Listen to this article
Never again will the British Museum’s conservation and scientific research team have to struggle to get an elephant down a staircase. Until recently, their science department was headquartered in an old Georgian house, through which the lacquered Asian antiquity had to travel, with no little difficulty, via a spiral stairway and through a narrow door. Today, should any pachyderm come for analysis in the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, nothing so undignified would take place. “Here he would arrive elegantly, the right way up,” says Catherine Higgitt, head of science group.
It is not only elephants who stand to benefit. The average visitor to the museum — trekking between the Elgin Marbles and the Egyptian sarcophagi — has no idea that a new building designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners has sprung up just metres away, in which the exhibits in front of them are analysed, restored and otherwise looked after.
The improbably large centre, slotted between classical buildings, resituates conservation at the heart of the museum. It also unites a team that was previously spread out across London, housing scientists, stone experts, organic specialists and more under one roof. “We’ve got two studios next to each other that used to be 5km apart . . . Over a cup of tea people bounce ideas off each other and it’s brilliant. Everything they say about open plan is true,” says David Saunders, keeper of the department of conservation and scientific research.
Inside the stone conservation studio, staffers are still blinking in their newly acquired daylight. “That’s the one thing we’ve never had,” says Tracey Sweek, senior conservator. “The history of conservation for us has always been in sub-basements or basements. We’ve had windows but they were so frosted or barred that it didn’t really give us any daylight.” They now have floor-to-ceiling glass — the ceilings high enough to accommodate the loftiest of sculptures and the floor capable of supporting several tons of marble. The studio is already full of works in progress: brightly coloured Mayan casts, intricate Chinese wall paintings and a pair of classical male statues incongruously perched on hydraulic pallets.
These sculptures, part of the Townley collection of antiquities, are due to go out soon on a museum tour. Before that, though, they need a good clean. Both made of marble, they date from the first century BC with various missing limbs recarved in the 19th century. Fills put in at the same time to disguise any holes are now discoloured and must be painstakingly removed and replaced without damaging the original marble. Conservator Tomasina Munden is struggling with a particularly problematic shoulder. An array of tools is spread out before her: syringes, dental instruments, scalpels and — improbably — cling film. “A lot of tools in conservation are borrowed from other places,” she says. “I fill the joints with cotton wool and then I inject the resin into that and cover it with cling film. Then I leave it for an hour or so and then I go back and pick a little bit more out. It’s a long and slow process.”
Some of the pieces conservators work on are being prepared for exhibition, others merely made stable for their years in storage. But the prolonged scrutiny that the process requires (Munden will spend 120 hours on these sculptures) means conservators often spot things that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. “We focus on an object for some time. We just see things,” says Sweek. This can turn up some unusual discoveries: work on an enormous sculpture of “Europa and the Bull” from Crete revealed that the sculpture had the wrong legs on, a mistake that had been hidden by years of accumulated dirt.
Many of the works that come through the conservation rooms also make a trip downstairs to the science department for further analysis. This spread of rooms sparkles with new equipment and possibility. “We’ve sort of skipped the 20th century,” says David Saunders, before adding with a laugh, “This is where I get to play.” There’s a machine to test how much objects will fade on display, a computer that monitors the temperature and moisture levels in the museum’s 400 spaces and, in pride of place, a cavernous room that will eventually be one of the biggest X-ray facilities in London. It was one of the first things constructed, requiring a continuous pour of concrete to build its enormously thick walls and it should be working this year, exposing the insides of some of the museum’s largest objects for the first time.
Upstairs, scientist and wood anatomist Caroline Cartwright is examining microscopic images of various woods. Enlarged, the different cell structures are surprisingly beautiful. “The whole thing about wood anatomy is it’s really pretty seductive, you just get drawn in,” she says. It has also helped solve several mysteries. Cartwright’s recent study of the Botany Bay shield collected by Captain Cook identified the wood as red mangrove, a piece of evidence that suggested previously unknown trade routes. She is now working on an intricately carved rosary bead from the Waddesdon Bequest, which will be displayed in a new gallery later this year. It is made from boxwood, a material suited for such ornate work because of its dense, uniform vessels.
Philip Fletcher, an analytical chemist, shows me 3D computer tomography images of the same rosary bead. Taken at the Natural History Museum, they reveal the extraordinary miniature scenes that it contains on the inside. “How they did it, I’ve no idea. It’s just tiny, tiny but we can virtually deconstruct it,” he says. Another part of the bead has four leaves that unfold, allowing a little figure to pop out. This was too fragile to transport for a CT scan but the British Museum will shortly have the same equipment in the new centre and be able to do its own images. “So for the public, who’ll never see this open on display, we can show them what’s inside and how the thing was put together,” he says.
The room in which Fletcher stands also houses the scanning electron microscope — complete with attached energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer. Screens are everywhere, each displaying different charts and graphs. Tiny samples taken from ancient objects can be examined using the microscope, allowing scientists to analyse the elements. “So you can tell if it’s genuine for one thing, you can compare it with other pieces to see if they’re all from the same periods, if they’re made in the same geographical area,” says Fletcher. A rare Venetian turquoise glass goblet and an opal beaker, both extensively studied, stand to one side.
Authenticity is key. Down the corridor in the X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry room, scientists keep a rogue’s gallery of objects examined and found wanting. One, a supposed Egyptian statue, arrived for testing with a purported date of 1500BC. But XRF determined that it was made of brass, unavailable until much later. The museum is also responsible for examining the hoards of treasure dug up by hopefuls across the country. It is hard to predict their worth before the machine does its job. “You say, ‘Yes, of course it’s gold.’ Five seconds later, ‘Oh. Actually it’s brass,’” says Duncan Hook, senior scientist. “That can disappoint but it also happens the other way around. We’ve had lots of brass coming in that goes back as gold.”
Science has long been key to the museum’s work. The first research laboratory was founded in 1920 after objects kept in an underground quarry for safety during the first world war were recovered and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, to have deteriorated. Later, the museum’s scientists were among the first to use radiocarbon dating, co-ordinating work on the Turin Shroud, among other projects. “We were world leaders in laboratories,” says Hook. “And hopefully we still are.”
. . .
By bringing all this knowledge together under one roof, the aim is to stimulate collaboration. The organics department, which deals with everything from fur to amber, wax to plastics, used to be in Hackney. Now it shares space and facilities with the paper conservation unit. “We’re literally next door to each other and it’s made it so much easier to share ideas or compare what adhesives we’ve been using to repair materials,” says Monique Pullan, senior conservator.
Then, of course, there is the question of space. “A few years ago we dealt with a 9m long Tahitian sail and at that stage the only way we could work on it was on the floor,” says Saunders. This is no longer the case. The organics studio has a coffin on one table and a collection of kimonos on another. Nearby, Pullan is working on a series of large bark cloths for an upcoming exhibition. These garments are created by beating the inner bark of a tree to a mass of fibres. There is a bridal apron with seeds and shell beads, many of which have a little orange feather tucked in underneath to provide just a flash of colour. Elsewhere a curator is using poultices to remove dirt from a poncho printed using seaweed. A skirt from the Fortuna Islands was cut into three pieces by an overenthusiastic collector at some point in the 19th century. Pullan is restoring the whole before it goes on display for the first time.
There the public will be able to marvel at its design. But it’s unlikely that they’ll notice the careful joins, each geometric line matched up just so; no hint of Pullan’s hard work. And that, really, is the point. There are more than eight million objects in the British Museum’s collection, with about 1 per cent of them on display at any given time. Few of us pause to wonder why they still look so clean, what makes up the adhesives that hold them together or which precise pigments were used to make them so colourful. But just behind the scenes, in their new home, the conservation team will go on analysing, cling filming, poulticing, refilling and X-raying to ensure that they stay that way.
Tours of the facilities will open for booking later in 2015. This programme and the WCEC are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine
Photographs: Kate Peters