Landmarks: behind the scenes with conservators
Ainslie Greiner, Carmela Mollica, Nicki Smith and Daniel Oakman, 20 October 2011
DANIEL OAKMAN: Welcome and thank you all for attending the National Museum’s behind the scenes talk with our conservators. My name is Daniel Oakman and I am one of the senior curators here at the Museum. My job today is really just to provide a bit of background to the Landmarks gallery and to introduce our conservators and the objects that they will be talking about.
As I am sure most of you will know by now, the Landmarks gallery presents a very broad history of Australia since European colonisation and it has really become the Museum’s signature statement about the history of Australia. It addresses ten themes from colonial foundations of our capital cities to journeys of exploration, the discovery of gold, the quest for scientific understanding, the expansion of agriculture, mining and manufacturing, and the emergence of our highly urbanised cities.
In developing the gallery we were concerned to move away from very abstract ideas of national history and any assertion that Australia is a single entity or that Australians are all the same. Instead of trying to tell this very broad and abstract story, we felt that we should focus on particular places and particular historical encounters in those places. So we have aimed to look at how Australians have lived in these particular places, engaged with their local landscapes and ecologies, and the technologies that they have used to build their lives and societies. Landmarks explores the diversity of our lives across Australia while also drawing out the connections and similarities in the Australian experience.
It seems like an obvious thing to say that objects are central to the way Landmarks presents history, but in other ways it isn’t. For many years Australian history - or at least the version that I had grown up with during the 1980s - didn’t really look at objects, the material culture or the evidence of the past didn’t really feature, but rather we learnt from books and printed material. While the objects were there they tended to serve as props, as illustrations for the real history that appeared in history books. When we looked at developing Landmarks we looked to move away from that method of history and that method of exhibition making. We wanted to embrace the Museum’s tradition of undertaking complex and detailed investigative work on objects and then bring that knowledge and that spirit of inquiry to bear in the gallery.
One way we did this was to work closely with conservators, both here and around the country, to really understand the objects that we were including in the gallery. Working with conservators, of course, meant that we were working with the people who spend a great deal of their time looking closely at these objects. We wanted to know not just what materials these objects were made of or when they were made, rather we wanted to investigate and preserve the less tangible heritage that is contained in each of these objects, including the craft and skills that went into the object’s construction. We were also interested in peeling back the layers to see how other people had treated the objects over the years.
The three conservators who will speak to us today have been a vital part of that process of making the Landmarks gallery. We can all expect to hear some really intriguing and detailed stories about some of the work that they have undertaken.
The first object that we will hear about is one of the largest that the Museum has ever had to deal with, and that is the Simplex windmill. One of the themes we explore in Landmarks is the expansion of the pastoral frontier during the nineteenth century and the cultural and economic dynamics that powered that expansion. In the Grazing the Grasslands module we look at some of the challenges and constraints that people faced in learning and adapting to Australian conditions, and perhaps the greatest of these has been the search for water. The Kenya station windmill
that you see as you enter Landmarks, which has itself become something of a symbol of the gallery, has a very particular story outside of its iconic status.
Just to give you a brief background about the windmill, it has come from a region in central Queensland known as Bowen Downs. It was in the 1860s when the colonial government opened up this region for pastoral development. The explorers William Landsborough and Nat Buchanan rode into central Queensland and discovered the undulating plains and rich pastures of Mitchell grass. Nat Buchanan became the first manager of the Bowen Downs area and he quickly faced the challenges of raising cattle and sheep in this very remote region. The local Aboriginal people fought to retain access to their land and water, dingos attacked his flocks, waterways dried up, and stock had to be walked long distances to market. After five years Buchanan and Landsborough both walked away defeated by these challenges.
In the late 1920s, Claude and Georgina Seccombe acquired a portion of the Kensington Downs station, which is just next door to Bowen Downs, which included the mill we now have in the gallery - they named it Kenya station. This particular mill continued pumping water until 1988 when the family then sunk a deeper bore into the Great Artesian Basin which actually sent water to the surface under pressure. They were replacing sheep with cattle, which required more water than the windmill we now have could actually draw. A John Seccombe, who is a great nephew of Claude, and his wife Pamela kindly donated the mill to the Museum in 2008.
To tell us more about the treatment and reconstruction of the mill, I would like to introduce the Museum’s conservator Ainslie Greiner. Thanks, Ainslie.
AINSLIE GREINER: I am going to give a bit of an overview of some of the processes that we went through with the simplex windmill. I am going to show you some slides of it being pulled down, look at some of the treatment aspects, and then look at some of the innovations that we made to actually set it back up in the Landmarks gallery. Behind the scenes slideshow of the windmill
As Daniel has said, the windmill was from the Kenya station in Muttaburra up near Longreach. This is it standing on the property as it was [image showed]. The disassembly of it occurred in July 2008, so it was in the middle of winter when it was happening. It was a bit surreal being in Canberra thinking about this and the heat and what it’s like up in central Queensland whilst this was being done.
These images give you an idea of the scale of it. It really is an imposing thing. In old imperial measurements it is about 40ft high and has a sail-like fan of about 20ft. From the front of the fan to the tip of the tail is about 10ft. According to the catalogue of the time in the 1920s, it boasted a few things about the merits of this particular mill. The company stated that all IBC simplex towers have four legs which are the strongest form that can be built. The legs are made of angled steel. They butt one on the other and are secured with heavy-angled steel spliced pieces that were strongly bolted together. They had girts of angled steel and braces of flat steel. They also boasted that their bolt holes were industrially punched with heavy machinery.
What you don’t see is what’s happening under the ground. The legs extend into the ground a distance, depending on the size of the mill and the height of the tower. It would be considerable - several feet, I would imagine. These feet had anchor plates and angled steel pieces that kept it firmly planted in the ground. You can see some concrete reinforcing around the base of the feet just above the ground there as well. They also boasted that the platform was extra large. It was made of first quality top grade hardwood which was supported by a steel sub frame. It has gone through a fair bit of wear and tear over the 80 odd years, I would imagine.
You will notice that the sail, the fan, has also been chained to the tower. The story goes that one young jackaroo was getting a bit tired of hearing this fan tick over at night. It rattled, squeaked and squealed and made a lot of noise and made an awful lot of banging, so basically he chained it to the tower and promptly forgot about it. Sure enough, on a windy day the fan wanted to spin around with the wind and it couldn’t, so basically it rotated and spun around the tower and caused all sorts of damage. You can see that there is a bit of damage to the sails and to the outer ring and one or two arms of the fan [images shown].
I can’t believe facing this and wanting to climb this - it’s incredible. I can’t imagine getting up there and servicing this thing and making sure that all the various parts are greased and oiled. But these guys are well versed in this sort of work. It’s a team of brothers from the local district, the Rose brothers. I think they are the third generation of windmill mechanics in the area, and this is what they do. They climb these things; they put them up; and they pull them down. It’s quite incredible.
You can see them taking some of the sails off [image shown]. It’s interesting the process and the way they do it. You will notice in the bottom right corner that they actually take them off at opposing angles to each other because the fan needs to be balanced. If you take too many off on one side, it spins and really is dangerous - it just takes off on you. That is something we found.
Once the sails are off, they lowered them down with a pulley on a rope down to the ground. They started taking the outer rings off once all the sails were off. You are left with the arms and you can see that one in particular is really quite bent [image shown]. What do you do with all the heavy gear that is underneath it? You bring in a really big crane and start slinging things and pulling them off and lowering them to the ground. Notice how this guy is standing right on top of the turntable [image shown].
It is absolutely mind boggling - fantastic. In this shot on the bottom left you have the two brothers and their father working together to uncouple the pin that is holding the tail to the turntable. They are not wearing any safety gear at all. They have elastic sided boots on with heels and hats to keep the sun off. I suspect that these guys have been doing it from day dot. They were probably climbing it like monkeys when they were kids. It is obviously part of their life. They have been doing it for years.
We are getting to the bottom part of the tower. You will notice that they cut the tower from the base so we didn’t get all the sub feet and what have you. That is all still in the ground. Basically they flat packed it like an Ikea set of shelves, loaded it onto some trucks and brought it down to us.
So what we were faced with in the lab when it first arrived was this [image shown]. It’s a giant meccano set with hundreds of nuts and bolts in really poor condition which we rethreaded and treated. We tried to do that with as many of the original bolts that we possibly could. We were also faced with surfaces like this [image shown] that are heavily ingrained with rust and dirt concretions and oil and grease heavily caked on, which shows the working history of the object over 80 odd years. We were asked to retain as much of this as possible, which is interesting. I think it’s a really nice way of approaching things.
We had to look at all the internal working surfaces of the moving parts. This here [image shown] is the main big end bearing. You can see it’s uneven, obviously it has had a really hard life, it has had a real flogging. We were faced with how we were going to approach assembly with these problems. These are the slipper bearings that wrap around the crank. This is the lower one, the bottom one. As the crank went over each time it came down with a thud. It’s basically worn away that bearing there, which was a soft, white metal. These are the main bearings, main journals, at either side which hold the crank in place. You can see servicing was probably a bit irregular and haphazard. Although it was done, you can see by the wear on some of these surfaces and some of the build-up of dirt and concretions that obviously it’s been working but servicing has been irregular. What has happened on the inside of these journals is that you had a lot of scoring and wear from the grit, from the dirt.
We had two options. We could approach the crank with the option of grinding it and making new bearings to suit. But we knew that because it was going to be inside it wasn’t going to be exposed to wind and we knew that the fan was going to rotate very, very closely. We were fortunate enough to have the skills of a couple of very competent elder statesmen in engineering who are able to make things with machines. Col [Olgilvie] and Ian [Stewart] have made two slipper bearings to the dimensions of that worn crank bearing, which is a good thing because it’s a soft metal and it is not going to cause any more harm to that worn bearing. This is it fitted in place [image show]. What we do with replacement components is that we date them, we sign them and we autograph them to state that it’s not an original part, that the Museum made it and that it’s a sacrificial part. We have archived the bearings that have come off it and they are part of the collection.
Some other issues we were facing is with the top of the turntable where we had two carriages of these roller bearings [image shown]. You can see that on the inside of one of the rings there is a big build-up of congealed dry grease. Again, we retained that. We cleaned all the working surfaces where the bearings are to roll and we regreased them with inhibited grease.
This is the tail pin [image shown] and you can see that it has had a hard life as well. We found it very difficult to try to pull this out of the tail. It was very difficult to remove due to wear. So once we got it out, we made a new one because we knew that we were going to have to fit the tail to the tower inside the gallery. We didn’t want it to be hard so we made one to suit the worn journals for the pin.
This shows the universal joint of the centre shaft that pumps up and down. Again, we found excessive wear in it - and it just wobbles. We actually trialled it whilst we had it set up and we realised that it was wobbling all over the place. So the guys made an insert out of some teflon nylon on the lathe, which minimised that play, and they also made some bronze bushes for some of the other moving components on that universal joint.
These are some of the arms – again, they are bent due to damage. We decided to straighten them and we applied heat and used some innovative techniques get them into shape. We also gave the tower and components that didn’t have any moving parts a light clean with a mild detergent just to remove the dust and some of the dirt, but all the heavier concretions, bird poo and that sort of stuff stayed, we left it there. We didn’t use any great force to try to get it off.
What we also found was that we knew nothing about windmills and setting them up. We basically had to work out a technique of assembling it. What you see here is the lower section of the windmill as you see it in the gallery. It was designed and engineered by a local engineering company. As you can see from the shot on the right, it really is a very close resemblance to the original material. So although it looks new, it’s totally appropriate for the overall aesthetic of the object. This shows us working out various ways of getting this thing together. You will notice that we are using platforms, personnel cages and forklifts. Rather than lifting things with cranes, we had to lift the arms by hand in person.
The other thing we were faced with was that it was desirable for the windmill to be operational or at least looking as though it was actually rotating and turning. We got our heads together and we fitted an electric 240 volt motor to it that is coupled to a very low geared gearbox, and I believe it spins about 1.6 rotations per minute. The guys also engineered an adjustable bracket for it, which allowed us to put tension on the driving chain.
You can see in the bottom right hand corner [image shown] that the guys altered or modified a sprocket which you can see coupled at the centre in the crankshaft there and the chain going down to the motor. That wasn’t an easy task. It took a lot of effort to get that exactly right and the alignment of those two sprockets correct so that the chain would spin around properly.
The other thing is that we were faced with lifting the tail into position. Again without a crane we can’t really lift it up with any great ease, so we developed a jig for it. It has an adjustable column on it which enabled us to do fine adjustments on the pin coupling so that we could align that into the exact position so we could slot the pin through without any great difficulty. This is us trialling it for the first time in the workshop [image shown].
Here we are on site. The windmill was the first object to go in. Basically the work site was completely cleared for us and we were left for three or four days to set it up, which was great. It was nice not to have a crowd or any spectators, because these sorts of tasks are really stressful. It takes a lot of patience and you have to take your time with these things. As you can see, we didn’t have much room to work with but we got there. It was an interesting process.
Setting up the arms and the sails, like as it was pulled down, we opposed them as we put them on. We also developed a new hardwood deck for it that we sourced from a local timber yard in Queanbeyan. Apparently the wood that we used had been sitting on site for almost 40 years, but some of the cut edges were actually clean and not weathered. If you want to artificially age some timber, just get some steel wool and put it in a jar of white vinegar and leave it overnight and then actually paint it on. You will find within a day that it ages the wood really well. That is us putting the deck together and there it is in the gallery [images shown]. Any questions? [applause]
QUESTION: Did you find out how they got it up in the first place given the struggle you had to get it up?
AINSLIE GREINER: I don’t know. It would be a fascinating process. It would have been lovely to see it being pulled down. It’s mind boggling. We had nothing to work with.
QUESTION: You were talking about getting the whole history of these particular objects and the people involved, it would be really nice to know how they got it up because just watching them pull it down was tortuous - to get it up there and how do they service it, for goodness sake.
AINSLIE GREINER: I imagine they climb up.
QUESTION: I know they climb up -
AINSLIE GREINER: It is amazing. I was scared at two metres off the ground. On a small platform when you are holding things and putting them into place, I didn’t want to look at the ground.
QUESTION: I struggle with a little stepladder. Thank you.
QUESTION: A lot of the sails were damaged when it was hooked up, did you have to make replacement sails or were you able to use the sails that were originally there?
AINSLIE GREINER: We did straighten some of them but we were also fortunate that we had a surplus. There were five or six extras that weren’t as damaged that we could work with, so rather than try to straighten a really damaged one, we actually worked with the less damaged.
QUESTION: I notice on the sails you left the rust showing, has that been stabilised?
AINSLIE GREINER: The original bolts and screws, yes, we did stabilise them but we didn’t stabilise the original rust surfaces on the sails. We knew that it was going to be in a relatively stable environment and it wasn’t going to be exposed to huge fluctuations in temperature or relative humidity, so we knew that they were going to be quite safe. There was no indication of any new active corrosion. We believed that they were going to be okay. Part of the original intent for the overall look of it was to keep as much of the original appearance as possible, so we let that go.
QUESTION: How long has the whole project taken?
AINSLIE GREINER: It took us about 18 months from go to whoa, and the assembly took three days, but it took us a few weeks to actually develop that technique. With each step we worked out the best way we could do it, wrote up a process, wrote up a safe work method statement and wrote a risk assessment. We then went through working at heights training. It was a very systematic approach that took a lot of time and effort and consideration.
QUESTION: How did you get on to it in the first place? Did the owners contact you or?
AINSLIE GREINER: I believe this may be wrong - they contacted one of our conservators who has a small house in Muttaburra. She was friends with this particular family. They got talking, and I think that’s how it started.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Just being aware of the time we might move on. Thanks again to Ainslie. [applause]
DANIEL OAKMAN: Moving on, the next person we will be hearing from is Carmela [Mollica], one of our conservators, who will be talking about a particular dress from the Springfield collection. One of the other themes that the Landmarks gallery considers is the social life in these often very remote places. One of these places that is in the gallery is Springfield, which is just this side of Goulburn. Very briefly to paint you a bit of a picture of the history there, in 1829 a 21 year old man called William Pitt Faithfull left Sydney to take up 1200 acres of land on the Gundary Plain. Here he established Springfield, which was a merino stud, with rams and ewes from the best Australian flocks and through a careful breeding program he developed sheep renowned for their large size, hardiness and heavy high-quality fleeces.
By the turn of the century Springfield had grown into a prosperous station with a grand homestead surrounded by a very formal English garden. In 2008 descendants of the Faithfull family sold part of their landholdings, including the homestead, but they themselves continued to live on the station. These descendants, Jim and Pamela Maple-Brown, also donated a major collection of material from the homestead. It forms one of the largest and richest collections in the Museum’s holdings.
Carmela is going to talk to us about a particular dress that was worn by one of the Faithfull family’s three daughters. We think it was made in about 1905 and probably worn to important social events in the district, particularly the Tarana picnic races. This was an exclusive horse race meeting held at Tarana, which is just near Springfield, and was attended by most of the wealthy pastoral families in that region. Please welcome Carmela.
CARMELA: Slightly different from the windmill – not quite as large, not quite as rusty but certainly had a bit of damage on it as well. Daniel mentioned where the collection came from. When I went out to have a look at it, that is what I was looking at: a wardrobe with these lovely costumes in it [image shown]. If you look closely you can see the bottom part of the dress that you saw in the previous image. Once it arrived to us, we made up a lovely customised box for it and padded it all out, and that is how it sits in our storage areas [image shown].
Then in 2010 George Main, who is a curator working on the module for Landmarks, mentioned that he would like me to have a look at this dress to see if we could possibly put it on display. So I went and had a look at it, and that’s where it all started. What I will do today is briefly go through the documentation, treatment and display preparation for the dress.
As conservators, documentation is one of our main areas that we do spend a lot of time on, because that’s where we become close to the object. We work out the condition of it, we take measurements for further display preparation that help in the development of the display cases, etc. There is a lot of time spent sitting there and looking at the object in detail. Also at this time there are lots of photos taken as well as fibre ID analysis. I went through and identified the fibres on this garment and discovered that it’s cotton and silk, which is an interesting combination.
When I first looked at the garment from the outside, it didn’t look like much needs doing to it, until I actually opened it up and had a look inside. In the documentation side we also look at its construction. It was a two piece garment with a lovely skirt and a bodice. For the Edwardian period it fitted quite nicely in there, with the high collar and the loose skirts as opposed to previous to that we were wearing dresses with huge bustles and a lot of weight. Being a very light gauze fabric with a black background and a white printed dot on it, I suppose it is starting to fit into the Australian climate because it’s quite warm here. We also find out that the dress was made in London so we already have two quite different environments.
When we look at it on the inside, you can see the maker’s tag and also the number of seams and boning in there, which also gives us an indication of the period. Later in dress history construction was becoming more involved. They were understanding how to make these beautiful garments, so you see a lot of detailed work there. As I said earlier, when I opened it up, that was where all the damage was. Obviously being worn at the races in the hot weather here in Australia and being silk, then perspiration and body oils over time has caused the fabric to shatter and disintegrate. I will have further photos to show you.
The skirt was lovely and light, opening at the back with hooks and eyes, and with a beautiful frill on the end of the hem. That was quite common in a lot of these garments just to keep them clean. It was also an area that could be removed and cleaned without having to clean the whole garment. They didn’t have washing machines like we do today and garments are a lot more detailed than what we are wearing these days. The cleaning process was not a regular ‘wear once, throw in the wash’ sort of thing, you are wearing them quite often, so they constructed the garment with frills to capture all the dirt and dust which could be removed and cleaned.
With further investigation on the hem, we noticed there were burs scattered throughout the hem, which picks up that yes, it was worn on the farm or at the races, so there’s a bit of a connection there which was really lovely to find. That is a bit more detail on the damage in the inside of the garment through perspiration. There was a lot of staining on the lace as well. You could say, ‘Well, it’s all on the inside, the visitor can’t see the damage, so why do we have to go through the process of doing anything with it?’ Well, it did have to go on a manikin for display, and any handling would cause further damage to it. That’s the process we think about when we undertake the treatment.
You can see there’s quite a lot of perspiration around the lace neck. You can see my fingers just holding the silk facing that went around the neckline. Some was more shattered than others. The skirt, the same with all the silk lining near the opening was literally in a bundle of fibres. There was also a previous repair on it. Another thing is that we look at previous repairs and ask: Do they tell us a story? Do we remove them? Are they causing any further damage to the item? We go through that all thought process before we sit down and undertake the treatment.
These were the things I was thinking about when trying to determine the proposal. How much would the treatment with the dress require to be safely displayed without further damage occurring? Do I unstitch the bodice lining to stabilise it? Do I unstitch all bodice facings and undertake adhesive repairs and restitch them? Do I wash the garment or just spot treat the stains? Do I remove the burrs found on the hem or not? I am thinking about of all these things.
One treatment that we do do, whether it’s a garment or a large banner, is to undertake a vacuuming process, which just releases all the loose particles in the loose fibres. Sometimes we find that’s all an item needs. It doesn’t need to go any further than that. That is a couple of shots of me doing that. We use a fine flyscreen wire, not the metal one but the softer one, and place it over the garment and then vacuum through that so that we are not sucking up anything that we don’t want to remove.
There we have the skirt hem with the burrs. When I find them I contacted George [Main] the curator and had a chat to him and said, ‘Are you interested in keeping them in the garment or removing them?’ Having them there in the environment they were in, they are not going to cause any further damage to the garment. But they do tell us a little bit of insight and information about the garment, so we have decided to leave them there and even through the vacuuming they were not removed.
There were quite a number of stains throughout the dress, especially on the skirt, and I did a number of tests to see whether I could wash the entire thing or not. I don’t know how many tests I did and they were all positive, yes, it’s getting close to me being able to do a bit of overall cleaning. But the lace on the skirt was not stable. It didn’t matter what I tried, it was not going to not run. This meant I had to go to the other option and just spot treat all the stains on the skirt, which obviously took a bit longer than having to immerse the whole thing in a solution.
Again, I couldn’t clean the whole bodice, so cleaning all the perspiration and staining of the collar. The process that I am doing here is removing all the oils that are left in the garment that has caused a lot of that damage in the silk. It doesn’t necessarily remove the staining because that’s quite difficult to remove and we can’t do that, but all the oils and impurities are removed at that point. So that was done for the collar and also the lace cuffs on the bodice.
With the silk facings that were again in this discussion with other colleagues and curators: how far do we take this treatment? Simylar to what Ainslie was saying with the windmill’s bearings and things like that, do I remove it and replace it with new lining? Do I leave it and try to stabilise it in the way it is now? Do I unstitch it, flatten, stabilise and then replace it? You will see, as I go further, that I have used a combination of these techniques depending on what it was.
On the skirt that was literally in a bundle of fibres, I couldn’t do much with it unless I did remove it, so you can see me unstitching there [image shown]. We keep all the original threads and reuse them wherever possible. The original holes where the threads have gone into, we mark those and then restitch back into those holes. It was taken off, relaxed, flattened and then we did an adhesive repair. You can see in this bottom corner that it’s already been flattened and I am now doing an adhesive repair. That’s a fine iron with low heat attaching the two so that when I come to restitch it I can actually handle the item and it’s intact as opposed to the top corner when it is in a big bundle of silk. That is another image where you can see me stitching. We use what we call a silk crepeline, which is a very fine fabric. Silk was used because the lining was silk, and we try to keep the same materials in our repairs wherever possible.
The other thing I am faced with is time to get this work completed for the exhibition opening. If I had removed that silk where the hooks and eyes are on the bodice opening front, the hooks would need to have been removed and unstitched. There was quite a lot of deconstructing of that garment to do some of the work. A conversation that we do have is okay, we want to keep as much as the original construction work of any item, whether it’s a windmill or a garment, and don’t want to remove it, how else can we stabilise this the best way we can?
The other option was to use that silk crepeline without adhesive laying it over the top in various areas and stitching that to the garment through its original stitching holes that are there, and that will hold the fabric in place. I used it here as opposed to previously on the skirt because it was just a bundle of fibres and I didn’t even know where they belonged really. The hooks and eyes were all loose as well so there was less unstitching that had to be done there than in these areas.
The other discussion was I think you noticed the damage on the sleeve in previous photos and on the bodice itself do we deconstruct this whole garment, reproduce a whole new lining for it and replace it; or what’s our other option? And the other option here was to use the silk crepeline again and combine the adhesive technique - you can see in the bottom part of the sleeve where I have used the silk crepeline to place behind and hold everything intact. It was this area around the sleeve and, if I put a manikin arm through there or any form of handling of that area, I would just pull it apart as gentle as I could be with it. So we have used the crepeline for that. And then my pattern making skills came into play here when I reconstructed a sleeve using a loose silk habutai that encased the whole sleeve. You can still get to the original if need be, but it provided a support for display. You can see the stitching in this top part of the sleeve and the false sleeve up the other side.
There was another little thing that was a bit odd. On this beautiful garment what was supposed to be a little rosette didn’t look like one. It was held together with pins and wire which didn’t quite fit the full look of this garment. Again, I rang up curator George and said, ‘Come out and have a look at this.’ We had a look at some historical photos as best as I could find to see that that’s how it probably would have looked. We decided that we would undo a bit of stitching because it seemed like a few stitches were put there just to hold it and wasn’t what it was originally. That rosette has now been formed to sit nicely at the centre of that garment.
I have done all the conservation work and now I am ready for displaying. A lot of research goes into the process of getting such a garment out on display. We look at how is it to look; when someone was wearing it, what did it look like by searching through images. We were also looking at undergarments. A main component of our display process of a costume is getting the right undergarments for it. This costume did not come with its underpinnings, so we need to create them ourselves to get the right look.
We use two types of manikins here at the Museum for our period costumes. One is what we call an ether foam manikin that we actually carve - it’s a stable plastic that’s easily carved with a carving knife - and shape to the right size. You can see here with this particular garment, which is another Springfield garment displayed in Australian Journeys, that has a bustled effect. So I am creating that bustle in the manikin and then adding additional padding to create the final look. That’s one form.
But then we were lucky enough to purchase some lovely Kyoto Japanese period manikins that come already styled in that particular style. So we have eighteenth century and nineteenth century manikins. They are quite flexible. As you can see they have a central bit to accommodate the very small waists that a lot of these garments have, and for this particular garment that’s we ended up using. We still need to put a layer of padding to soften the manikin, so there’s quite a bit of time involved in that.
Then we look at drafting undergarments for the costume. With a lot of these I look at period patterns that you can source. If I had an original petticoat in the collection and it was in a condition that I could draft a pattern from, then I would consider that. This is just the process of getting that petticoat done, and sometimes it takes longer than the treatment of the actual object.
Now we have covered our manikin, made our petticoat, and we are now ready to dress it. This garment here had two petticoats. You can see a shorter one and then a longer one over the top to create the look that we needed. Sometimes we need to create three petticoats for the one garment. If it were a bustled one, then you would create a bit of a bustle on it as well.
We are starting to dress the manikin. We have the skirt on. The tape that was around the waist with the manufacturer’s label on it needs to be pinned first. Another thing that we look at when we are dressing is the sequence. How do we need to dress this to get it right. Obviously dressing yourself is quite different to dressing a manikin. They don’t move the way you want them to, which makes it a lot harder to get garments on there. That’s another challenge. Sometimes it will take up to an hour just to dress a manikin.
This had lots of hooks and eyes on the front opening and around the neck. You had to make sure that you matched up every one correctly otherwise you might find that you got to the end and missed one out. That’s it. That’s looking pretty good. When you look at the outfit, it doesn’t look like much has been done to it, but behind the scenes on the inside of the garment quite a bit of work was done on it. Thank you. [applause]
DANIEL OAKMAN: We have time for a couple of questions.
QUESTION: How long will that stay on display for?
CARMELA: It’s definitely up for the next two years.
QUESTION: This is a bit off the conservation track, do you know if there are any plans to put any of your garments on the Australian dress register?
CARMELA: I think we have three on there at the moment.
QUESTION: Great, thank you.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Thanks again, Carmela.
In the interest of keeping to time, I will introduce Phar Lap’s heart very briefly because it is an object that needs the least introduction. It’s in the Flemington exhibit in the Connecting the nation module. If you head downstairs you will see that it has its own little display case. It’s probably our most requested object, narrowly ahead of the Holden prototype. Here to tell us more is the deputy manager of conservation, Nicki Smith.
NICKI SMITH: Good afternoon everyone. Phar Lap’s heart here at the National Museum is part of the larger wet specimen collection that came to us from the Institute of Anatomy. At the Institute of Anatomy it’s an example of growing awareness of Australian environment, and it contains other rare, endangered or extinct species such as the thylacine and it also contains some human remains.
Phar Lap was a champion thoroughbred racehorse, as most of you would be aware. He was a particularly ugly or ungainly yearling who most considered had no chance of winning so when he did win, he was seen as an Aussie battler winning against the odds. At the time of the difficult years of the Depression, this connected to the hopes and the dreams of the ordinary Australian.
He was foaled in New Zealand but he dominated Australian racing during the early 1930s winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup, a couple of Cox Plates and many other weight for age races. He then won the richest race in North America, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in 1932 but then a fortnight later he was dead of a mysterious illness. There was concern at the time that he was poisoned, and recent analysis conducted from some hair samples taken from his mane points to arsenic poisoning.
Phar Lap’s heart was remarkable for its size, weighing 6.2 kilograms or 13.6 pounds, and this is compared with a normal horse’s heart at 3.2 kilograms. This coined the phrase ‘a heart as big as Phar Lap’s’. Phar Lap continues to be one of the most popular exhibits here at the Museum, as Daniel has just mentioned.
After Phar Lap’s death the heart was sent to the University of Sydney for examination and autopsy by a pathologist and a thoroughbred specialist. During this examination part of the wall of the left ventricle was removed to show how thick the walls of the heart were. At that time it was suggested to Harry Telford, Phar Lap’s part owner and trainer, that the heart be donated to the Australian Institute of Anatomy. And when this closed in 1984 it came here to the National Museum.
A common method of preparing museum specimens at that time was to fix the tissue in 40 per cent formaldehyde for about three months. They were then sewn onto a backing or a mounting plate, placed into preserving solution and then sealed in a jar. The preserving solution helps to support the specimen. It limits bacterial and fungal growth, it can limit colour change and shrinkage, but the preserving fluid also acting as a solvent and some of the components of the specimen can extract out into the solution, such as lipids and proteins, and this can discolour the solution over time. This does slow down over time reaching an equilibrium, so our current approach is to try to limit changing the solution as far as possible.
In Phar Lap’s case, the preserving solution is a modified Wentworth solution. This means it’s about 25 per cent glycerine, 75 per cent water, 0.8 per cent formalin which acts as a germicide, and has minor amounts of buffers in it to stabilise the pH. This is in contrast to many contemporary collections which hold their wet specimens in ethanol.
Over the years Phar Lap’s heart has had a number of treatments. Cuts extend from the surrounding tissue from where the section was removed out into its surface, and the surface has been flaking over the past years. In 1985 and 1986, it had several months of treatment at the Australian Museum and Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. It had connective tissue removed so it was easier to see the heart; mylar tubes were placed down into the large blood vessels; smaller blood vessels were filled with gelatine; it was remounted onto a perspex mount fitted around the outside of the heart and stitched onto this using nylon sutures - you can see holes with the nylon sutures holding it on to the perspex mount - and some perspex buttons so that hopefully it doesn’t pull through the heart.
Large cuts in the heart wall, such as here, were repaired with cyanoacrylate, which is commonly known as super glue, and the fatty areas were sealed with betacryl, which is a polyester glue. Again you can see some kind of build-up here - we call it gupe - from the adhesive that has been placed over it in the past trying to seal it. This large tear here up into the oracle had a bandaid of stabletex and glue across here trying to hold it together. It was also moved into a new container and had new fluid. The specialist working on it at the time noted that it was in relatively poor condition, being quite soft and spongy.
During the 1990s the heart also had a number of solution changes because it was excessively cloudy, and sediment was beginning to build up in the bottom of the container. It’s interesting looking back at files from conservators that that’s when vibration started to be noted as a concern for the stability of Phar Lap’s heart.
Then in 2005-06, in preparation for the new display case in the Museum’s Nation gallery and a potential loan to New Zealand, for the first time in 20 years Phar Lap’s heart was removed from its container. Moving the heart out of the solution meant the large cuts and cracks and the numerous small cuts became obvious, as you saw in the previous slide. We approached a number of national and international experts regarding transport of the heart. These included the Acoustics and Vibration Unit of the University of New South Wales, the vibration specialists at ADFA [Australian Defence Force Academy] and the Royal College of Surgeons in the United Kingdom. The general conclusion for transport was that, to minimise transfer of vibration, the heart should be removed from its solution and removed from its mount. But for Phar Lap’s heart the solution, the fluid, actually supports the heart and we didn’t want to remove it from its perspex mount because re-attaching it to a mount would have required further stitching and we didn’t want to introduce more holes into the heart.
Without extensive testing on the mechanical properties of Phar Lap’s heart, a vibration specialist could not guarantee significant damage would not occur with travelling of the heart. So considering we only have one Phar Lap’s heart and retaining its size was critical to its significance, our recommendation was that the heart did not travel on loan. Some of you may remember media over the years about requests from New Zealand and more recently requests from Victoria for Phar Lap’s heart.
Instead the heart was transferred to its new container. Again we tried to repair and stabilise some of the large tears using super glue, as had been used in the past and we did a bandaid stabletex repair using gelatine adhesive over some of the weaker areas with extensive cracking. Here you can see the hands of two of our conservators, Patrya Kay and Tessa Iverson, working on Phar Lap’s heart. Here it’s undergoing adhesion down these very large cracks. Here we are trying to prop it up in solution keeping the heart wet while the adhesive dries. After the large cracks were adhered, the two photos down below show the stabletex bandaid being adhered over these areas of weakness.
In putting Phar Lap’s heart on display in the Landmarks gallery, the main risks were considered to be vibration and shock. Therefore, it’s on display in the ground floor of our Museum which has the most stable concrete slab to limit vibration; it’s in a showcase specifically designed so that the plates of the showcase are drilled directly into the concrete slab; and the surrounding vitrine around the outside of the heart is separate from the interior of the case if people accidentally bump the outside of the case or if vibration from the floor doesn’t transfer across into the heart.
Movement of Phar Lap was done with a pneumatic lift trolley and using soft air filled tyres. We surrounded the heart with soft absorbent foam, and any lift was done with two people. Here you can see Peter Bucke from our conservation section and Paul Peisley from registration slowly and carefully moving the heart. It’s actually easier and safer floor to actually lift the heart when there are any bumps or joints in the floor rather than moving it on a trolley over the bumps. So we safely got it into the new showcase, and you are all welcome to go downstairs and have a look at it.
In conclusion I would like to acknowledge Patrya Kay, who is the conservator that has done most of the work on our wet specimen collection and in particular Phar Lap over the last 10 years. Here she is trying to explain to a reporter why we weren’t recommending that the heart travel on loan. Here on your left is Tessa Iverson querying what we were going to do with Phar Lap’s heart and how we were going to hold him together. Thank you. [applause]
DANIEL OAKMAN: Any questions for Nicki?
QUESTION: Has any research been done into Phar Lap’s progeny and the size of their hearts?
NICKI SMITH: Not necessarily. He’s a gelding. History in his line of descent is very well known. Other famous and successful racehorses, some of them also had very large hearts. There was some investigation into particular DNA that led to a large heart. I am not sure that any related directly to Phar Lap have been investigated but, yes, other horses around the world have been found to have large hearts.
QUESTION: Can you estimate how long Phar Lap’s heart will exist before it really just turns to mush?
NICKI SMITH: That depends on how we treat it. That’s why one of our main recommendations is that it doesn’t travel. It might have survived the travel process but, equally, a large chunk of that top aurial section might have fallen off. Any vibration will slowly shake it. We are confident and have hopes that, if we look after it well, maintain the solution at a correct pH and keep the density of the solution so that it’s actually floating rather than being pulled on those stitches, he will be around for quite a bit longer.
QUESTION: You mentioned that you have quite an extensive collection of wet specimens. Do they all require regular monitoring of the solutions and change of the solutions? How do you manage that?
NICKI SMITH: Yes, that’s a great question. Tessa actually came on board for a particular wet specimen project that we had going in 2005 and 2006 when we were looking at some of those questions: what did need to be done to our entire wet specimen collection? Part of that process was to have a significance assessment done on the collection to identify what was particularly significant about this collection and therefore what did we want to preserve from the collection.
That identified that the Australian specimens were particularly significant, those that were rare and extinct were obviously highly significant. As well the way the collection was presented, the majority of the collection had been put together during the 1910s to about the 1930s by Sir Colin McKenzie, who was quite a well known Australian anatomist, so it reflected construction and the way specimens were collected at that time. It included beautiful glass jars, a particular black sealant around the top and beautiful paper labels. The significance assessment identified all that as being of high importance to the National Museum. That is all part of our treatment approach.
Then from the conservation perspective we looked at solution levels, at how quickly the solution level drops and the ability of the sealant to keep the solution in place. There are different types of solutions so we were looking at which solution should we be keeping. That was all part of the significance assessment.
One of the things we established was that we need to eyeball the collection at least every one to two years, walk and eyeball all the collection to see if any of the solution has dropped to what we consider to be a particularly dangerous level, and then we would need to top up that solution and investigate why it is evaporating perhaps more quickly than any others and look at resealing the top of the case.
DANIEL OAKMAN: Thanks, Nicki. All that leaves now is to thank our three speakers and thank you all for coming out today. [applause]
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Date published: 19 March 2012