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Behind the Scenes at Bristol Museum

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Setting out to disprove the commonly-held view that an interest in science excludes an interest in art, the Bristol and South-West Regional Group recently went all educational as well as recreational for its 2008 Summer Visit. And maybe there’s something in that approach because, for the first time, the visit was over-subscribed – a trip to the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery is a major draw!

The visit was not a simple walkabout, but a rare chance to experience the hard work that goes on behind the scenes at a large gallery. Split into three groups, those attending were treated to two expertly-guided tours around the art conservation workshops and the artwork stores, both normally hidden from the public at the extremes of the building.

Ascending a wonderfully old-fashioned lift and a narrow staircase, Oil Paintings Conservator Carolyn Lamb introduced us to an unseen series of rooms. This houses the team that works hard to maintain the state of all the pieces on public display, and tirelessly carries out the pain-staking work to restore paintings that have been damaged by the ravages of time, or the stresses of public contact! We were introduced to the varied specialities of the conservation team, who graciously took time out of their working day to explain their current projects and the variety of skills and techniques they apply in the restoration and repair of the exhibits.

The group was fascinated by the degree of subtle yet extensive testing and experimentation the conservators carry out before tackling any work of art directly, all in an effort to ensure that no damage is done to the original works. We were all equally amazed not only by the length of time each restoration takes, but by the clever applications of simple chemical techniques to achieve truly startling and impressive results – some visitors had to ask for clarification as to what they were seeing when viewing ‘before and after’ examples of restored paintings, so impressive were the results!

Descending deep below the museum, everyone was also treated to a rare glimpse of the full extent of the Museum’s holdings, as Julia Carver, the Assistant Curator of Fine Art, took pleasure in showing us the multiple racks of carefully-stored paintings and sculpture. Julia explained the interaction between her role and the conservators upstairs, as well as demonstrating her passion for the works under her care. While admitting that the majority of the most impressive works were – obviously – already on display, she treated us all with a few works of masterful quality, currently in storage but waiting to be rotated onto the gallery floor, as and when the opportunity arises.

She also obligingly took requests from her guests, attempting to show us works by specific artists, or with a specific subject matter. In much the same manner as Carolyn had happily engaged in conversation as to the various ethics and approaches towards art conservation, Julia eloquently fielded questions regarding the selection and acquisition of new artworks (and the funding thereof!), and explained how the gallery attempts to stay on top of modern artistic media and maintain examples within the collection.

For two-and-a-half hours, the museum staff went out of their way to be helpful and informative and, as a result, everyone who attended was not only educated but thoroughly impressed and entertained before they returned to the summer sunshine outside.

Derek Gillespie
Honorary Recorder
Bristol and South-West Regional Group 

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