A Game-Changing 2 days in Stirling

Historic Environment Scotland: Monuments in Monuments 2019
Monday2 September  – Wednesday 4 September 2019 Engine Shed, Stirling

Meredith Macbeth – Conference Review

Autumn has absolutely flown by and the Monuments in Monuments 2019 Conference seems like a distant memory, but for me, the impact certainly lives on. MiM 2019 took place over three days in early September 2019. The speakers ranged from the technical to the theoretical. There were case studies and papers on policy, and a big focus on climate change and its effects on the historic environment. To catch up with friends old and new and to find out what lies in the heart of stone conservation today, all from the hub of the buzzing Engine Shed in Stirling made the experience more than beneficial. Attendees were able to explore notable sites in the Central belt which really gave the opportunity to tap into the work that is being done in Scotland. Delegates were able to choose from  Fossil Grove, Glasgow Cathedral or  Glasgow Necropolis on the first day. On the third day, delegates were able to choose between Dunblane Cathedral/Leighton Library, British Geological Survey or the South Gyle Conservation Centre. With such interesting options, it was hard to choose! And while I was unable to attend it, the ceilidh at Stirling Castle appeared to be a massive hit with more than a few bleary eyes and heads the next morning!

Monuments in Monuments 2019: the beginning of the conference.

I am fortunate enough to have a “dream position” job with Orkney Islands Council working at the extraordinary St. Magnus Cathedral – where I am the sole Stone Mason/Conservator. The job has its challenges but being able to exist within the red and white sandstone walls of St. Magnus is an absolute privilege. My tasks are quite varied from taking lime samples and helping to plan our next 10 years of work, through to changing lightbulbs and clearing drains. Every day is different and with big works on the horizon, every month and year will be different. Sourcing local stone continues to be a tough issue and working within a Council budget and bureaucracy also continues to be an opportunity for a challenge, although slightly less fun than taking samples from closed quarries.

I was given the opportunity to attend MiM 2019 and represent ICON Scotland as a representative on the Group’s “Trade Stand”. I was absolutely delighted to represent ICON Scotland and had many interesting chats with fellow members and interested parties while answering queries on the stand.

Meredith Macbeth representing ICON Scotland on the Group’s “Trade Stand”.

I found myself thinking “What a fast two years it has been since I attended the opening of the Engine Shed!”. I am always so pleased to step over the threshold as I know I will be greeted by a group of cheery folks passionate about the historic environment. Arriving at MiM 2019 was no different and more exciting as an international conference, we had the opportunity to ‘show off’ the Engine Shed and the impressive works undertaken by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

I’ve been working in conservation since 2008 and I was really struck at this conference to see the radical improvement and accessibility of technology since then. It was exciting to see technology being assimilated and used well, primarily for documentation and interpretation. It was brilliant to see and certainly encouraged me to “up my game”. The use of drones (Brian Johnston, Queen’s University) for example, time-lapse cameras, (Sarah Hamilton, HES) thermal imaging (Kinley Laidlaw) and not to mention all the 3D recording. Exciting times! Inspired by this conference, I have recently employed Orkney Sky Cam to survey our East Window, internally and externally. Having such a set of high-resolution photos and videos is so useful for planning and worth their weight in high-level gold!

I found it incredibly heartening to see the community that came together at MiM 2019 with conservation as a common interest. There were speakers from all over the world including Ethiopia, New Mexico, Switzerland, Isle of Man, Washington D.C. and Italy all sharing their cultures, work and concerns, absolutely wonderful to see new sites and ponder new challenges. Blen Gemeda’s (Oxford University) talk on medieval rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia was visually stunning and an interesting challenge. The ongoing preservation of the inscriptions at El Morro National Monument by Angelyn Bass and Katharine Williams (University of New Mexico) was intriguing, not only the history of the inscriptions themselves but the history of the conservation of the inscriptions themselves.

Another unique question which was discussed at this event was the footprint of the Conservator. Should viewers and historians be aware of conservators’ interventions within the history of the object?  It was even asked- should a conservator always intervene? This was such an alluring topic, as so many treatments of the past have been done in good faith but certainly to the determent of the object or site itself; Portland Cement has kept a good many stone conservator in employment. Paul Wooles intriguingly discussed the merit of ferrous fixings, asking if  Conservators are too quick to remove them. Yes, I thought, they can be hazardous to stonework but at the same time, they are fabulous tell-tales for moisture movement and often part of the history of the object. Ending the conference was David Harkin from HES, speaking about ‘Cultural Heritage and Climate Change’. I have seen David speak before and he is always a delight, albeit his subject matter less cheery and optimistic. He manages to explain how climate breakdown impacts our everyday lives, but also how it will impact our historic building stock. This can be useful to raise the awareness of a modern conservator. Those treatments that worked in the past may not work now – due to our changing climate.

Although I have many colleagues, I am a one-man-band when it comes to the conservation and stone care at St. Magnus Cathedral. Conservation, in general, can involve quite a bit of solo work, so for me coming together with fellow professionals for a few days in September was much needed.  I have mentioned a few examples that really inspired me, but so many other little snippets have stuck with me – Christine Bläuer’s keynote advice on how to translate the meaning of your results to the stakeholders has helped me in my work. Christa Gerdwilker’s advice to take a holistic view and be able to question your approach has helped me too. A keynote tip from Sara Croft – that we should champion our profession and the skills, knowledge and judgment that we all bring to our own jobs was massively inspirational. Also Sara’s advice about setting out on the Accreditation process – don’t hold back there, get involved.

It was a wonderful few days and I would like to thank Christa Gerdwilker and her team for pulling together such an inspirational event.

Meredith Macbeth is the Stone Mason/Conservator at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. You can contact her at meredith.macbeth@orkney.gov.uk or on her sleepy twitter account @MeMacbeth.
Many thanks again to Christa Gerdwilker, ICON Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and the Friends of St. Magnus Cathedral for making this opportunity possible.

 

Dismantle, Conservation and Installation of William Chambers Statue, Edinburgh

This month’s blog post comes from  Jonathan Leburn, a Sculpture Conservator with Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation Ltd. He describes the recent treatment of a monumental statue in Edinburgh….

Moving sculptures is a large part the conservation work that we do, some sculptures however are larger than others.

Front and back of statue

Front and back of statue

We have recently finished the conservation of a 3 metre tall and over two ton in weight, bronze statue of William Chambers and 5 associated bronze plaques, as part of the revamp to create more public space outside the National Museum of Scotland.

The statue and plinth which date from 1891 have only been moved about 10 metres from their original position, however in order for the conservation works to be undertaken the sculpture and plaques needed to travel a little further.

The fixing methods of sculptures to their plinths is always somewhat of an unknown, and can often make removal of objects tricky. We will always try to remove the sculptures causing as little damage as possible to the original piece.

On this particular occasion it was clear that there were a number of doweled anchor points set into the stone from three footplates. These clearly couldn’t be removed without causing significant damage to the stonework, and as a result the next best option was to cut through the bronze footplates.

Before this could be done the sculpture was carefully slung and a hi-ab crane was brought in to take some of the sculptures weight and ensure that when the last of the fixings had been cut the sculpture would be secure and would not topple.

Cutting through the bronze footplates to free the sculpture

Cutting through the bronze footplates to free the sculpture

The sculpture was then carefully raised up off its plinth and over the scaffold, before being lowered onto the back of the hi-ab lorry.

The sculpture is lowered onto a large pallet with thick plastazote softening

The sculpture is lowered onto a large pallet with thick plastazote softening

Once back at our workshop the sculpture was initially placed in the workshop on his back. This allowed us to have a good look at the internals of the sculpture and with the aid of an endoscope we could view the condition of the bronze right the way up the sculpture. Structurally there did not appear to be any significant issues however it is often interesting to see what has been placed up the sculptures, in this case large amounts of twisted ferrous metal bars and stakes.

Ferrous metal found inside the sculpture

Ferrous metal found inside the sculpture

We removed the original fixings and the remainder of the footplates we had cut away from the top stone of the plinth by way of a core drill and then using a hammer and chisel to carefully shock off the remaining concrete attached to the dowels. Once removed it was clear to see the high workmanship of the original fixings that remarkably after all this time were still easily unscrewed from the footplates.

Original fixings having been removed from the top plinth stone

Original fixings having been removed from the top plinth stone

The cut away sections of the footplates were then welded back to their original positions and a new bronze pad was also welded to the underside of each of these footplates to give added strength. Threaded holes were drilled and cut into the new footplate sections to line up with the original holes and new stainless steel dowel was cut to fit into each of the footplates.

The depth of footprint was then increased on the plinth top by way of hammer and chisel to allow for the new bronze footplate sections that had been added. This ensured the sculpture would sit at the same height on the top stone.

Discreet pigmented wax tests were also undertaken at this time on the underside of the left foot to help us decide on the best colour option.

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Carrying out wax tests

The sculpture was raised back to its vertical position by way of a tall gantry within the workshop and was then given a thorough washing down with potable water and nylon brushes. This was done to remove general dirt and bird guano present on the bronze surface.

Following this the bronze surface was again brushed, this time using copper brushes to enable removal of loose verdigris and sulphation crust from the surface of the bronze. Small areas of graffiti were also removed at this point using a combination of chemicals.

The bronze was treated with a chelating agent to inhibit against future corrosion to the surface. Following this it was gently heated with a propane torch to remove all moisture.

Considering its age the bronze was in a generally sound state, however there were areas that required attention. Specifically the top of the head was in a poor condition. Being that the head is the most likely spot for a bird to land and with the acidic nature of bird guano it is not uncommon to find that the tops of sculptures are generally in a poorer condition than the rest.

There was quite significant pitting to the head of Chambers that required filling with an epoxy resin. This was pigmented to match the colour of the surrounding bronze.

Top of head prior to filling

Top of head prior to filling

Filling the pitted surface with pigmented epoxy resin

Filling the pitted surface with pigmented epoxy resin

Once all holes had been filled the bronze was again heated, this time to melt the first coat of pigmented wax into the metal surface. Following this first application the sculpture was left to cool down and allow the wax to harden. The wax was then buffed into the bronze to harden it further. A second application of wax was applied to the sculpture cold which again was buffed to harden. This process was repeated twice further in order to increase the layers of protection the wax gives the sculpture. It also increases the depth of colour to the sculpture as the pigmented wax layers build up.

Applying first coat of wax

Applying first coat of wax

Following completion of the conservation works the sculpture was transported back to the new site of the original plinth which itself had been dismantled, conserved and re-built.
To ensure the sculpture would be completely solid on top of its plinth a core drill was used to deepen each of the original holes that would receive the sculptures dowels. The holes were thus drilled down into the second stone from the top.
The sculpture was then lifted just above the plinth top so the dowels could be screwed up into the footplates. A dry run was then undertaken to ensure that all dowels and footplates fitted correctly into position. Following the successful dry run the sculpture was lifted back up and the holes in the top stone were filled with an epoxy grout. The sculpture was then lowered down into its final position.

Dowels being threaded into position prior to final positioning of sculpture

Dowels being threaded into position prior to final positioning of sculpture

Final positioning of sculpture and plaques

Final positioning of sculpture and plaques

Written by Jonathan Leburn Sculpture Conservator with Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation Ltd, Edinburgh.