Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
On 14 – 15 March, ‘Conservation Conversations’ was held at the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of the Science Festival, which this year was marking the International Year of Light. It was a great opportunity for conservators and curators from all eight University of Cambridge Museums to present how light factors into their collections or work. During both days from 2-4 pm members of the public were encouraged to sit and chat about various topics. There was a range of projects on show from 3D printing of specimens to a survey on the recoloration of natural history collections.
We presented a light modelling and control project that was undertaken in Gallery 1 of the Fitzwilliam Museum. When the museum was first built, daylight would have been the only source of light with which to view art and the amount of light was never directly controlled. During the summer, sunlight pours in through the three glass domes in the roof for part of each day. We have become more aware of problems caused to works of art by direct sunlight and for many years the domes were blocked out with thick layers of greenhouse paint. When the gallery was due to be refurbished, the Museum’s conservators asked the University’s Department of Architecture if it could help find a better solution. A final year student, Reinier Zeldenrust used weather data and a computer model to map the patterns of light there would be on the walls over the course of a year. This also predicted cumulative exposure in every part of the gallery. Results showed that there are areas on the north and east walls that receive far more light than the rest of the room, which is a potential problem.
Visitors were interested in the solutions to these issues, for example the environmental monitors that are permanently fixed to the walls to test the results of the model and track real-time light levels across the brightest areas as identified by the project. It was hoped that a special film which cuts out the harmful UV radiation and reduces the quantity of light without affecting its quality could be applied to the three domes. This would protect the collections whilst still allowing visitors to see them under the constantly changing conditions of natural light. But it was a particularly difficult task as the glass is double curved! In the end a company that applies films to car windscreens was able to accomplish this delicate operation with the use of heat and clever cutting of the film to fit within the framework of the dome sections.
Additional external protection, just for the mid-summer months of summer is now being investigated as the final part of the project. Visitors were very interested to see just how much thought and effort goes on behind the scenes in an area that in everyday life seems so straightforward. To some, even the revelation that light was monitored was surprising. Knowledge levels differed from visitor to visitor, and the variety of questions we got was very great. With the light modelling project some visitors were more interested in the embroidery sampler that we displayed to illustrate light damage, whilst many others were curious to understand the light modelling diagrams.
Rachel Howie, Conservator, University of Cambridge Museums
Emily Perdue, Conservation Intern, University of Cambridge Museums