Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Conservation Studio Tours

The Conservation Department is pleased to announce that we will be throwing open the studio doors to our visitors for behind-the-scenes tours. This is a chance to meet the conservators, see a few of the projects that we’re working on, and get up close with some objects from the Museum’s collection.

Other conservation work
Conservation Manager Jon Old, in the Paintings Conservation studio

Tours will run on the following dates and times, and will last approximately 40 minutes (20 minutes in the Paintings Conservation studio, and 20 minutes in the Textiles Conservation studio). Places are strictly limited to 12, available on a first-come first-served basis, and general admission applies.

Wednesday 13th May 2:30pm

Tuesday 9th June 2:30pm

Wednesday 15th July 2:30pm

Tuesday 11th August 11am

Wednesday 9th September 11am

To reserve your place on a conservation studio tour, contact Caroline Nilsson on 01833 690606, or info@thebowesmuseum.org.uk

See you there!

Rupert McBain Visits St Dymphna Church to Research European Altarpieces

St Dymphna Church in Geel, Belgium houses the Passion  Altarpiece which is stylistically closest to The Bowes Museum’s 15th century Flemish Altarpiece which is currently being conserved and re-displayed following a successful fundraising campaign on Art Happens.

A flying visit courtesy of Eurostar in February was made possible by the openness and consideration of Maria Gerits and Frie Van Ravensteyn.  Frie kindly opened up the church and sat, uncomplainingly huddled in coats, for the entire  7 hours I spent measuring, photographing and generally tuning into the St Dymphna Passion Altarpiece.

This visit has had a major impact on the decision making process for re-displaying The Bowes Altarpiece.

Frie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel AltarpieceFrie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel Altarpiece
Frie Van Ravensteyn in front of the Geel Altarpiece

A replica carved figure is also being made for the gallery to give visitors the opportunity to touch and feel the texture of the carved wood. A green piece of oak is cut by me ready for Alan to carve.

Master carver at work
Master carver at work – Rupert McBain

A new case for the Bowes Altarpiece is being made from two inch thick oak joined by large, bold dovetailing.

This type construction was seen in the St Dymphna Altarpiece and is typical of the period.

Cutting the large carcass dovetails
Cutting the large carcass dovetails

By Rupert McBain, Furniture Conservator

People & Patterns: The Carpet Weaving Industry in Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle is known for its historical relationship with the castle, for which the town takes its name. However, the town also has an interesting industrial history. Having been granted the rights to set up a market during the 12th century, the town prospered under the influx of raw materials including lead, iron and wool from the surrounding countryside. These materials were essential for the development of the manufacturing businesses that were powered by the fast flowing waters of the River Tees, on which the town sits.

Throughout the 18th century, the woollen industry was predominant in Barnard Castle; using local wool from local farms, and domestic weaving and spinning became popular along Bridgegate and Thorngate (along the southern end of town). However, by the beginning of the 19th century a decline in the demand for woollen cloth and high unemployment meant that the town needed to find more ways of using its supplies of wool. A rise in carpet exports from Britain at the beginning of the century meant that the production of carpets was a sound investment, and so manufacturers in Barnard Castle clung to this opportunity. Factories were built along the river banks, which brought the production of woollens out of the small domestic workshops. During the first half of the century, the production of carpets overtook that of the weaving industries in town, and by 1834 the town was supporting seven manufacturing businesses.

Watercolour of Barnard Castle, 1788, by Thomas Hearne. The painting shows the ruined castle in the background and one of the mills on Bridgegate in front of a few domestic weaving workshops
Watercolour of Barnard Castle, 1788, by Thomas Hearne. The painting shows the ruined castle in the background and one of the mills on Bridgegate in front of a few domestic weaving workshops

Carpets were sold to a relatively wide market, with sales made as far as London out of the port at Stockton, and with more regional sales from Darlington to Newcastle. However, the prosperity of the industry was not to last, and for a number of unclear reasons (including financial troubles, location and health problems) during the middle of the century, the industry was in decline. The largest of the carpet manufacturers, Monkhouse, closed in 1863.

The Bowes Museum had previously exhibited on the history of Barnard Castle’s carpet Industry in 1996 (People & Patterns: The carpet weaving industry in 19th century Barnard Castle) and it was decided to bring out the wonderful graphic panels from that exhibition and re-display them with a small selection of objects from the museum’s stores at The Witham Community Arts Centre, also in Barnard Castle.

Part of the display, including replica samples of Barnard Castle carpet
Part of the display, including replica samples of Barnard Castle carpet

The objects on display include replica samples of carpet made during the 1996 exhibition, as well as objects from The Bowes Museum’s social history store, reflecting the range of textile industries in town. Before the objects could be put out on display, they were handed over to the museum’s conservation department so that their condition could be assessed, and they could be prepared for display.

Preparing the objects for display: checking and recording their condition,  and removing surface dirt
Preparing the objects for display: checking and recording their condition, and removing surface dirt

As a result of a partnership between The Bowes Museum and The Witham Community Arts Centre in Barnard Castle, the exhibition on the history of the town’s carpet industry will be on display at The Witham from 18th March – 30th March 2015 (Free admission).

Bowes Museum social history objects on display
The Bowes Museum social history objects on display

By Rosie Hughes, Curatorial Assistant

Bengali Bedhangings & Portuguese Portraits

A fourteen piece embroidered bed set of Indo-Portuguese provenance was recently brought into the conservation studio to be prepared for photography. Once unpacked it was clear that their current storage was no longer providing adequate support and needed to be re-designed for the long term preservation of the hangings.

The bed hangings c.1600, are of high importance to the Bowes Museum as they were bought for the collection by the founder John Bowes in the late 19th Century and are an interesting example of 17th Century Indian embroidery modified for the European market. The hangings were originally bought attached to what was believed to be a 16th Century four poster bed but which was later found to be a 19th Century reproduction.

An undated photograph of the 19th century bed and Indo-Portuguese bed hangings when previously on display in the Bowes Museum.
An undated photograph of the 19th century bed and Indo-Portuguese bed hangings when previously on display in the Bowes Museum.

They are thought to be made of at least three separate 17th Century Indian embroideries which have been pieced together into their current format at some point before they entered the museum collection. Two of the embroideries used are yellow raw (tussah) silk thread on a cream cotton or silk ground. The third embroidery is cream cotton thread on a dyed indigo ground, which have beautifully detailed portraits of figures in late 16th century costume.

The shaped bed-head cover from the set. The indigo embroidery motifs have been stitched on to the yellow and cream embroidery
The shaped bed-head cover from the set. The indigo embroidery motifs have been stitched on to the yellow and cream embroidery
Close-up of a king embroidered in cream cotton thread onto an indigo cotton ground
Close-up of a king embroidered in cream cotton thread onto an indigo cotton ground
Close-up of valance showing three different embroideries which have been pieced together
Close-up of valance showing three different embroideries which have been pieced together

Unfortunately the bed hangings are in poor condition with evidence of light and water damage which has caused discolouration and loss of many of the embroidery threads. One piece of the bed set is a coverlet with bolster shape which is in particularly bad condition with tideline staining, heavy surface soiling and a great deal of the embroidery has been lost.

The image below shows the dramatic difference in the condition of the coverlet where a curved panel was unpicked during the 1970’s compared to the silk which was left exposed. This highlights the importance of having low light levels and rotating objects on long-term display.

Close-up of coverlet showing the severely degraded silk and cotton embroidery
Close-up of coverlet showing the severely degraded silk and cotton embroidery

All pieces of the bed set were re-packed but the coverlet was the most challenging due to its size, unusual shape and poor condition. There was limited space for storage and a limited amount of conservation grade materials available.

Coverlet before re-packing
Coverlet before re-packing

Firstly we made a cylindrical cushion of polyester wadding, polyester felt and an outer layer of cotton calico to maintain the three-dimensional bolster shape. Two narrower rolls were made to further hold out the shape and fill any fold lines. If a textile object is stored for a long period of time with sharp folds or creases, the ongoing strain to the textile fibres along the fold can cause permanent distortion or even breakages.

The main body of the coverlet was interleaved with acid-free tissue and rolled inwards towards the bolster. The decision was made to fold the plain cotton side tabs inwards during rolling to reduce the final length. Although this was not ideal, the coverlet was almost three metres wide and otherwise would not fit on the store room shelves.

Coverlet being rolled using polyester wadding cushions and interleaved with acid-free tissue
Coverlet being rolled using polyester wadding cushions and interleaved with acid-free tissue

Once we had the new storage dimensions, a Correx® (corrugated polyethylene) box was custom-made to house the coverlet. A fitted Tyvek® (semi-permeable non-woven polyethylene fabric) lid was tied on with cotton tapes to keep out dust and reduce extra weight to the large box. Finally, a label and packing instructions were attached to the outside of the box for future use.

Coverlet rolled and re-packed into a Tyvek® lined custom-made box and covered in acid-free tissue
Coverlet rolled and re-packed into a Tyvek® lined custom-made box and covered in acid-free tissue
The final box, labelled with packing instructions
The final box, labelled with packing instructions

The full bed set is now back in store but three of the pieces have been selected for the Fashion and Textile Gallery re-display in 2018, including the headboard cover shown above, and two of the valances, and will come back into the conservation studio to be treated and mounted for display.

For other examples of Indian embroideries, check out the upcoming V&A exhibition ‘The Fabric of India’ opening in October 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/the-fabric-of-india/

By Emily Austin, Icon Textile Conservation Intern

Gerald Scarfe Installation

This week and the next is filled with installing the new Gerald Scarfe exhibition ‘Milk Snatcher, The Thatcher Drawings’.

With over 100 original hand-drawn works to be hung there is a lot of work to be done.

It all starts with the design, for this a scale model of the room is needed.  After the very tedious task of cutting out all 117 works to scale and a lot of deliberation from the exhibition curator, Greville Worthington, the cut outs were placed on the walls. This is a very important step in planning the exhibition as it helps us visualise the space before the works go up on the walls.

Curator Greville Worthington placing cut outs.
Curator, Greville Worthington placing cut outs

The plan was to get all of the works framed or re-framed; this way we will have consistency in the exhibitions space.  For the works that came to us already framed, Vin (our Exhibitions Technician) and I had the task of de-framing the images.

Once the pictures were out of the frames, Catherine and I could begin to condition check the works. We had training in how to condition check these works by Conservation Manager Jon Old. We were looking to see if there were any tears, creases, markings on the paper and the condition of the ink or paint. A few of them had tape holding them together so therefore very delicate bearing in mind that the tape would be at least 30 years old.

Catherine (left) and I (right) condition checking Scarfe Works
Catherine (left) and I (right) condition checking Scarfe Works

The next step was to get the framer in to measure up all the work, and then it was just a case of sending the works off to be framed.

Once framed pictures started coming back the hanging fixtures could be attached to the back of the frames. When that was done we could then place the works against each assigned wall.

Works stacked ready to be hung.
Works stacked ready to be hung
Measuring up the space where the works are to hangMeasuring up the space where the works are to hang
Measuring up the space where the works are to hang

All to do now is to set the work in the right place, add captions and prepare for the opening on Saturday 14th March 2015.

We hope to see you there.

By Charlotte Thresher, Cultural Apprentice

Look Out! Balancing Conservation and Access

The Conservation Advisory Network (CAN) is a free collections care advice service delivered by The Bowes Museum and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum‘s Museum Development Programme. The service helps museums in the North East with conservation and collections care advise and training.

On Friday 27th February, Head of Steam Railway Museum in Darlington hosted a CAN conference, organised by Regional Conservator Karen Barker. The conference was open to all museum staff and volunteers, designed to provide tips, practical advise, and inspiring presentations, and attracted over 30 delegates.

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Darlington Head of Steam Museum

The programme for the day encompassed speakers from a variety of organisations, brief summaries of which are as follows:


‘Minimal Intervention: Making Collections Accessible in Archives’

The conference began with a presentation by Jenny Halling Barnard, a conservator from the Durham County Records Office. In theory, the entire collection is accessible, apart from items restricted by the Data Protection Act (prison, medical and birth records). The archive has 4 miles of shelving, and over 900 years of records. Access is also restricted for objects in poor condition, which are too deteriorated to be handled safely, making them inaccessible both for researchers, and for the process of digitization. Jenny explained how using the principles of ‘minimum intervention’ and repairs for ‘once-only’ handling, she had been conserving archive items for digitization. With examples from Whitby seamen’s muster rolls, and medical records from Stannington sanatorium Jenny showed the condition in which records can enter the archive, damaged from poor storage, or inappropriately bound or repaired. Quick and effective conservation techniques have been used to repair to documents, making them safe to handle and photograph, and, crucially, making the information that they contain accessible to researchers. The seals on Royal charters are often made of wax or early plastics, and can be easily damaged by poor handling. The usual techniques of moulding and casting to make replicas are not always possible, so new technology is being utilized to 3D scan the seals. The information is then available to researchers digitally, or 3D copies can be printed for handling as a physical replica.

Whitby muster rolls - before conservation
Whitby muster rolls – before conservation at Durham County Records Office

‘Where Curators Feared to Tread’

Dawn Bradshaw, Preventive Conservator based at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle, gave an inspiring talk about the transformation of the Science and Industry Collection Store. The store had been neglected, becoming overcrowded with large industrial objects, was physically inaccessible to museum staff, and many of the objects were contaminated with carcinogenic oil and asbestos. With a dedicated team, lots of planning, and hard hats, the collections were sorted out, unknown objects identified, and the objects arranged to tell the story of electricity through the collection. Hazardous materials were identified and either disposed of, or made safe. There are now regular store tours, making the objects accessible for study and research.


‘How the National Trust Seeks a Sustainable Balance’

John Wynn Griffiths, National Trust Conservator for the North East explained how the Trust is seeking to strike a balance between increasing visitor numbers, and protecting the collections. The National Trust had 19.4 million visits across their sites in 2011, and there is pressure to increase visitor numbers by 10% each year. The Conservation for Access (C4A) toolkit was developed in 2000, and seeks to resolve the divide between conservation and access. C4A quantifies the ways and means to achieve sustainable access, and used correctly, becomes a powerful tool to plan and manage how visitors enjoy National Trust collections and properties.

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House floorplan showing objects and interiors at risk of damage

‘Please Touch’

Jon Old, Conservation Manager at The Bowes Museum gave a presentation about a project which sought to provide better access to the Museum’s collections to a group of visually-impaired visitors. Typical ways in which museums display objects can ostracise this group, light levels may be too low, labels difficult to read, and policies of ‘Do Not Touch’ abound.  Blind Life in Durham (a group for blind and partially-sighted people in the Durham area) approached the museum to make a film about the problems that people with visual impairments can face in a museum environment. A handling session was organised, using objects from the social history, archaeology, and textile collections. The visitors were provided with nitrile gloves, and an object label was provided for each object, to give more context. The session was run by the Museum’s Preventive Conservator, and a Curatorial Assistant, and received very positive feedback.

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Raised relief in bronze of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ by John Martin, at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

‘Ethics of Dusting, or, Longing for the Endless Immensity of the Sea

John Greenwood and Dawn Knox (English Heritage) co-presented an entertaining session about the ethics of removing dust and dirt, or ‘time-stain‘ as John Ruskin once referred to it. Conservation is often represented as some kind of cleaning process, with the profession underpinned by ethical guidelines, used to justify what dust we do, and sometimes don’t, remove from objects, collections, and historic monuments. Dawn is an artist, currently working on a project along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. She is collecting everything that the conservators are removing (dust, leaves, grass clippings, moss), in order to give the impression that no time has passed. The installation will be shown at Birdoswald Roman Fort  at a later date.

The disembodied hands of a conservator, removing dust from a piece of Roman sculpture
The disembodied hands of a conservator, removing dust from a piece of Roman sculpture

‘Making Art Happen Through Crowdfunding’

The final presentation of the day was from Alison Nicholson, Digital Communications and Fundraising Officer from The Bowes Museum. She explained how reductions in core funding led to the Museum seeking new methods of fundraising, with two successful examples of crowdfunding from last year. She provided practical tips on how to select your project, keep the momentum going, and survive the nail-biting final push to reach the target. To coincide with an exhibition by Gavin Turk (7,201,964,238) the Museum ran a Kickstarter campaign to commission a neon sign to be installed on the front of the building. With a £6,000 target, the Museum was pledged £8,680 to realise the project. The Art Fund ‘Art Happens’ crowdfunding platform was used to succesfully raise the £21,000 needed to conserve the 15th century Flemish altarpiece (the progress on which can be followed here and here).

Display in the foyer of The Bowes Museum during the Art Happens fundraising project
Display in the foyer of The Bowes Museum during the Art Happens fundraising project

By Katy Smith, Textile Conservator

The Passion Altarpiece – Laying the Problem to Rest

Once we had carried out a detailed examination of the painting (as described in a previous post), we could see quite clearly the main problems, and a treatment plan was devised. The main problem was the flaking of the paint layers.

Saint Jerome in raking light

We were surprised by the amount of flaking on the panels. During building work to refurbish the picture galleries in 2011, the altarpiece had been safely stored in another gallery, and the environmental conditions had been monitored. Only when re-installed in the picture gallery was the flaking was detected. It is also interesting that the outer paintings of the Founding Fathers (with the exception of St. Jerome) have suffered little in comparison with the paintings of the Passion, and the smaller, replacement panel, has no flaking at all. The detection of previous damage shows us that the panels have a history of flaking, the reason for this could be that the adhesion between paint layers and wood is poor. Environmental conditions have since been improved to attempt to discourage any further flaking.

Detail of St. Jerome's robes
Detail of St. Jerome’s robes

The first action on our treatment plan was to stabilise the paint layers, and lay all the flaking paint. We ranked all of the areas of flaking on a scale of 3 (quite minimal) to 1** (very severe); most of the areas were scored a 3, with only a few ranked 1**.

To help us with the process of re-laying the paint flakes, we used a Preservation Pencil – a piece of specially-designed conservation equipment. The tool provides a fine jet of air, which can be heated to a desired temperature, and can be connected to a humidifier and directed onto the flaking paint. The Preservation Pencil has many uses in conservation, from cleaning and humidifying, to separating layers, and re-activating adhesives.

The Preservation Pencil in use

Directing a jet of warm (65 degrees Celsius), humidified air at for five seconds made the paint less brittle and more plastic. Once humidified, we used a fine sable brush to introduce Isinglass (a natural adhesive, more on which later), which penetrated through the cracks in the paint to the wood panel below. Where necessary on severely flaking areas, more humidified air was applied to further soften the paint.

Introducing Isinglass into the cracks
Introducing Isinglass into the cracks

Acid-free tissue was then placed onto the Isinglass to provide support to the paint.

Laying acid-free tissue over the Isinglass
Laying acid-free tissue over the Isinglass

Finally, a heated spatula (also 65 degrees Celsius) was applied to the surface,  with hardly any pressure being used, – just the weight of the tool itself – to relax the paint and lay it flat onto the adhesive below.

Gentle heat and pressure being applied using a spatula iron
Gentle heat and pressure being applied using a spatula iron

The adhesive was left to cool and dry for a few minutes, before the acid-free tissue was removed with a moistened cotton-wool swab. Although it sounds nerve racking, as the paint layers are very delicate, it is a technique I have carried out before, and it is very successful.

After conservation
After conservation – paint layer adhered back down onto wooden panel

Finally, a bit of information on Isinglass. It is traditionally made from the swim bladder of the sturgeon, which is now rare and expensive, so a cousin from the Indian Ocean now has the dubious honour of supplying the conservation community. The Isinglass is diluted in water in a 2% proportion, and remains stable and flexible for a long time. There are modern synthetic options which can be used as an alternative, but the Isinglass is time-tested and sympathetic with the materials from when the panel was originally made.

Isinglass
Isinglass – before being made up into a solution

Jon Old, Conservation Manager/Paintings Conservator