Our venues

Conservation at work video

Have a look at the work of our conservators in this introductory video, which was made when the Conservation Centre first opened in 1996.


Narrator: Here at the Conservation Centre, we are working to prolong the life of all the collections held in trust by the National Museums and Galleries in Merseyside.

In the sculpture studio, the work varies from cleaning and restoring sculptures of all kinds to making new replicas. ‘The Spirit of Liverpool’ was rescued after 120 years on the roof of the Walker Art Gallery and is now in the foyer of the centre. An exact replica is being made to replace it.

Sculpture conservator: If you look at the building, the building is not terribly decayed, the sculpture is. It appears and we know from the records that the sculpture on the roof was a major part of the cost of the building. Therefore, it was always a vital element. Now if you take off the sculpture and say OK it’s decayed, you’re left with something that has lost a lot of its significance. Now if you put back the sculpture, then you are re-establishing the original intention of the building. So, in a sense, that’s what we’re doing. We are looking at if the building itself was like a ruined monastery, it would be very different. We take a different approach. Here we have a building that is in very good condition, very much as it was originally intended to be seen, but the sculpture has deteriorated far more rapidly than the rest of the building.

Narrator: This dinghy is a replica of one made locally in Rock Ferry in 1935. The original was considered too precious to be returned to the water.

Shipkeeping and industrial conservator: The original boat is quite sound, there was some attack with the original owner; there was some woodworm effect, which we have treated, which didn’t affect the structure. There is a general view, that wooden boats should really be used in the water, even in museums, which I can understand in some people. Our business is to preserve very unique, special craft on the longer term and if you use it on the water, you are, in a sense, putting it at risk. Wooden boats, in particular, have a uniqueness about them in that each one, even if you get the same craftsman to build six of the same boats, each one will be different than the other. There will be a difference in that the materials, the way they are shaped, put into place. So, there is a uniqueness about them. Boat builders are fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it, becoming scarcer. And to some degree too, the very process of building the boat in its original form and style is helping to preserve the original and it’s helping to record the skills involved with it and to keep them going.

Narrator: Most conservation work does not, however, require such wholesale changes.

Paintings conservator: We’re less inclined to make decisions about doing major interventions and treatments, whereas a few years ago there would have been very little concern about whether to line or reline pictures. We don’t take those decisions nearly as lightly these days. We’re more likely to do nothing and to monitor something than we are to intervene. And where we do intervene we try to make that as minimal as possible. We like to remain with the same materials that the artists use as far as possible. We would use pigments and media that are stable and that are light fast. In instances where the artist has used pigments and media that aren’t light fast, or that age more quickly, then perhaps we will try to use a similar alternative.

Narrator: Sometimes an ordinary object has special significance, a lifejacket from the Titanic for example.

Textures and organics conservator: I’m going to do very little with the lifejacket, it’s going on display in the Maritime Museum. I’m going to surface clean it with a vacuum cleaner. But, I’m not going to try and clean it further. I think that in a case like this, the actual soiling on the object is part of its interest.

Narrator: Conservators are deciding how to treat these master drawings from the Weld Blundell collection before they go on exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery.

Paper conservator: This drawing is a 16th century drawing by Tintoretto and it has various problems, there is a very large missing area in the top left hand corner and there are stains such as here, there is a very large stain, with a loss in the paper as well. We would like to interfere with the drawing as it were to a very minimal extent. What we have decided to do is to simply tidy up the old repair to make it look aesthetically more acceptable. And so that when one views the drawing, ones eye isn’t led up into that corner. This early 17th century drawing by Rubens which also has a very large repair in the lower left hand corner. The texture does not quite marry up with the texture of the drawing paper, but it is similar enough to be able to tone it down in colour and to reduce the texture so that it will look more acceptable.

Narrator: So should we be able to see the actual repair work on objects when it’s on display? Conservators sometimes use a simple guideline to help with this.

Ceramics and glass conservator: The six foot six inch rule means, we don’t specifically get a tape measure out and measure it accurately, but the six inches meaning if you get close to an object its obvious where the repair is. On viewing it from the distance of a showcase, the way you would look in if you were viewing it in a gallery, what we are saying is that the treatment should not be obvious.

Narrator: This painting of Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holliday was once severely damaged, in fact the damage was so serious, that it changed the way that we transport works of art. In 1966 temperature and humidity changes during a flight to Rome caused the canvas to shrink and the paint to peel from the surface. Painstaking work by Italian conservators means the painting can once again be enjoyed in the Walker Art Gallery.

We are now able to send quite delicate paintings abroad. This German painting by Karl Gussow is on a wooden panel. Timber warps easily when the humidity changes, and in the past it would have been unthinkable to have loaned it out for exhibition. The conservators are installing the painting in a microclimate box, which will keep it in a stable environment and ensure it is fully protected. An indicator sealed in the box allows conditions to be constantly monitored. The Kingston brooch is also being prepared for travel to another museum, its one of the most celebrated pieces in our collection.

Metals conservator: It’s an Anglo Saxon broach dating from the 7th Century, and the surface decoration is made up of lots of gold filigree and also cut garnets which are inlaid into these gold cells and there must be around 100 garnets in the broach. When I came to check it for travel, I discovered that a few of the garnets had become loose in their cells. So, before it could go out on loan, it was necessary to consolidate some of the garnets into the cells by adding some acrylic resin to hold them into place.

Narrator: Museum objects must be handle carefully when on the move, but they can also be under threat when standing still. Vulnerable objects, such as furniture on open display, have to be carefully monitored. Measures are taken to keep the temperature and humidity stable throughout the gallery to prevent damage like this from occurring. This split in an 18th century English commode will be repaired by the furniture conservators. Light levels can also cause problems.

Textiles and organics conservator: The best solution to preserving textiles is to keep the light levels very low. And although it is harder for the visitor to see them, I think if you have the right conditions so that you walk through progressively darker areas, your eyes will adapt to dark conditions. These are two painted silk embroideries from the Lady Lever Art Gallery. There is a large collection of early English embroideries in the gallery and a lot of it is in very bad conditions because they have been displayed for a very long time in very high light levels. If we kept them on display in very bright conditions, they would be destroyed completely.

Narrator: Sometimes, the actual material used can be unstable, as in this 17th century drawing by Guercino.

Conservator: It’s in an ink called iron gall ink, it is very acidic by nature, it can become so acidic that it will deteriorate the paper to such an extent that the paper can break down completely in those areas. In a few areas here, this has happened and the paper has dropped away from those areas. The spots are fly dropping, which we very often find on paper, so one of the jobs that we have with this drawing it to remove the accretion and to draw out the stain.

Narrator: Statues in our city are also suffering, but its pollution from traffic and industry causing the damage.

Sculpture conservator: The problem is that pollution, although statistics say it is getting better, most of us that work with sculptures can see that things are deteriorating as quickly now as they ever have. And our problem is that we have to find better techniques for cleaning and treating the sculptures which is partly why we have created the laser technology because we’re trying to find more effective ways of treating them, but creating far less damage by treating them.

Narrator: Not all treatments are so futuristic; conservators sometimes make use of more traditional methods.

Metals conservator: The Japanese swords have almost a mirror finish on some parts of the blades, and wonderful satin finishes on some parts. The iron corrosion on the blade, there was some advice going around, that you should remove the iron corrosion by using a pin and scratch the corrosion off the blade. We use traditional Japanese techniques in caring for the blades which involves the use of a very fine abrasive powder that is wiped along the blade with mulberry paper and the blades are then protected with a very fine layer of clove oil.

Narrator: We often want to discover what lies beneath the surface and modern technology can help with this detective work. John Millais changed his mind many times before settling on this version of his famous painting ‘A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. X-rays help tell the story

Paintings conservator: During his endless changes, the actual figure group in the centre doesn’t appear to have changed much except for the actual leg of the knight as the horse got bigger and then smaller, Millais actually adjusted the leg of the knight and there is actually an image from the first radiograph that shows a foot that ends here and we can see a spur at a higher position. The painting changed hands many times in the latter half of the 19th century and was bought by a Mr Benson in the late 1880s. In 1892, four years before Millais’s death, he actually asked Millais to make some changes to the horse most particular to elaborate on the straps and bells and the leatherwork here at the end. I’m hoping that all the documentation I leave behind in terms of sorting out the order of events that Millais went through will be of great help to the next restorer because it has taken a phenomenal amount of time to get that sorted out. 

Narrator: In contrast to this research work devoted to just one painting, paper conservators are faced with treating and restoring 200,000 negatives in the Stewart Bale photographic collection acquired in 1986.

Paper conservator: Edward Stewart Bale wasn’t satisfied  with the quality of services that he was getting so he decided to set up his own company and expected very high standards from his staff.

Narrator: Each negative has to be removed from its original storage box, surfaced cleaned and repaired if necessary. Its then rehoused in acid free folders inside metal storage cabinets. This work ensures that a unique photographic record of the city of Liverpool is preserved for the future.

Conservation work always involves careful judgement and when it finally comes to starting work on the object, does the conservator always need to take a deep breath before they start?

Paper conservator: Yes, always take a deep breath. It is a matter of respect for the object.

Metals conservator: Well yes, yes you do because you know that it is unique.

Paintings conservator: Once you actually really get up close, you see the brush strokes and you really get to feel the effort and the strain and anxiety that the artist has put into actually conceiving the work and with something like this where Millais struggled, and struggled and struggled, I mean it is quite extraordinary.