July 1995 Issue 16
Study Trip to Australia
In his 'Essays' of 1652, Francis Bacon observed that: 'Travel in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience'.1
Precariously balanced between youth and antiquity, I am suitably qualified to state that the time I spent in Australia was both an education and an experience. Granted two weeks' study leave during a longer trip, I arranged to work in two different institutions - Melbourne University's Ian Potter Conservation Centre and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.
My first placement was with paper conservator Rosie Freemantle at the Ian Potter Conservation Centre. The Centre was established in 1990 'to provide care and conservation for the University's vast and diverse collections of material; to provide teaching support ... to undertake research and conduct research programmes, and to provide a Fee-for-Service facility for outside organisations and individuals.'2 Rosie is one of three full-time conservators at the Centre, headed by paintings conservator Robyn Sloggett. They in turn are supported by two full-time and two part-time technical assistants.
There are at least ten separate sites on campus for which the Centre is responsible, varying from faculty libraries to faculty museums. The Faculty of Medicine has a large collection of material on paper and has a small museum housed in the Baillieu Library. As well as administering to all the faculties, the Centre is responsible for artifacts housed and exhibited by the University of Melbourne Museum Art Gallery, the Percy Grainger Museum, and the University Print Room. Additional responsibilities include objects going into the temporary exhibition space at the Centre itself, a small loans programme, and providing a teaching programme for students and interns.
The faculties' needs are encompassed in the Centre's annual conservation programmes. Surveying and prioritising parts of the Collections allows them to plan for conservation requirements in collaboration with the faculties themselves. Work on campus collections includes not only treatment of individual objects, but also an ongoing rehousing programme. The emphasis is on preservation. The Fee-for-Service programme supplies a large part of the Centre's funding. Private clients can use the Service, and larger projects are won through tenders. In theory only 10-20% of the Centre's time should be spent on the Service, but in practice it is probably 30-40%. Such a scheme obviously has its benefits. Not only does it bring in much needed money, but it also provides conservators with material that they may not have previously encountered. The catch-22 is the pressure the institution is put under to make money and consequently not to spend as much time on the University collections.
The Centre recently won a tender to conserve and restore Loreto School for Girls in Mandeville Hall located in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak. Originally a family home, it was built in 1867. Gillow& Co of London were commissioned to complete furnishings and remodel parts of the original house in 1876. In 1877 Charles Webb designed the new Palladian facade, and the interior decorations which are being conserved and restored today were begun. The house was added to the Historic Buildings Register n 1987. Luxurious silk textiles, frescoes, stained glass and beautiful handprinted wallpapers are just some examples of work present, a portion of which are in a bad state of repair. Since it has remained a working school building, most of the damage has been caused from general wear and tear. The Centre will be removing overpainting, stabilising textiles, monitoring micro-environments and consolidating peeling painted surfaces. It is estimated that it will take 10 years.
My second study week was spent in Sydney, working with senior paper conservator Rose Peel at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Gallery houses 15th to19th century European art; 19th to 20th century Australian art; Yiribana Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art; 20th century European and British prints, drawings and watercolours and a new Asian Gallery with many hanging Chinese scrolls.
The highlight of the week was being able to watch, and on rare occasions to take part in, the mounting of a Chinese scroll. The scroll was brought to the Gallery by private paper conservator David Button (no relation) who works in Adelaide. David was there to 'learn' the basics of scrollmounting in a week - a skill that weo soon realised takes many years to perfect and is an art form in itself. It was a privilege to watch the Chinese scroll-mounter Son You at work - his skill (acquired over more than 18 years) being best described as visual poetry. It seemed to me to encompass the balance of body and mind in the artful manipulation of paper and silk. Movement of his hands appeared effortless, but having attempted to lift lightly pasted Schuen paper from the table I soon realised that I would have to dedicate most of my life to be able to reach his standards. Rulers were redundant, eyes and hands being the tools of measurement.
Having returned from my trip I would say that there are a great many advantages to working abroad: it offers one an insight into how other institutions work, provides a good forum for exchange of ideas and meeting people, and is an obvious and interesting way of comparing and contrasting working methods. I would like to thank all those who made it possible.
1Bacon, Francis 'Essays' 1652.
2The University of Melbourne Art 'Conservation Service prospectus -1.1 Philosophy of the Conservation Service'.