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Hard Hats and Heritage

July 14, 2010

Since the decant last April, Portrait of the Nation has continued to be a major project for the Conservation Department as we prepare objects for the new displays and collaborate closely with our curatorial colleagues. I am one of the Senior Conservators on staff and have the unenviable task of co-ordinating the department’s considerable involvement.   


As the newest Heads Up blogger, I hope to provide an insight into the scale and range of our activities: for example, from meetings spent brainstorming to cleaning paintings, from cutting mounts for works on paper to refitting paintings into frames, from disaster planning to washing watercolours and from gilding to retouching!    

To give you just a brief glimpse, recently I found myself back at the Portrait Gallery. With the building work now well underway, the electrical contractors requested that the fabric covers applied last year to protect the painted murals, be cut back to allow access to the wiring system. We therefore faced a return to the scaffolding tower somewhat earlier than anticipated but were keen to oblige – and were curious as to what exactly was going on behind the portacabin façade on Queen Street.   

Conservation Technician Jamie Mitchell Trimming the Tyvek Covers on the Frieze

Nothing prepares you for the sight and sound of a building under construction – and particularly not such a familiar one in the apparent process of ‘deconstruction’! At any one time there are more than 80 men working on this site and we all agreed that the place is almost unrecognisable. Despite the dust and relentless noise generated by such furious activity you could not help but feel a tingling sense of excitement. It really was happening! As later twentieth century additions, such as partition walls against the north windows, are stripped away the original scale and materials of the building are slowly beginning to breathe new life.  Not surprisingly Health and Safety issues are of paramount importance for the contractors and conservation technicians, Ian, Jamie and I reported for a site induction at 8am before setting to work. The stone arches around the mezzanine level demanded repeated building and dismantling of the mobile tower as we worked around the Great Hall carefully trimming back the Tyvek® covers. This proved to be demanding work for us all!  

Lengthening the Ties on the Frieze Covers

Overall my short experience of being on a building site was a valuable one. It appears that we are extremely fortunate in having such a professional team involved with the refurbishment programme. Strict discipline, good humour and a friendly approach were all in evidence as was a genuine sensitivity to the needs of such an exceptional historic building.  So far so good!    

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