It was fascinating to hear that the British Museum is missing its visitors in more ways than one. It seems that the exhalations of the 17,000 visitors that the museum received daily prior to lock-down were essential for keeping precious exhibits at the correct humidity levels. The museum has not been closed for more than three days at a time (over Christmas) since World War II. Since the closure in March the relative humidity levels have fallen dangerously below 40%, which means that objects made from wood and bone have been drying out and are prone to cracking and fracture. Museum staff have been monitoring the situation closely and moving the most sensitive objects to their environmentally controlled strongrooms. The re-opening of the museum is eagerly awaited by all!
I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
Wentworth Woodhouse is an amazing Grade 1 listed country house in South Yorkshire. It has the longest frontage of any building in Britain and, reputedly, has 365 rooms. For years this incredible house was in danger of collapse due to coal mining that had weakened its foundations until, in 2016, the then Chancellor, Philip Hammond, made a grant of £7.6 million for restoration work. Although an estimated £42 million will be needed overall, Wentworth Woodhouse goes from strength to strength. The Preservation Trust has recently reported that phase one of the emergency works programme is almost at an end with like for like replacement of roof slates on the south-east wing, known as Bedlam, the Riding School and the Chapel. The chapel's ceiling has also been restored its the chandelier, that was discovered stored away in a dusty box, has lovingly restored. Work on phase two, to re-slate the east front State Rooms, is already running ahead of schedule.
The Camellia House, which is home to some of the oldest and rarest camellias in the Western world, is still roofless and in dire need of restoration, but has received a National Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1.5 million to transform it into a daytime café and evening events venue. The grant will help to develop proposals for the 18th century menagerie, the Riding School and the southern range of the Stables. Meanwhile, the first donation to the newly-launched Wentworth Woodhouse Wishlist was by local company Spear and Jackson who donated their top-notch trowels, spades, forks and garden loppers to help the site’s volunteers.
A rotting 19th century oak sculpture of biblical hero Samson that once served as a nightclub ‘doorman’ in Norwich has been restored and is now on display at the city’s museum. Carved columns of Samson and Hercules were commissioned by the mayor of Norwich in 1657 to guard the entrance to his home. From the 1930s to 2003, the building functioned as a dance hall and nightclub. The decaying Hercules was replaced in the late 19th century, but Samson remained in situ until his right arm fell off in 1992, sparking a local campaign for the preservation of both figures. Fibreglass replicas took their place outside the building in the unusually named Norwich street, Tombland, and Norfolk Museums began a programme of painstaking restoration.
Plowden & Smith were commissioned to preserve and restore Samson, a process that took many years as he was covered in about 60 layers of poisonous white lead paint and had fungus growing on him. Water had caused such extensive rot that his interior was like a sponge, requiring weeks of consolidation. The restored Samson was unveiled at the Museum of Norwich in April after a crowd-funding campaign raised £15,000 for a bespoke, environmentally-controlled display case.
I was fascinated to read an article in The Times on 7 May that 3-D scanning is being used to produce precise reproductions of cultural objects. Facsimile paintings can be created using the same pigments and canvas as the originals, allowing us to see vivid, unfaded, colours, thus creating the experience intended by the artist and not as we view many artworks today, that have suffered deterioration though age and environment and that have to viewed through glass, in low light, or from some distance away. It also means that artworks can be seen in their original settings. Such a facsimile of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana has been created for the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the original commissioner of the work, whilst the original sits in The Louvre in Paris.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has discovered an ancient Egyptian scroll hidden inside a vessel containing a mummified ibis. The rolled-up papyrus, wrapped in two layers of linen, was found when conservators were examining their animal mummies before moving them to a new storage depot. The crucial question was whether the papyrus was inserted in the clay vessel in antiquity or in modern times, when it was in the Miramar collection, owned by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who acquired the object in Egypt in the mid-19th century. After his execution in 1867, Maximilian’s collection passed to his Habsburg brother, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and in 1883 it entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Samples of the mummy’s linen covering and the two pieces of fabric used to wrap the scroll were sent for radiocarbon testing to determine the dating. The results showed that the scroll’s inner wrapping dates from around 1100BC, while the other fabrics are both much younger, around 400BC. Regina Hölzl, the director of the museum’s Egyptian and Near Eastern collection, believes it very likely that the scroll was deliberately inserted into the ibis cone in Ptolemaic times to raise the votive value of the mummy. The discovery suggests that other ibis mummies could also hold papyri.
Conservators had to devise a special method to flatten the text. Because of its brittle condition, it was first treated in a humid chamber to restore the flexibility of the fibres. The papyrus was then treated with cellulose and smoothed with the aid of a suction table and weights. The text was in hieratic cursive writing used for everyday documents. Robert Demarée of the University of Leiden, who deciphered it, was able to confirm that the scroll was written by the scribe Thutmose who records his name in the document. His handwriting is also known from examples in a number of museums including the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The text is the equivalent of a notebook or cashbook in which Thutmose recorded his business transactions. He listed supplies that he used, such as copper, turquoise and lapis lazuli, and objects he bought, including amulets and jewellery. Thutmose also recorded that some clothing was stolen from his house and he named the suspected thieves: Amenhotep son of Qenna, Nesamenope son of Hay, and Pentawemet.
A 12-week old Weimaraner puppy is the latest addition to Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley is part of a pilot programme. After a year’s training, his job will be to sniff out pests, such as moths and beetles that may be lurking in works made from organic materials like wool, silk and cotton. Weimaraners are highly intelligent, with an incredible sense of smell, and have the stamina to work long hours.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture