Have you ever thought about what goes into the preservation of the historic author museums we all love to visit? I hadn’t until our Open Palace Programme lesson in historic building preservation, and let me tell you, so much more goes on behind the scenes than you’ll ever realize during your visit. Our lesson took place at Beckford’s Tower, the retreat of William Beckford, a bibliophile, and author of Vathek.
First, most of these small museums have minimal budgets and staff. This means that the staff who greet you at the door or guide your tour most likely play several roles. Amy Frost, our guide from the Bath Curatorial Staff does it all. She has learned to grout and gild, she suspends herself from towers, she greets visitors and teaches lessons (like ours!). Amy Frost basically IS the Bath Preservation Society. So next time you visit a small museum, thank the staff for all they do!
Next, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to enter anywhere that looked dilapidated and abandoned from the outside. This means, that work on the outside of the building is an imperative part of the experience. Like many old buildings, Beckford’s Tower and its accompanying arched gateway were built before vehicles were common. It was never meant to withstand the vibrations from the roads that have encroached on the property or the exhaust from engines. The structures both exhibit cracks possibly due to the vibrations and stone blackening from air pollutants. Red-colored stones on the lower part of the structures indicate where fire gutted the buildings. (Bath sandstone turns red when heated.) And finally, weather and nature take their toll. Ivy and lichen have taken hold of parts of the buildings over the years. After an exhaustive survey of the structure’s exterior, the staff must determine where maintenance, repairs, and restoration must be done. Then they must decide what can be afforded with the small budget, and what projects can be reasonably put off until funding becomes available.
One of the first questions conservators must answer in this process, is to what state should the building be maintained. For example, the fire of Beckford’s Tower is part of its history, so perhaps the visible fire damage should be left alone as long as the stones are structurally sound. Next, is the fauna growing on the building a help or hindrance? Ivy grows into the grout and slowly can destroy a building. The moss on the other hand, can form a barrier that prevents water from seeping into the building.
Once it is determined action should be taken, the question becomes, do you use the original materials or more modern material? The British Conservation Trust believes original material should be used when possible, however curators are allowed to make calls like not using lead paint anymore. The Brits also don’t want their old buildings to start looking like Disney World or Colonial Williamsburg after restoration, so rather than looking frozen in time, they prefer a more modern look to a badly done “historic” renovation. Ms. Frost also told us that all repairs should be reversible and visually obvious. The maintenance is all part of the history of the place, so why try and hide it?
Finally, you step inside the museum, and a whole new set of problems present itself. British heritage places must be self-sufficient within the next two years, meaning they’ll be running off of funds from visitors, donations, and grants. So the more visitors, the better- right? Not exactly… With places like Beckford’s Tower, the wear and tear visitors put on a place must also be considered. For example, stone stairs will become indented and slippery eventually with thousands of visitors a day passing over them. Therefore a balance must be found that meets the needs of both preservation and visitation. Beckford’s Tower is only open to the public two days a week, six months out of the year. Besides wear and tear, however, this is partly because some of the interior rooms are owned and used by a separate organization and the two organizations must work around each other.
The preservation requirements for the interior spaces of the museum will differ based on the climate of the region and the material the museum is made of as well. In the case of buildings in Bath, which are all built with the same sandstone and lime mortar, water accumulation within the stone walls can cause serious problems if not cared for correctly. Oil based paint or plaster are prohibited because it would trap water in the walls and the core of the building would stay damp. Also, as the water evaporates, the stone “breaths” and leaves a white layer of salt behind, so the tower stairs must be cleaned once a year. And finally, because our class was given the opportunity to see some spaces only open to the staff, and so rarely accessed that they were strung with copious low-hanging spider webs, I can tell you the thing I will now most appreciate when visiting a heritage place- is the fact that the staff keep spider webs at bay.
So next time you visit the preserved home of one of your literary heroes (or heroines), take a moment to appreciate that this building is still standing. And then perhaps leave a sizable donation when you leave… or at least thank the staff.