpenter, Toby McNichol, who added shelves in various ways, always ensuring any shelving was temporary and had no impact on the original components (e.g. was not screwed into the original timber of any cupboard). All objects were wrapped in a soft, breathable tissue to protect them from dust. Before they were moved, the works of art were checked against their entries in our inventory to confirm they were numbered correctly.
Over 400 framed works and objects were moved from two rooms to seven separate locations around the Museum. This movement took four people three weeks to complete and required a great deal of planning beforehand. It was undertaken slowly and with great care, so as to keep an accurate track of where objects were being moved to, and, most importantly, to minimise the risk any handling and movement could potentially pose to the objects.
By end of Phase 2 at the end of 2014, about 150 more objects in store will have returned to their original positions on the first and second floor of the Museum. By the time OUTS Phase 3 is completed in 2016 we hope to have very few works of art in store!
Lucy Sims, June 2013
Click on the video to watch a film about the restoration of the frame for Soane's drawings of Triumphal Bridges. The text of the video is attached here (Word Document).
To view previous stories from our Conservation Department, please see the 'Care of Collections Archive' page.