Firstly I must apologise for the gap between posts lately, I have not been my usual bouncy self at the moment as I have torn a muscle in my side (ouch!). How did I do this you may be wondering? Was it thought my physical and active job? No. How about my fairly dangerous hobby of Medieval re-enactment and sword play? Nope. Then how? Coughing! You heard it here folks, coughing is bad for your health! So I was unfortunately off work most of last week resting and repairing and therefore didn’t have much to report (other than five days with my feet up made me feel a little stir-crazy!).
This week however I am back at work and busy again (in a very careful manner) and today we have been tackling a huge problem of Hardwick’s. Unfortunately we do get a few comments about dust levels in the Hall from some visitors. We had one a couple of weeks ago that at first caught the House Team by surprise. Dust!? In our Hall? But we dust almost everyday, there is no way there is that much dust in our Hall. Then when we were told the visitor was talking about dust on our textiles we all went; ‘well yeah, we know about that!’. Not because we know and don’t care, of course we care! But because we are already doing all we can do.
Although we do dust the Hall practically every day, there are many objects that we do not touch on a day-to-day basis. We have objects that are cleaned weekly, bi-weekly, three months, six months, annually, every so often, when they need doing or as little as once in 400 years if you’re talking about our Gideon tapestries! What some people do not know is that over-cleaning an object can be just as damaging as under-cleaning it, and therefore we must draw a balance between the two.
However this balance is getting harder and harder to maintain. Hardwick Hall gets around 150,000 visitors a year, five years ago that number was less than 100,000. Although we love showing our house to more and more of the public this dust generate lots of added dust! The dust at Hardwick has been analysed and found to be around %50 made up from human skin (ick), so the more visitors the more of this is going to be coming into the Hall.
You would think the answer to more dust would be simple: more cleaning! We dust most of the flat surfaces in the hall daily when we are open and do a deeper clean on a weekly basis during our closed days. Then we have the deep annual clean where pretty much everything gets done, and a Summer Works Program as well. We cannot clean a lot of the objects in the collection more than we are already doing so, especially the textiles where every act of cleaning is also removing some of the fibers and therefore damaging the object. This is why we have to leave certain objects looking dusty, it’s not that we are neglecting them, we are looking after them by leaving them.
Today we were taking the dust off the 17th Century red velvet stools that live in the Long Gallery, they have been looking pretty dusty lately and are part of our Summer Clean Program. This is the rota of items we clean during the open season, the objects that are sturdy enough to be cleaned every three or six months. We clean this with a museum-vac on a low suction through an ironing net, and then use a fine tool on the edges to get as much dust of as we can, without pulling any of the fibers up. The process will take two of us the best part of two days, and requires a lot of patience. It is very relaxing work and gives you plenty of time to think (for instance today I was rehearsing this blog post). However I do not think it will be long until the poor stools, which sit on the visitor route, will be dusty again as we are gearing up for the busiest part of the year!
We are looking at different ways to prevent against dust without having to increase cleaning, such as with the stool in the High Great Chamber. These beautiful stools and there fabulous embroidery are very delicate, and also right on the visitor route, so they get dusty. However we cannot clean them more often than we already do, so we are trailing putting a voil over the stool. The idea is that now the dust will land on the voil rather than on the velvet of the stool, and the voil can be cleaned much more regularly, as it is modern fabric. However this solution does change the look of the stools, so it is something we have to weigh up against the look of the dust, and the damage of cleaning.
So when you go visiting heritage properties and you see a bit of dust, it is not usually a sign of neglect but a sign of a difficult juggling act the conservation team are trying to balance every day. At Hardwick we are working very hard to educate visitors about the work that goes in to looking after our Hall, with our ‘Conservation Station’ Activity Trail, the ‘Last One Out’ Tours we run daily, and ‘Conservation Week’ which we are running next week.
I am really looking forward to Conservation Week, as it will involve more talking to the public, which I love. The Conservation Assistants will be out and about in the Hall all day chatting about what our job entails and answering questions. We will also be delivering talks, that I have help write, on conservation issues and projects we are undertaking. It should be good fun and hopefully we will have lots of interest!
This is a very thought provoking post – speaking as someone who not only loves visiting places like Hardwick, but also spends most of her time making needlepoint tapestries, I’m not sure quite how I feel. One of the greatest pleasures of the NT for me, is the ability to see at close hand the various tapestries and pieces of needlework, but I know myself how difficult it is to keep fibre art from attracting dust. The voile does change the appearance, but at least the real thing is still there and probably going to last longer. You’re right, it’s a delicate balancing act, but it would be an enormous shame to either lose the pieces to damage or to have to have them put out of public view.
Hope you are feeling much better soon – dangerous things coughs! (Was it the dust?).