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Designing the Interior

Elaine Clerici
Designer, Austin-Smith:Lord

The complexity of moving six of the most highly serviced and equipped areas in the Museum to a new location cannot be underestimated. The task required patience and understanding on all sides and close co-operation between all those involved. The sections requiring new studio laboratory space in the first phase of the RCA project were Book Conservation, Paper Conservation and Science which were to be moved into the listed North Wing. Sculpture Conservation and Textile and Tapestries Conservation were to be moved into the new purpose-designed building in the North Yard. The head of each section was interviewed on the intricacies of their section. They were asked about conservation methods, how the section would operate in the new location, Health and Safety regulations, on working practices, benching and storage needs, servicing, as well as specialist water requirements.

The furniture, equipment and fittings to be moved to the new location were all carefully surveyed and scheduled. Dimensions were listed as well as service requirements and any specialist services. New items to be purchased were then added to the schedules.

The areas were planned out, the plans were discussed with the section heads, who took them back to their sections for comment and modifications were made as required. The process was repeated until the plans were agreed and signed off. The studios were designed with serviced, fixed benching along the walls. The services contained in the trunking (power, voice and data) were fixed to the top of the bench at the rear. Pairs of worktables were positioned at right angles to the fixed benching. This configuration maximised the daylight falling onto the work surface. The studios also needed to be flexible to accommodate very large objects that occasionally required work so the furniture in the centre of the studies was designed to be mobile.

Work areas were provided off the main space for highly serviced specialist equipment or equipment working at high noise or vibration levels. Specialist consultants were brought in to advise the design team and heads of sections. These areas were then designed in detail.

The new laboratory furniture and storage were custom designed to meet the brief and the Museum's policy regarding materials used in areas where objects may be present. Materials could not contain any substances emitting gasses that harm objects. The MDF used in the laboratory furniture was zero formaldehyde rated and many other precautions were taken in the manufacture of the furniture.

Studies were also carried out to determine the optimum standard working height for the benching and work tables, resulting in the section heads agreement on three different heights. Where users stand or use a high chair to carry out tasks, the height of 915mm was decided upon, 750mm for computers or microscope work and 790mm in Textiles and Tapestries Conservation to match the height of the existing furniture.

A number of worktop types were developed with the section heads to meet various requirements. Firstly a laminate-faced work top with beech lipping, (the lipping was left unsealed in Paper Conservation as the edges are used for pasting out repair tissues), a chemical resistant work top, and a load bearing work top for Sculpture Conservation.

A mushroom beige coloured laminate was selected for the worktops in most areas, because this colour caused minimal glare and is restful to the eyes. The fixed benching, mostly running under the windows, was designed primarily for undertaking desk work, leaving the work tables free for the conservation process. The fixed benching had open metal underframes to accommodate movable cupboards, drawer units and tool pedestals, aiding flexibility. The worktables were designed with the same flexibility, some with light boxes and castors and many of the work tables were powered.

Sinks were integrated into the runs of fixed benching and designed to suit the space and the brief. The sinks were manufactured either from chemical resistant stainless steel or polypropylene and the water requirements to each sink were specified by the section heads.

The Museum's policy regarding the storage of objects meant that the object stores could only be manufactured from inert materials. All the object stores, plan chests and some of the materials stores were designed down to the last detail. The units were made from mild steel with an epoxy powder coating and were fitted with a special silicone seal to prevent the infiltration of dust.

The chair type was given careful consideration by the Museum. The chair selected was available in different height options, all having adjustable seat heights and back rests. This flexibility allows the conservators to adjust the chair to give optimum support whilst working on objects.