Daryl Day, Stephanie Vasiliou, Lily Withycombe, Holly Wright, 12 September 2018
LILY WITHYCOMBE: So I'd just like to welcome everyone to the National Museum of Australia. This is the first in our series of lectures that are going to be running throughout the exhibition Rome: City and Empire and I'd like to begin today of course with an acknowledgement of country.
I'd like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal, the Ngunawal and the Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. I'd like to pay respect to their elders both past and present and I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are in attendance today.
Now, my name is Lily. I'm one of the curators who's been working here at the National Museum on the exhibition. It's been a dream to work on this project for me — a huge privilege. Exhibitions are always collaborative — they always involve a huge number of people across the Museum. I'm not the only curator who's been working on it. Dr Martha Sear, the head of the People and the Environment team was originally leading this. Dr Daniel Oakman, senior curator in the People and the Environment team has also been giving invaluable advice and assistance throughout this year.
I'd also like to acknowledge the project management team: Vicki Northey, Bianca James. And perhaps above all for, I guess, the topic of this conversation, I'd like to acknowledge the wonderful work of our senior registrar Sara Kelly. It's really thanks to her tireless work on the safe and timely delivery of Rome: City and Empire objects that all the objects were brought safely and timely through customs and she's also ensured the safe storage of objects. She's done a really wonderful job.
So the role of the curator in Canberra: what does a person on the ground here do? We've been working on the design, the exhibition interactives and also on a new chapter in the catalogue. And what am I sitting on uncomfortably here? That is of course an advance copy of the paperback version of the catalogue. This will be on sale in the Rome shop for a bargain price of $39.95. Unless of course you want the ‘Roma lux’ edition. We have a very special hardcover copy which will be selling for $59.95.
Today we're going to be having an in-depth discussion with the team who've brought more than 260 objects of the British Museum's treasures to Canberra for the Rome: City and Empire exhibition. I'm going to be asking the hard questions. We want to hear all the gory details. We want to hear about packing, transport and airport travel. So the two main questions really are, what are the challenges of touring the British Museum's priceless objects around the world, and how do you pack and move these priceless objects?
So, today we are joined firstly by Darryl Day, Collections Manager and specialist in heavy objects, Holly Wright —
HOLLY WRIGHT: Yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Round of applause for Darryl. Thank you. Welcome, Darryl.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Holly Wright, Assistant Collections Manager.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: And Stephanie Vasiliou, conservator in the stone, wall painting and mosaics department at the British Museum.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Oh, and I also just wanted to give a special shout out. We have two other couriers who are here in the audience but are not up on the stage. I don’t want embarrass you, but spotlight please on Damien Hart and Flo Sutton.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: All right. Now the first question is really, I guess the one that we're all thinking, is how did you all get into working as couriers at the British Museum? How is it you get to have this amazing job? So, this is a question for all of you. Holly, let's start with you.
HOLLY WRIGHT: Yes, I'll start. I mean, I was a bit of a strange child. So, I loved museums and libraries since I was, like, born. So when I was really young I just knew that I liked being inside museums. I didn't really know what jobs there were — you know, how they worked — I just knew I wanted to work in museums.
So as I grew up, I kind of just had this in the back of my head. So when I applied for my undergraduate degree I did ancient history. I thought that's what I should do, to work in a museum. Did that, left university, applied for every job in a museum I could and got nothing — didn’t get interviewed and even get an email back.
So I thought, ‘Okay, I'll start working as a receptionist.’ So I did that for two years, saved up and a lot of the jobs I was looking at, they need Masters and things like that, and I really missed university and studying. So I'm back to university to do my Masters in museum and artifact studies — very specific — to get into museums and somehow managed to luckily get a month's work experience placement at the British Museum in the Middle East department.
Then from that I just applied for an admin job there — that got that job and then I've been there for five years now. So it kind of worked out really well because I'd always wanted to work at the British Museum at some point in my career but sort of never expected to leave and then somehow land that position as soon as I finished.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That's amazing, that's a beautiful story. Thank you, Holly. Steph, what about you? How did you end up being — I guess not just a courier, but a conservator as well. That's amazing. Yes.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes. So I, you know, sort of a similar thing — I’d always liked history or always liked museums — things like that.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes, sure. Sorry. Yes, I’d always been very interested in history and so I studied that at school and when I came to do my undergraduate, I studied archaeology. I left uni — similar sort of thing like, ‘I'm going to be an archaeologist’ — applied for loads of jobs and of course no one was hiring me because I had no experience, just my degree which, you know, is not the hands-on stuff that you need.
So again I, yes, floated around doing some work and decided I wanted to do something with the objects themselves. I wanted to do something practical. So I started looking at courses that allowed me to sort of do that and conservation came up, and having done the archaeology, I was always like, ‘Oh I don't … what happens to them once they are off in the museum?’
So yes, I applied for the conservation course at UCL, which was a very broad course — I worked on loads of different materials. As part of that I did an internship at the British Museum for five months in the stone, wall paintings and mosaics department. As I said, with the training I was very broad in my materials I worked on and doing my internship made me realise just how much I love sculpture and stonework.
So I graduated, went off and did some contract work and a job came up and clearly I hadn't messed up too much in my internship and they gave me the job. I’ve been there about two years now.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Wonderful. That's amazing. All right, Darryl. Now, I understand that you have a bit of a different story as to how you ended up at the British Museum. Now, don't forget to tell the audience what it was — the title that you applied for first of all. But anyway, how did you end up working at the British Museum?
DARRYL DAY: Well, I’m pretty much the polar opposite from these two. Yes. I left school early, at 15, went to work — no exams, no qualifications. Ended up in a family business and started working with stone, so stone cleaning, stone restoration. Kind of got to a point where I'd gone as far as I could; realised the restorers were earning much more money than the cleaners — thought I’d try and get into a bit more restoration.
So, I ended up seeing a job at the British Museum that was a stonemason’s assistant. So I thought — a six-month contract, so I’d apply for that. I got the first job I applied for so, you know. In the Greece and Rome department and then they quickly explained to me that actually the stonemason and the stonemason’s assistant role actually doesn't do any stonemasonry. They move the object. I think it was a title that was from many years before, where they used to make the stone plinths and polish. But I thought I'd give it a go anyway — it's only six months. What could go wrong? Yes. And sort of got into it.
I quite enjoyed it, it was a different way of life for me. So yes. And then I extended from there. I've now been there coming up to 25 years and I've worked in several different departments. I started in Greece and Rome. I was a collection manager in the Egyptian department and now in a central team that does all the rigging and heavy objects.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That's amazing. Actually I have to admit that at the pub the other night, Darryl told us an amazing story about moving the Parthenon marbles, but we're not going to bring that upon this [inaudible]. Okay. Now, the next question.
Now, of course developing and delivering an international travelling exhibition from the British Museum and then transporting it to the other side of the world is a major task and logistically it's a huge task. So there's so many different things to manage and organise. So this question is going to go to Holly because she has a particular skill for project management. How does it work from the very beginning when the objects have been selected, right up to the point where the objects are about to leave London? What's involved in this?
HOLLY WRIGHT: So, we will have an object list that gets agreed at some point during the project. So once that's agreed then our work will probably all start. So, we have a lot of conservation assessments that Steph can talk about. But from a collections manager point of view, you know, the list’s checked to make sure it's viable that they can fly — that it’s even going to make sense to send those things.
Then so ACMs, will — which is my role — will sort of look into how we're going to logistically actually just pack them and whether things need special conditions, like with the heavy objects a whole different way of packing is used. So it's actually a really long run-up.
There's a lot more that happens before getting on the flight with all the objects, you know, you’ve got at least sort of six months of heavy packing and making sure everything's ready and especially with hundreds of objects. There’s a lot of people involved and of different teams, and within our role there's, like, maybe five or six different departments and different areas. We'll all be involved in different things, you know, pack a particular crate or pack a different type of object.
So there's a lot involved in getting all the materials together, working out how you fit everything in one crate, whether you need — how many crates you need. So it's a huge big process of planning, and just practical planning of how you physically get these things all together.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Do you work closely with the curators?
HOLLY WRIGHT: Yes, I mean, so the curators do a lot with the narrative so they develop the narrative a lot and they will ask questions about particular objects but we come from a different specialty anyway, because we know we always look after the welfare of the objects. So the story we know and we're interested but we look out for the fact that ‘Is this even safe or practical to move?’ and we’ll make recommendations for mounting and things like that. So if when we're handling —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: What do you mean by ‘mounting’?
HOLLY WRIGHT: Oh. So, okay well, some objects we — I mean, I don't know even if this is the right word to use in public but — so you can either plonk them down. So those are the ones that you place gently and very professionally on a surface and they'll just sit there and happily be there forever and they won't move and there's no risk direct to them.
But then some objects are difficult so they won’t naturally sit upright so we just need to either construct something that helps to hold it in place, or if it wants to be suspended from a backboard or a bit higher so you can actually see round the object. I mean sometimes you want to see inside something or underneath something. So then we basically just from scratch will construct something to hold that there. You'll get to see some of those hopefully beautiful mounts in the exhibition.
But that takes a lot of time to make as well, because there could be hundreds of those and they're each made specifically for the object and you have to check it against the object and it can take hours. So yes, we sort of — but once we know what objects have been suggested that starts immediately. I mean before the objects are selected as well, conservators will also assess them. So I don't know if you want to talk about that.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes. So, as Holly said, when the object list is sort of decided, Conservation will go in and look at the objects themselves and we’ll carry out conservation assessments. Basically to determine firstly if the objects are stable to travel. If they're not stable, can they be stabilised? If we feel that we can stabilise them enough to be packed to travel and to be mounted and handled, then that all goes into this — the reports and those feedback to collection managers and ACMs and things like that.
That all becomes a process of the objects having to come to Conservation so we can do the treatment. So we can stabilise them, clean them, repair any breaks or join lines, things like that. Then they then go back to the Collections department where they get packed and things like that.
We also work closely with ACMs for things like with mounting, if there's any areas that are vulnerable. So we'll say, you know, ‘If you're going to be making mounts you have to avoid this area or that area’ — things like that. Yes. So it sort of all feeds in together. There's sort of all separate things but it all becomes one process of everyone working together and feeding back to each other.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Sometimes you're making fairly — I don’t want to say last-minute decisions but, for example, we had an object list and there were some objects that actually didn't travel even though they were on that initial object list. I understand that was because of conservation reasons.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes, it can happen. It can be that, for whatever reason, those objects we weren't able to look at them in time. Whether that's just access issues or sometimes objects are out on loan and we don't get a chance to look at them until they come back and then you sort of go, Oh, actually it was okay to travel, you know, 20 miles up the road. But you know, to put this on a plane or something like that.
Then also it can just be that these are archaeological objects and we could have assessed them a year and a half ago and they were fine, but in that time frame just, you know, they do deteriorate — we do our best. But, you know, they’re 2000 years old. Some of the objects here are, you know, old historical fields and they can just fail sometimes, just because the materials we use aren't made to last forever because we don't want to impose on the objects permanently.
So these things can fail and at that point you do have to be like, ‘Well actually it's better for this object to stay here than to travel.’ So that can happen, yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: I would say that all the objects that were going to come and have now been replaced by new objects, they've been replaced by objects which are bigger and better and you will love them.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay. So now I'm going to ask some questions about the international travel parts. I'm going to turn to our international man of mystery, Darryl. Darryl, I'd like to ask do all the objects travel on one plane?
DARRYL: Well, sometimes it depends on the size of the exhibition you’re couriering. For this show, no, they don't. In the London airports are not cargo hubs — they're more passenger hubs. There's not so many destinations you can fly to with large cargo. So anything under a metre 60 will go lower deck in a passenger plane, so you can get that out of London. But anything above that then has to travel to mainland Europe. So, there's obviously the shipping of that — trucking across Europe to whatever airport has the airline that gets you to the destination you're going. So this was split.
Then sometimes it can be for insurance reasons as well. So if you've got particularly high-value show, the insurance will only cover up to a certain amount, so you will split the shipment accordingly. They're always couriered obviously, normally by two people. And he cargo is slightly different, you know, these guys go business on the passenger planes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Can I just ask why is it that the couriers — I mean, no judgement — why is it that the couriers go business class? Is there some special reason for that?
HOLLY WRIGHT: I mean, as with some of the logistics as well, if you’re business, they just listen to you more if you say, ‘No I can't get on this plane yet because I was watching a crate being loaded.’ And with business you’re just maybe allowed a bit more leniency with jumping on and off, in that sense, and technically when we land.
So after the 20 hours of flight, however long it is, we will then have to make sure we get all of the crates off. You know, get them all packed up and in the lorry ready to get the museum and unpack them there. So we have, like, a whole day's work after we land. So usually that's traditionally — you fly business so you can do business the next day. So yes when we get off we can't just go, ‘Oh we're going to go back to hotel’ — you have to get them from A to B.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay, yes. Fair enough.
DARRYL DAY: Yes, we don’t get that.
HOLLY WRIGHT: These guys don’t.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: You don’t?
DARRYL DAY: No, well, we're on a cargo flight, so it's like — you sit behind a pilot and you make your own food.
LILY WTHYCOMBE: Really? I didn’t know that.
DARRYL DAY: Yes, you know, the seats are okay. There's no in-flight entertainment.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Sorry. To describe this: so you have to sit behind the pilot, you don't get in-flight entertainment, you have to bring your own food whereas the other flights —
DARRYL DAY: It's there — it's the same food — you just have to cook it yourself.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: But the others fly business class.
DARRYL DAY: But it does have advantages — you can eat when you're hungry, rather than when you’re served. You know, get up and help yourself to coffee and there's other advantages.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Can you stretch out? Do they give you champagne?
DARRYL DAY: There's definitely no alcohol. Yes, there's normally four, six seats in the — cargo planes usually are big, so 747s. You'll be in the bubble behind the — which used to be first class — behind the pilot.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Now it’s courier class.
DARRYL DAY: Yes, yes. Exactly. I think usually it's, you know, livestock and horses they’ll have people attending to —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: It’s such — this is a far more glamorous story than I was expecting.
DARRYL DAY: Yes, there's nothing glamorous about it. And then, I mean the only advantage is sometimes — and I'm not sure it's strictly by the book — but they sometimes invite you in to sit in the jump-seat for landing or take-off somewhere. So it's quite different. Yes, keep the headphones on.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That was really fascinating. Okay. All right. This is the question also related to the air travel. This is for Stephanie. So when you were working as a courier and you're in transit, do the objects travel with you? For example, do you ever have to hold an object during the whole flight?
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Not often. So for instance with this one, it's 260 objects. They were crated up and they went in the passenger cargo. And Holly said, you know, the benefit of being in business class was that we, you know, were able to watch the crates being loaded and as couriers you don't get on your plane until you know the crates are loaded. So it's not common that you will travel with objects in your hand. It has been done, especially if it's objects of particularly high value or they're particularly small, when you've not got a lot of them.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Do you know of any examples?
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: So there was an example I had heard about recently, of — I'm not sure when it was — but there was a drum that was being couriered from the AOA department in the British Museum and the cargo was —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: I'm sorry, what does AOA stand for?
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: The Africa, Oceania and Americas —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Ah, the department in which Australia sits.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Okay. Yes. Yes. And so obviously the drum had, you know, its skin cover on the drum and the cargo hold wasn’t pressurised, so they wanted it to travel with the passenger area where it's pressurised so that the drum wouldn't be damaged by the change in pressure. But also, I think Darryl has actually had to take objects on —
DARRYL DAY: Yes, I took a, well, I collected a papyrus from Charleston from London to Atlanta, Atlanta to Charleston. Picked up an ancient Egyptian papyrus that was then going to Japan. There wasn’t enough time to get it back to London and then go, so I just did this as separate flight. So they booked — that was business class actually, yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Good. I'm glad you got at least one.
DARRYL DAY: Had two seats — one for me, one for the case I was carrying. Yes. So you secure it to the seat — definitely doesn't go in the overhead locker. Then because of the size of this thing, the seatbelt didn’t quite go round it. So I'd asked for a seat belt extension which, yes, the steward came back and started to fit on me.
DARRYL DAY: So I was like, ‘Yes, is this for the case?’
And then continue to cross to Tokyo, where we cross the dateline, so I was younger when I got there than when I started, which is always good. Yes. So it was also quite a full flight, or very full flight. It was overfull and there was someone at the door had been asked to get off, because there wasn't enough seats, who was actually looking at my seat saying, ‘But there's a seat there.’ I was like, ‘Yes, yes — no there’s not, there’s not.' So it was a little awkward, but yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That's a great story. Thank you. That's hilarious. Okay, Holly, question for you. I want you to tell us about a particularly interesting courier trip that you have taken.
HOLLY WRIGHT: Okay. Well, I was actually really lucky. So in the first sort of few months of doing this job, my first trip came up. I had this meeting where my boss sat me down and was like, ‘We're going to send you, you’re going to be on your own — are you okay?’ I ran it through, I was like ‘You know what? I think I can do this — I’m really excited’ and then was like ‘Where is this to, by the way?’ So I've just agreed to do it, because I'm excited and she’s just like, ‘Oh, to the Met in New York’ and I was like ‘Oh, okay.’
So that was amazing. So I was there for like a week, on my own, throughout business — very fancy. It was just like a couple of paintings, they went in the cargo hold. So I arrive there, but I was with two other couriers from other museums. So often if it's a big exhibition, you might end up travelling with a few other couriers from different museums. So we had quite small crates and then there was another crate with us that was from a private collection. So it was being lent the same exhibition.
So we were put in with it and our crates were together with them. It was just like we were going to keep an eye on it and do our thing for that private collection as well. So then we land in New York and I don't really know, I’ve sort of done it before, so I knew what to expect. Then these two guys in shades and with guns walk up and go, ‘Oh, we are your armed escort’ and I was like, ‘Oh, oh my Lord.’
They were both, like, proper NYPD detective cops, like retired cops, and I was, like, already in love with New York. I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing ever. It's like a film.’ But I was trying to be really cool and like, ‘I do this all the time, don't worry.’
So then we get in this car and we sit with them and the object. We follow the truck and they're keeping an eye on it making sure no one's sort of acting suspiciously around there. We get to the museum. So I was like, that’s really impressive, and I spoke to some people and they're like, ‘Oh, never had an armed escort before that.’
Then it emerged when I went to unpack these crates from the museum that they took this other mystery crate that had been with us, opened the lid and there was a diamond the size of, like, my face. And I went, ‘Oh, okay, that wasn't for me.' It was for this incredibly priceless rock the size of a planet. So yes, it was amazing, and I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I'd known that was right next to me the whole time we were driving.'
LILY WITHYCOMBE: You probably weren’t allowed to know.
HOLLY WRIGHT: Yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: All right. Thank you. Now this question is one for all of you. So in Australia at the New South Wales Art Gallery when the Archibald Prize winner is announced, we have the ‘Packing Room’ prize and so I would like to announce the 2018 British Museum ‘Courier’ prize — the favourite object in the Rome: City and Empire exhibition. So tell me your favourite object, and why. Steph, we might begin with you.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Okay. Well, it's quite a difficult one because I'm very partial to a stone sculpture. But I thought —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: And that's because there's so many pieces of exquisite stone sculpture coming.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: There are so many pieces and there's sort of one stone piece I do love a lot. But actually, earlier today, we were unpacking the mummy portraits. So these are wooden portraits of a male and a female. I always forget, until I lift the lid on this object and I see the female mummy portrait, how breathtaking it is. It is a really beautiful, beautiful object and I think actually that's probably one of my favourite objects. It's just — she’s so beautifully rendered and this sort of feeling you get from looking at her — she's just so lifelike and realistic and it's such a thin piece of wood.
So, from a technical point of view as well I always find it really impressive that objects, you know, of this age, when it's such a fragile material, are in such great condition. So technically I find it very fascinating and very interesting and obviously I work with stonework and wood is the polar opposite to what I do, so I'm always very fascinated and interested by our organics conservators and what they can do. And actually, just as a piece, I think it's just — it really elicits a very strong emotional feeling that I think is what is really great about doing this job when you can have these emotional attachments to the objects.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes, I know exactly the piece you’re talking about as well. It's in the final section of the exhibition — the section that's called In Memoriam. As soon as you see this as well, you'll recognise it. It really is exquisite. And for any Museum staff here, it looks like Mary Tallarida as well — one of our colleagues.
Anyway, moving on. All right. Holly, what’s your favourite object?
HOLLY WRIGHT: So, my favourite. So it's an amethyst cameo. It's carved with the face of Medusa and it's my favourite because Medusa’s coolest. Also I just think it's an incredible piece anyway. It's just beautiful. It’s a huge piece of amethyst — an incredible colour.
But one of the greatest parts of our jobs is that we have to sit with these objects and condition check them whenever they move, whenever we unpack them, when anything changes. So we can sit for half an hour just staring at one tiny aspect of a piece and so with her, she's incredible as you look at her, but then as you go into further detail you see the snakes in the hair, you see some wings and the detail on her face is extraordinary. She's got this sort of very strange, like, wistful look in her eyes but also kind of sad. It's one of the things that when you sit with it for a long time you just see more and more that you appreciate and you get to hold it up to the light and then just you see through and all these details.
She's incredible and I think it's just that thing as well, it, like, it pulls you back into, you know. I grew up with all these Greek myths and stories and then you suddenly, ‘Oh I'm holding something from that time where people were talking about and telling these stories.’ So yes it's one of those things that kind of roots you suddenly, and like you realise where you are and what you're doing. And yes, she's beautiful.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Oh, that's amazing. Thank you. Darryl, what's your favourite object?
DARRYL DAY: Yes, I struggle with this one really, as you can imagine. I like loads of different objects for different reasons. So I quite like some of the ones that personal and, like, the child’s sandal, you know, it just gives you a feeling as though someone's worn it. You know, it gives you a connection back there, especially when you're that close.
But being a sculpture person as well, I think I'd pick the priestess. I kind of appreciate the craftsmanship I guess and to make something as hard as marble, you know, flow and it’s got incredible drapery. Just to flow and look soft is the skill in itself.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That's beautiful. Thank you. Okay. Now this is a bit of a post-colonial question, which I’m going to direct to Steph. So bearing in mind that the Romans themselves never made it as far as Australia, how does it feel to have travelled all the way with these objects from London, which was a province of the Roman Empire, to Australia? You have done what the Romans never did. How does it feel?
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: I mean, well, take that, Romans.
No, I think it's one of those things. I think it's sort of similar to what Holly was saying about, like, it brings you back to that moment of sort of realising what we do then, and what we get to work with, just how fortunate we are. And it's, yes, it's really great. It's really — we're very lucky that we get to — first of all that we get to work with these collections and these objects, but then also to be able to share those objects with the world and to share them with a part of the world where, I mean, everyone's familiar with the Romans, but the Romans weren't familiar with this part of the world.
So yes, it's a really great part of the job and it's a really great feeling and it's a good way for us to — because, you know, as much as we, you know, do appreciate what we do, you can sort of just get bogged down in it, as everyone can, and just get on with it, and sometimes you're doing things and then someone will say something or someone will be like, ‘Oh, you know, brought Roman objects to Australia’ and you go, ‘Oh, yes. This is amazing — this is great.’ On a personal level it’s really lovely to be able to experience that, but it's also really nice to see these objects being appreciated by people all over the world. So, yes.
HOLLY WRIGHT: Yes. And we had this moment the other day. I was condition checking the helmets and I picked up the Roman legionary helmet and I was immediately like, ‘Whoa! I’m going to text my dad.’ So I just like took a picture of it and texted my dad and he’s like, ‘Your job is so good!’ And I'm like, ‘I’m just holding a Roman helmet right now. This is insane!’ And so yes, it's like … it's a big combination like, being able to travel with it is amazing like visiting Australia — I’ve never visited before. So that's an incredible privilege in itself. So yes, it's a really wonderful, like kind of overwhelming experience a lot of the time.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: I'm sorry, I was going to say I think that also part of it is the objects, the display — all of that is wonderful. But getting to see parts of the world that we wouldn't otherwise get to see, you know, it might be that I’d have been fortunate at some point to come to Australia but it's unlikely I'd have come to Canberra and seen the big hole.
So we went to the big hole on our first weekend here. And Braidwood and places like that, which was all places we've learnt to love. And yes, getting to work with new institutions that, you know, we otherwise wouldn't have had a chance to really get to. You know, we might have seen the Museum, but to work with people as well. It's always really great and really lovely. So, yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: I think for all of us it's probably been more fun than we expected.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Yes, it's been really great.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes. Our marketing sort of text was ‘The Romans are coming’ but it should have been ‘The British Museum couriers'.
So, I'm just going back to big objects — big marble objects — what is the largest object in the exhibition and do you know how much it weighs? And how did you get it in there?
DARRYL DAY: Yes, it's right at the start of the show — magistrate. It's —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Can I interrupt and do a description?
DARRYL DAY: Yes, sure. Yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: So this is a really large statue of a Roman male. He's wearing a really voluminous toga. He's holding a scroll and he has a Flavian-style face, by which I mean it's sort of heavyset, a bit wrinkled — it looks like a Flavian emperor — and it's really imposing. It's about two point five metres tall. That's right, isn't it?
DARRYL DAY: That's exactly what I was going to say. Yes.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes. So it's really tall. It's over life-size. When you come in, it is the first statue you will see and it is this amazing representation of romanitas, the sense of being Roman.
DARRYL DAY: Yes. And it's over a thousand kilos, 1300 kilos.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: 1300 kilograms.
DARRYL DAY: Yes. Yes. And it's —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Wow, that's really heavy.
DARRYL DAY: It’s pretty heavy. The only advantage for that is that it could travel, you know, in its display orientation, so standing up. So there's not so much involved as far as laying down or up or travelling — packing specifically for it to lay down, which you can do for some objects. So that is an advantage — more difficult to move probably at the British Museum end than this end because we try and make it as easy as possible because you're, you know, limited for time obviously and you set up — you've got a deadline.
We try and use a system that will make that simpler. And it's ‘palletised’. We can use the equipment that's already available here, which is obviously all planned in advance.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: What kind of equipment are we talking about?
DARRYL DAY: Well, in this case it’s a forklift. So, you've got a gallery that you can use a forklift on. So, when I talk about the British Museum, it may be situated in a gallery that doesn't have that sort of floor loading. So you would use, you know, a gantry or something that was lighter.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: So you might — in another instance you might actually have to hoist 1300 kilograms?
DARRYL: Yes, yes, exactly. Yes. So, I mean, we have a couple of gantries, but —
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Which do you prefer, that gantry or forklift?
DARRYL DAY: Oh, forklift every day. Yes. Yes. I mean there's not — you can't sling from a gantry every type of object, you know. Some of these have been, like Steph mentioned, repaired, and some repaired in antiquity, so the joints can be — you don't want to loosen those joints because, you know, you have to take the whole statue apart and to repair it.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: That's particularly the case with the magistrate, isn't it? Because the head is separate.
DARRYL DAY: The head is separate. Yes, yes. But in that case you wouldn't be slinging it from the neck.
But I prefer to have the weight, you know. You're moving it with the weight from where it was designed to stand. So for me it's always better for the object. So sometimes we'll use Teflon to slide objects, rather than try and sling or hoist them. So yes, in this case, yes. Once we got it packed and it was a full fit, we had communication back and forth over the last six or eight months about the equipment — the space that you need to do it, you know, how it's situated in the gallery what else you can have around it, the order that you have to install it before something else sits in the way of where you would have the forklift. So it’s fairly involved. Yes.
No, not really. No.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: It is from a conservation point.
DARRYL DAY: Just extra work for you. No, I guess when I started, you can't believe what you're doing, especially with some things that, you know, even if you don't have to be a museum professional to know certain objects. I’ve done a few in the museum — Rosetta Stone — things like that, and the Parthenon sculptures.
I mean, you're obviously part of a team and you're under someone more experienced. By the time you become responsible, you've been doing it, you feel pretty confident and you’re trained, focused. You do get definitely in the zone when you are doing something that's particularly complicated.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Do you think you need a particular kind of temperament to do this sort of work?
DARRYL DAY: I don't know. I’m probably not the person to ask.
HOLLY WRIGHT: I don’t know. We were saying this the other day and I think there's so much teamwork, that you have to be kind of a people person. I think you can be incredibly skilled and get on with the job and be fine. But I think it makes it so much easier when you get on well with your colleagues and you have like that kind of unspoken communication. I think you notice it more when you don't have it. But when you're working with a team, it's sort of like someone will just pass you something before you ask, or they just see that something's about to happen and they can move into a different space or that, you know, if something's a bit heavy they'll know where to stand immediately without you having to direct them.
So there's a lot of things that, you know, because it's such a — not high risk but it's a really tense thing, like you're moving these objects and, you know, things in this human error — have people around you that will always be there watching and thinking with you. It just makes it so much easier and you can relax a bit more and just think about what you're doing rather than sort of having to think 10 steps ahead and worrying about that.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Well, that's lovely. Yes, I mean it really is beautiful watching you all work together. Yes, it’s wonderful.
Okay. Stephanie, what's the most fragile object? So from the biggest and the heaviest, to the most fragile.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: We have a few objects that you would consider to be fragile. So we do have papyrus objects in this exhibition. But fortunately that's between two pieces of glass, so it can be handled, and things like that. I would say if it wasn't, that would potentially be one of the most fragile.
But, having said, that I actually think the most fragile or one of the most fragile objects is a glass jug which is, I think, about fourth century from, I think, Crimea — am I saying that correctly? Yes? So with archaeological glass a lot of the time what we'll see is, you will get this beautiful iridescence across the glass, which is almost like a rainbow effect. It's a beautiful effect and it's stunning to look at.
But it means the glass is very fragile and deteriorated and that happens because — so, not to get too technical, but glass is basically soda, lime, silica — like the standard composition for glass. The soda is what we call — it's the flux. So it's used to lower the temperature of the formers, which would be the silica, so that these things can be melted, and things like that. Then you have stabilisers as well, which is also either the soda or the lime.
When glass is buried, depending on the water content of the soil, and the pH levels of the soil will start to eat into the glass and that will start to leach out the lime and the soda. Then you start to get the water getting into the layers of the glass, and the glass starts to delaminate basically. So you get these very thin layers of glass just shearing away and that causes light to go through the glass differently and that's why you get this rainbow effect, which, as I said, is very beautiful, but it does mean that you've got these very thin layers of glass that just want to just peel away.
The job that we have here — it was assessed back in the UK by our glass conservators there, and it's one of those examples where you can do the assessment and it's perfectly fine and stable but just as time goes on that's not the case anymore. So we did notice as it was travelling that some of the layers were just starting to flake away. Thankfully very small areas, just on edges and things like that. So as part of my time here I've tried my best to stabilise that, just by introducing consolidant material just under those layers just to try and hold them back down again, but it has worked.
We can now handle the glass and we've not got little fairy dust everywhere. But yes, that's a very fragile — and it's one of those things that's quite surprising, I think, because a lot of people think, Oh, glass, you know, it can be fragile if you drop it and it will smash. But handling glass you don't think about it too much. But actually if you've got iridescent archaeological glass it can be very, very fragile. So, yes.
HOLLY WRIGHT: It's always horrible handling that as well, because if it survived this long intact and then you pick it up and you're the one that’s like, that's really bad. So I always think when you have archaeological glass that's still exactly as it was, there's always that element of ‘Just leave it where it is — just don’t mess with that, ever.’ Yes, it's tense.
LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay. Well I think that concludes our first lecture for the Rome: City and Empire exhibition. So, just once again, big round of applause for Steph, Holly and Darryl. That was fantastic — it was hilarious.
STEPHANIE VASILIOU: Thank you.
HOLLY WRIGHT: Thank you very much.
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Date published: 02 August 2019