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Restoring the Royal Daimler

David Hallam and Dr Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

ERIC ARCHER: In the final session for the afternoon, David Hallam and Guy Hansen will talk about the restoration of a recently acquired object in the collection, the Royal Daimler, a case study in using significance assessment.

David Hallam is senior conservator, technology at the National Museum has had 30 years experience working at the Australian War Memorial, Queensland Museum and National Museum of Australia. He has significant experience working with metals and functioning objects. He’s our great expert and is a consultant to many organisations both in Australia and overseas and is currently coordinator of the International Committee of Museums Working Group for Metals.

Guy Hansen is senior curator in the Collections Development Unit at the Museum. Guy has been working as a history curator for the past 18 years and has worked on a large number of collecting and exhibition projects. These include the Museum’s series of political cartooning exhibitions Behind the Lines; the Symbols of Australia exhibition; Captivating and Curious; and most recently the highly successful League of Legends: 100 years of rugby league exhibition. Over to David and Guy.

GUY HANSEN: Thanks very much, Eric. In this paper David and I will discuss how a significance assessment can be used to drive decisions about the treatment and storage of objects. I will begin by briefly outlining the significance of the Royal Daimler recently acquired by the Museum, and David will then look in detail at how an understanding of the significance of the vehicle will help guide decisions relating to its future care. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Laura Breen to this paper, the curator who completed the assessment of the vehicle, who unfortunately is overseas at the moment and is unable to be here today.

Before examining the Daimler in detail, I would like to make some brief introductory comments on how the professional demarcations in museums, which we have been discussing today, can impact on the care of objects. These demarcations can sometimes create a disjuncture between the original curatorial intent in acquiring an object and its later storage and treatment. The existence of the distinct curatorial, registration and conservation functions within museums means that the way an object is treated changes as it moves from the care of one section to another. For example, how the object is viewed during the acquisition phase is different from the documentation phase, the treatment phase and eventually the storage phase. While it is appropriate that different perspectives brought to bear on the object by different museum professionals, misunderstandings can occur when the significance is not well understood.

In the absence of a clear statement of significance, conservation and registration sections can default to a position that everything about an object is significant or, perhaps even worse, they have no sense of the significance of the object at all. This can become apparent when formulating an approach to treatment, storage and display of objects. It is not unknown for tensions to emerge between registration staff, conservators and curators about the best way to approach an object. What might seem to be self evident to a curator is not always clear to other staff. Rather than seek to sort out these disagreements in the crucible of preparing for an imminent exhibition, it is much better that a common approach be developed at the time of acquisition. It is here that the development of a significance assessment is invaluable.

To draw this discussion into focus, I would like to talk about the Museum’s recent purchase of the DE 36 landaulette used by Queen Elizabeth II during her 1954 Royal tour of Australia. This vehicle is one of two intact survivors of a fleet of six Daimlers used during the 1954 Royal tour. For over 20 years now, the National Museum has been collecting material relating to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. This collecting project has drawn together a number of different strands, including the Queen’s role as Australia’s head of state, the great affection in which she is held by the Australian people, and the impact Royal visits have had on Australia’s popular historical memory.

Collections acquired include a 1926 Crossley landaulette which was used for the 1927 Royal tour and at the opening of Old Parliament House; a 1958 ceremonial Land Rover ‘Special ‘88’ which was used on vice-regal occasions in Brisbane during the 1963, 1970 and 1977 Royal tours. Other material we have included is the Peter Spearitt collection of Royal ephemera collected over many years. We also have the Cecil Ballard collection of royal souvenirs, Cecil a well-known Queensland monarchist, which he donated to the Museum.

Our most recent acquisition has been the William Dargie portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. This is a copy executed by Dargie of the original portrait which you can see in Parliament House. He made it because he was concerned that the original painting might be destroyed while being air-freighted to Australia. This painting ended up in a private collection and has now come to the National Museum of Australia.

These collections reflect the Museum’s belief that Queen Elizabeth is, and will continue to be, a major figure in Australian history. Their relevance has been enhanced by ongoing debates about whether Australia should become a republic, and speculation what will happen when the reign of Queen Elizabeth II comes to an end.

When viewed in this context, the acquisition of the Daimler can be seen as a logical extension of the Museum’s collecting priorities. This impressive vehicle is a direct material remainder of the Queen’s 1954 visit. This was the first time a reigning monarch had set foot in Australia, and the response of the Australian people was amazing. Record numbers of citizens lined streets and attended functions as the Queen toured the country. One estimate is something like 75 per cent of Australians actually saw the Queen during this tour. The Royal visit was a milestone in the history of Australia’s relationship to the monarchy and has left a deep impression on Australia’s historical memory.

The Museum’s Daimler is one of two intact survivors of a fleet of six Daimler DE 36 models originally commissioned by Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1948. The vehicle was intended for the proposed 1949 Royal tour of Australia by King George VI, which was later cancelled due to the king’s poor health. The Daimler was fabricated by British coachbuilders Hooper and Co. on a purpose-built Daimler chassis powered by a straight eight engine. At almost six metres long, it is finished in black with Royal blue side panels bordered with fine red pin-striping. Luxurious interior fittings included an electric operated sun roof, cream Bedford cord and blue leather upholstery, a walnut dash, roller-sprung silk window blinds, engraved glass light fittings, air conditioning, ashtrays, thick fitted carpets and electric windows.

In 1954 our Daimler was one of the fleet used by Queen Elizabeth during the Royal tour. The landaulette was generally used to transport the Queen from airports to town centres during the tour. The folding landau section and the height of the car allowed for her to be easily seen by the crowds who travelled to view the Royal progress. After the tour, the Australian government sold its fleet of Daimlers. The vehicle was acquired by the Governor of South Australia. By the early 1960s, the car had become surplus to requirements and was described as ‘on its last wheels’. It was then sold via tender to a local car dealer who sold it to a family from Page’s Flat, South Australia. A towbar was welded onto the car so that it could be used to tow a horse float. During this phase the car sustained minor dents in all four corners. The vehicle then passed through the hands of two private collectors who left it largely unchanged though its gradual deterioration continued - read for that left in the open for a good period of time. The vehicle came to the notice of the Museum in early 2009 and was purchased later that year.

While in reasonable condition given its age and history, the vehicle has changed significantly since 1954. The question emerges as to how to approach treating this vehicle. In most cases, the Museum’s approach to conserving objects has been to stabilise objects or prevent them from further deterioration. Invasive treatments as a general rule have been avoided. In the case of this vehicle, however, the Museum plans to go much further than simply stabilising the vehicle. Put simply, the Museum would like to return the vehicle to the glory of its 1954 configuration. This approach emerges directly from what we see as the vehicle’s primary significance: its involvement in the 1954 Royal tour.

David, one of the Museum’s senior curators, is now going to talk to some of the issues we are facing and working through. At this stage we do not have a final treatment plan but we have commenced detailed discussions. David will talk you through some of the issues we are looking at.

DAVID HALLAM: We are aiming to develop a process that informs the treatment, development and execution. We aim to conserve the object’s significance through assessing treatment options, risks and effect on significance. The critical question: is it an artefact or an object? The planning approach [image shown] - I won’t read through it but these are the basic steps we intend to go through.

I am now going to look at individual parts of the vehicle in detail. Obviously, if we were to go to the 1954 configuration we would lose this kind of detail. If we break the vehicle up into pieces, the structure and chassis, these are the options: strip and repaint, that’s a traditional restoration as your car enthusiast would do it; conserve it as it is; or clean, conserve and re-integrate.

We will now have a look at some parts. These are the front brakes [image shown]. Notice the nice mud from the paddock. These are the rear springs [image shown]. Notice the mud and corrosion. Other images: fuel tank, front suspension member and you can see the beautiful horn there. You look at that and you go, ‘They were driving through a paddock. Is that significant? Should this be conserved?’ This is the boot [image shown] and the rat’s last dinner [image shown]. This is an example from another object. This is the Bean car chassis before conservation, and after conservation showing the red paint slapped on in England prior to its departure for Sydney in Australia overland.

Mechanical systems - our options are leave as they are; just clean and inhibit; or restore function and maintain. This gives you an idea of the extent of the engine [image shown]. It is this massive long thing about a metre long.

But all Daimlers had inherent vice. They were normally used for slow processions and they hadn’t learnt one engineering lesson that a long straight eight will break its crankshaft when slowly driven down the road. But the ability of the vehicle to process at five miles an hour was one of the reasons it was chosen by the Royal Family to do the job it did.

Trim and finish: you could rip it all out, throw it in the rubbish bin – sorry, store it; you could conserve it as it is; or you could conserve those parts that are stable and aesthetically appropriate for the significance of the object and replace the degraded material putting it into store. Have a look at that [image shown]: isn’t it gorgeous? This part is the landaulette top which would fold back. One of the things that is going to be critical is that the landaulette deck top should be able to fold back, otherwise it won’t demonstrate how it was used. But we have a bit of a problem: there’s a rats nest. By complete contrast, here is the driver’s compartment and the front seat [image shown] in beautiful condition. So there are some choices.

I would ask you to look at this part of the photograph that I have blown up and you can actually see the reflection in the surface paint of the scene around. That gives you an idea of the amount of gloss that that surface finish had when it was used in the Royal tour.

Missing a bit of the gloss [image shown] - that’s the top of one of the headlights. Here we have one of the very interesting archaeological layers of paint [image shown]. Here we have the paint from King George. It was then overpainted in Queen Elizabeth’s Royal blue. Again, here we have an interesting problem. Having said that, if the paint is given a very light polish, it glows beautifully. So here we have some interesting technical problems. Ditto the chrome which looks absolutely shot, if you delicately polish it will give the effect that was seen on the 1954 Royal tour. Mind you, that’s a lot of polishing.

I suppose our wrap-up is that we are developing this approach using this as a test piece. With previous items we have done part of it, but this is the first time we are doing it right from the beginning. We are not starting half-way down the line. This approach uses the import from a team of curators, registrars, conservators, scientists and engineers. So we are gathering information from all kinds of places. The important thing to remember though is why the car was originally purchased. Thank you.

ERIC ARCHER: Thank you, David and Guy.

Date published: 31 May 2010