When I asked Natasha Howes, Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery if I could visit their conservation department I won the Golden Ticket.
As a self-confessed art anorak, when she agreed, it was the closest I’ve come to being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.
The first surprise was that conservation is carried out off site and not at Mosley Street. I’d like to say it’s a secret location, because that sounds really dramatic. Well. It’s not exactly secret, although when Natasha asked me to arrange things with Senior Conservator Claire Grundy I was asked not to mention where the department is. Quite understandably, given what’s in there. Suffice to say that it is a couple of miles outside the city centre.
My expectations were fulfilled when Claire let me in through the double (and fairly daunting) security doors. First things first as always and Claire made me a brew in the small staff dining room on the lower ground floor.
A table, four chairs, chess set and Pictionary board game hardly hinting at what was on the floors above. “We don’t eat at our desks,” Claire said. To which I replied, “I don’t think that a Greggs pasty would be appropriate alongside a priceless work of art…”
When we’d chatted and I’d been given the tour, my impression was one of science labs alternated with workshops, which was exactly right.
As Claire said, her team of four (including herself) combine science, art and practical skills. Conservators can’t have any of these without the others.
At the (secret) location Claire, in addition to her management duties, is a paper conservator. There is a painting conservator, frames and furniture conservator and more recently a conservator for dress. Interestingly the conservator for dress is a graduate from Man Met, qualified in embroidery, who joined as an intern around four years ago and is now on staff.
“Dress is like sculpture in reverse,” Claire says, “how best to display an item of dress so that what’s underneath becomes invisible.”
We tour the building, which in effect has a huge office (or workshop or lab) for each conservator. I am wide eyed at the works of art which are around and being worked on. I am, of course, asked not to include them in photographs for very obvious and understandable reasons. But for example one huge and famous canvas which I have looked at hundreds of times at Mosley Street is undergoing conservation.
Claire explains the practicalities of work, in addition to the science, art and hand skills. That vitally includes ‘a travel passport’ for each work either received or loaned out.
Condition is vital of course; “Detailed images of how it looks as I send it to you, or accept it into my organisation. We’re really good at looking and making sure that we find everything, every tiny little detail on the way in, or on the way out. It’s a joy and delight.
“We’re so lucky to be able to look at things in private, but we have to get it right, see everything and then sign to make sure that both organisations are in agreement. And that after three or six months on exhibition it’s still exactly the same.”
Then Claire explains about visiting lending studios, artists or galleries to assess works, discuss and arrange crating, transport, insurance. With works going on loan, the same process of course.
“With private individuals loaning pieces, for example, we also have to get permissions to perhaps stabilise work if necessary, re-frame, generally make sure that it’s suitable for public display. We also have to be able to walk confidently across a room carrying a Turner!”
The science stretches to engineering too, when a sculpture exhibition, for example, has to take account of the load bearing on floors at Mosley Street. Lots of other considerations before an exhibition is installed and revealed to the public.
Claire’s team have been called ‘the engine room’ of Manchester Art Gallery, although she also explains the process – which can be two or three years in the making – where a curator will put forward an idea, that will be discussed, researched, validated and accepted. Then planned, instigated and delivered, with all of the logistics explained in so brief a form above.
I ask Claire how she came into the career that she describes as a ‘joy.’ Newcastle for an academic degree in arts and classics, followed by an MA in paper conservation. Fellowships at The Smithsonian and The Met, thirteen years now at Manchester Art Gallery.
“A curator will live with an exhibition for the years leading up to opening and then for the duration of the show. The day that it opens our job is largely done, although of course we check constantly. As a conservator if you’ve done a good job, people can’t tell.”