26 September 2010

sydney statues project

As conservators, we receive a wide range of requests to assist with many unusual activities associated with cultural and heritage objects.  The Sydney Statues Project which comprises part of Art and About Sydney 2010 was one of these unusual requests.

"We want to dress some of the bronzes in the City", said the voice on the phone,  "Can you help us make sure we don't accidentally cause any damage to the statues?".  And so we became involved in this unusual project to make us look anew at the historic statues dotted around the City of Sydney.

We've worked on many of these statues at various times over the past two decades, undertaking a variety of conservation and maintenance works to the bronze statues and to the stone plinths they rest on.  We've treated corrosion, we've cleaned them and we've rewaxed them.  We've repaired vandalism, removed graffiti, and had small portions of the statues recast after they'd been damaged or stolen.  We've even temporarily relocated some of them, whether to permit other works to occur in the area, or so that the statue could be incorporated in an exhibition of the sculptor's work.  And so we have a pretty good understanding of the issues associated with care of these bronzes. 

So we agreed to work with Michelle McCosker, Imogen Semmler and Alasdair Nicol to help them with their daring Sydney Statues Project.  We worked through a risk analysis and assessment process with them, to identify the most significant risks to the statues.  We developed a methodology for testing and treating the many different fabrics selected by the individual artists so as to minimise risks arising from the colour fastness or flammability of the fabrics.  We advised on methods of installing the costumes, and reviewed the artists' designs to identify any particular risks arising from the design concepts.

And today, I visited the city and saw the statues in their new (albeit temporary) finery.  I chanced upon one of the organised tours - involving performers as tour guides - I'm looking forward to taking one of the tours to get yet another perspective on the statues!!

One of the things I most love about this project is the intent behind it.  We know that one of the essential components of conserving our heritage is communicating the stories about the objects to the public.  And the  Sydney Statues Project does this in a new and fresh way, giving us all the opportunity to experience the significance embodied in these statues froma different perspective.  Or simply to reconnect with something we had taken for granted.  International Conservation Services is proud to be associated with this creative approach to sharing the stories of our cultural heritage.

David West

23 September 2010

relaying a 19th Century tiled floor

We've just spent the past three months on our hands and knees in the Great Synagogue in Sydney.  And the result is that the tiled floor to the central portion of the Synagogue is now fully functional again. 

Laid with geometric and encaustic ceramic tiles on a cement mortar bed over a timber-framed floor in 1885, the floor had seen 125 years of services. 

Unsurprisingly, particularly given the structural alterations carried out beneath the Synagogue in the 1950s, some areas of the ceramic tiling were badly disrupted, with tiles cracked, loose and missing.

Over the past few years, we have been working with Peter Phillips of Orwell & Peter Phillips, Honorary Architect to the Great Synagogue, and Simon Wiltshier, structural engineer from Hughes Trueman, to investigate the problem and develop an appropriate conservation solution.

The recent works were undertaken in two phases.  First, structural interventions were undertaken to provide additional support to the timber floor structure.  This work was completed from beneath the floor without requiring any disruption within the Synagogue.  The second phase saw us progressively lifting and relaying the ceramic tiles.

We carried out the work so that each Friday afternoon we could vacate the Synagogue, leaving only a small area of the floor and a limited number of pews discreetly barricaded off.  Each Monday morning, we would open up new areas ready for the week's work.  We also stopped work several times each week during scheduled tours of the Great Synagogue.

We had previously procured replacement geometric and encaustic ceramic tiles for those missing or broken or excessively worn.  These replacement tiles came from Maw & Co, the English company which had manufactured the original tiles installed in 1885.  Needless to say, the limited number of replacements (5-10% of the total) and our work to lift and relay the floor cost rather more than the complete cost of the original tiles - the Great Synagogue's records show that the tiles originally cost £344/1/4 (three hundred and forty four pounds, one shilling and four pence), whilst the tiling cost £100.

We also worked with the specialist supplier of conservation materials, Westox, to develop a cementitious mortar that would be as close as possible to the original mix used to lay the tiles.  The composition of Portland cement has changed significantly since 1878, and it is now much stronger and chemically different to then.  The mix we developed used a combination of modern Portland cement and pozzolans to reduce the strength and shift the composition and characteristics of the mortar back closer to the 1870s Portland cement based mix in the original floor.

Other challenges included:
  • how to integrate the replacement tiles with the original tiles
  • resolving variations in the dimensional tolerances of the tiles and original joint widths
  • lifting and refixing the timber pews
We successfully relaid the floor in the time available to us, and based on our recent post-completion inspection, the floor stood up to all that the large wedding held a few days after we finished work could throw at it ... including breaking glass!

David West
International Conservation Services