19 May 2009

Nolan, Kelly and a tapestry

"The tiled floor in red and white was in a house I was in once. The courthouse was in South Melbourne and through the left-hand window you can see sailing ships of the time. The candelabra is true to life. The judge wears the black cloth of death and below is a sergeant with a rolled, sealed document that seals doom for Kelly. Of course, it could not have been ready. Kelly told Judge Barry that he would soon see him in the next world, which is not a very polite thing to say to a man who's just sentenced you to death. Strangely enough, Mr Justice Barry, a great man, who did many good deeds, went home to bed and died a fortnight later, from, it is said, a septic carbuncle."
Reproduced from Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly Paintings in the National Gallery of Australia with essays by Murray Bail and Andrew Sayers

Over the past few weeks our Textiles Conservator has been carrying out conservation and maintenance work on a large tapestry from the Federal Law Courts in Sydney. The tapestry is a reproduction of Sidney Nolan's 1947 painting entitled "The Trial", which is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

The tapestry was produced under the supervision of Sidney Nolan in Portugal by Manufactura de Tapecarias de Portalegre, probably during the 1980s, and was in good condition when we received it from the Federal Law Courts. However, it had become quite soiled after hanging in the lobby outside Law Court 21A for many years.

Our challenge with cleaning large tapestries is to remove as much dirt as possible without damaging the tapestry - and when we're talking about something that measures more than 4m x 3m, and weighs 15-20kg dry (and three to four times that wet), this challenge can be substantial.
It is made even more difficult by the tendency of some dyes to run when exposed to water for a length of time. So the first challenge with any tapestry is to test the solubility and stability of every different colour of yarn used. In this case, we found that the red yarn began to run after 30 minutes of exposure to water ... and as you can see in the image of the original painting above, there is a lot of red, and it adjoins a lot of white or cream!

So in this case, we could not wash the tapestry with water, or use any stain removal reagents in aqueous solutions. Instead, our approach was to use a combination of brush vacuuming, tweezers (it's like picking needles from a haystack), and localised solvent cleaning. This approach is resulting in a substantial improvement in the condition of the tapestry.

Whilst not all of this improvement is visible to the naked eye, the removal of the particulate matter has a double benefit - not only does it slow down the deterioration of the tapestry by removing the generally acidic dust, it also reduces the rate of ongoing accumulation of dust (yes, dust begets dust - generally due to the static charges on the particulate matter).

Museum of Australian Democracy at OPH

The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House was opened last week.

Our contribution to MOAD was relatively small - particularly compared to the amount of work we've undertaken at Old Parliament House over the past few years - but important nonetheless. During the design of the new exhibitions in 2008, we provided detailed recommendations on how to install the exhibitions into the building with minimal impact on the significant heritage fabric of the building.

We were fortunate enough to be part of the soft opening for museum and heritage professionals last night. Primed by an inspiring speech on the nature and value of democracy by artist Robyn Archer, we were most interested to see how the galleries that housed the National Portrait Gallery (now of course housed in their own purpose-built building almost over the road) had been redesigned.

Context is everything they say, and there can no more appropriate building in which to talk about democracy, or indeed space within a building, as the Museum opens directly off King’s Hall, with the House of Reps on the left and the Senate on the right. The themes it covers are those to be expected; Bill of Rights, the Constitution, suffragettes etc. but the nature of the space, which is the old Parliamentary Library, suits silos of information delivered in this way.

It’s a didactic exhibition, i.e. heavy on words without a large number of objects, but there is a lot of information to get across. The main gallery is dominated by the ’timeline’, a vast lectern type installation with a series of touch screens, which allows you to data mine deep into a whole range of issues and events according to the period you have selected.

I never find openings the easiest time to assess exhibitions, but this has the look and feel of a well researched and well presented exhibition. It is not as big as I thought, but it has the relocated and revamped Prime Ministers of Australia Gallery next to it, a new visitor experience now happening in the cabinet room (Cabinet in confidence), and a temporary exhibition called Living Democracy: the Power of the People soon to open.

Overall, I am a great fan of Old Parliament House as a building, and it is great to see its reason for existence post Parliamentary use finally having real resonance and meaning.

Julian Bickersteth
International Conservation Services