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.


The Scheuer Skeletal Collection: a unique resource for archaeology, osteology and forensic anthropology

Having seen Professor Sue Black on TV, I was looking forward to hearing her at the 18th Annual Harold Plenderleith lecture in Dundee and I wasn’t disappointed. Unfortunately, her colleague Dr Craig Cunningham couldn’t attend, so instead Professor Black enthralled us effortlessly for the whole 40 minutes with very familiar collection care themes applied to a very unusual collection. Continue reading

‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation in Focus – curating, conserving and designing a major exhibition’

An acclaimed exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, on the theme of photography during the Victorian period, has recently drawn to a close. The exhibition, which explored innovations in early photography, included over 1500 photographs and related objects from the museum’s collections. To ensure that the exhibition was staged safely and delivered successfully, conservators at NMS worked closely with the principal curator, the exhibition designer, and the object handling team. This collaboration prompted an event, which was co-hosted by the National Museums of Scotland, Icon Photographic Materials Group and Icon Scotland. The event took place in the afternoon on the 15th of September. Delegates were encouraged to tour the exhibition in the morning, at their leisure. Conservators from the National Library of Scotland were in attendance – and feedback was extremely positive.

“Hearing from the conservators at NMS was really useful. It was interesting to learn about their approach to displaying photographic material. I was particularly interested in their use of discreet magnets to display some of the objects”.

Lynn Teggart, conservator, National Library of Scotland

“I really enjoyed listening to Esther, the exhibition designer. I was fascinated to hear about her vision for the exhibition, and the way that she pulled the whole thing together aesthetically, to reveal the story of early photography in Scotland.”

Simona Cenci, conservator, National Library of Scotland

NMS Photography Exhibition

NMS Photography Exhibition

To start, principal curator Dr Alison Morrison-Low described her role in coordinating the exhibition. She discussed the overall theme and presented her reasons for staging a ‘showcase’ about the development of early photography, emphasising the impact made by Scottish pioneers like Hill and Adamson. She described her favourite pieces from the show and provided some fascinating background information about these objects.

Item from the exhibition

Item from the exhibition

Following Dr Morrison-Low’s comprehensive introduction, the exhibition designer Esther Titley described her particular aims and objectives. She explained that conservation concerns were at the forefront of her mind as she began to consider the space and plan the lighting. Esther noted that common ground had to be established between her and the conservators before any of them could proceed with the task in hand. She explained that the key to their success was in keeping the channels of communication open. Esther revealed her desire to knit the exhibition together visually, by creating a unified theme –using a limited but modern palette, bespoke and befitting display cases, and interactive AV units designed to look like old fashioned tripods. She carried out some extensive research at the start of the project, taking inspiration from other organisations, incorporating some of their presentation methods. For example, cabinet cards and carte-de-visits were slotted into position using nifty rails, and glass stereos were lit from behind using carefully calibrated timers to minimise the overall amount of light exposure.

Display case

Display case

Conservators from the National Library of Scotland were keen to hear about the experiences of their museum-based counterparts.  Lisa Cumming and Victoria Hanley spoke about the challenges that had to be addressed during the preparatory phase and at the point of installation. Lisa described the stringent timeframe, the sheer scale of the project, and the specific vulnerabilities of some of the objects that they were tasked with safeguarding. The conservation team employed various tools throughout the project. Victoria explained that she became a compulsive list maker in the run up to the exhibition, and that these lists helped her to keep track of the large number of (often very small) objects.  Assistant paper conservators Emmanuelle Largeteau and Rosalind Bos provided an account of the work which was carried out to protect and prepare the huge collection of daguerreotypes.

Item from the exhibition

Item from the exhibition

Finally, Kirsten Dunne from the National Galleries of Scotland provided an introduction to Micro-fading, data from which was used to inform decisions during the planning stages of the exhibition. Kirsten explained that this technique enabled some of the museum’s salt prints to be displayed confidently, dispelling fears about their extreme sensitivity to light. To begin with some of the prints were considered to be so light sensitive, that their inclusion in the exhibition was called into question. Kirsten explained that the results of her micro-fading tests were both positive and surprising. Micro-fading was used to determine the light-fastness of various prints, and this helped to establish an object rotation rota. It proved to be an invaluable and cost-effective tool – an enabler rather than an instrument of dissuasion.

In all, the event was a resounding success, spurring heated discussions about photographic processes, conservation techniques and the challenges of putting on large scale exhibitions. As a group we returned to our workbenches a little more inspired, and a little more knowledgeable too.

Shona Hunter


National Library of Scotland

Review: ICON Adapt and Evolve Conference, 8 – 11 April 2015

Could you not make it to the recent ICON Paper and Book group conference? Find out what you missed in this week’s blog post…

In April 2015, in London, the Icon Paper and Book group hosted one of the most significant conferences in paper conservation of the last years. The title of the conference, ‘Adapt & Evolve – East Asian Materials and Techniques in Western Conservation’, gave easily away the general idea of the conference but the most enjoyable part, was the fidelity to this theme during the four days of lectures, visits and workshops, and the interactions and discussions brought to the table by the diversity of conservation specialists and manufacturers from Eastern and Western countries. The sessions where distributed within Reflections and Developments, Adhesives and Repairs, Paper and Materials, and Moving Forward. They were supported by different studio tours such as John Jones and UCL-Institute for Sustainable Heritage, and by workshops such as Japanese brush making by Kobayashi Hake Production Company and The use and care of Karibari boards by Namiko Tagawa.

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Review: AIC – Photographic Material Group – Biannual Winter Meeting 2015

During the 20th to the 21st of March 2015 at Harvard University and Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, USA the last Biannual PMG (Photographic Material Group) Winter Meeting took place. This was the last of the 20 meetings prepared by the American Institute of Conservation, Photographic Material Group. I had the chance of attending to the magnificent conference and the opportunity of visiting different studios in Conservation of Photographic Materials as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA and The Better Image while seen some familiar faces and making new colleagues professionally and personally.

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