Faces&Voices: Conserving and Protecting a Collection on Display

Guest posting by Elena May Griffith-Ward, MA candidate at the University of Birmingham, Heritage Management; Media and Communications Officer for the Ancient Voices Project

“I have been doing an internship here at the library for the last six weeks to gain experience in the heritage sector and was lucky enough to help out with setting up the Faces&Voices exhibition. It has been quite a learning curve and I had an interesting insight into how much work it takes to create and install such an exhibition.

The amount of time and effort put in by the curators, Roberta Mazza and Kate Cooper, as well as the Public Programs Manager, Jacqui Fortnum, and the rest of the library staff has been phenomenal. I only came into the proceedings towards the end of the journey but it was lovely to see all that hard work coming together. As the exhibits were brought up from the stores and the cases were cleared and cleaned excitement started to build about the arrival of the famous mummy portraits from Manchester Museum.

I found it particularly interesting to see all the work involved in preparing the items to go on display and then protecting them while they are out. The conservators carefully check everything before it goes into the cases and there were several anxious discussions about controlling the potential spread of glitter from the modern art to the papyri and the mummy portraits. Even the modern books had hours spent over them checking they would be alright to be left open on the chosen page for four months and bespoke stands were made for every piece.

When the day came to install the exhibition the air was very humid – not ideal for the delicate mummy portraits which are best kept in drier conditions. This is because they are painted on wood which will expand and contract if the humidity level of the air around them changes too much. If the wood changed shape it could be disastrous for the 2000 year old paint on its surface so the conservators are very careful to control the atmosphere around them. The cases could only be left open for a short amount of time while the curators arranged all the pieces and the labels to their satisfaction then they were quickly locked away to allow the mechanisms inside the display cases to reduce the humidity levels back to a comfortable level.

The larger modern art pieces by Fathi Hassan were also challenging because they were intended to hang in the entrance hall but because the library is a Grade 1 listed building nails cannot be hammered into the walls nor any other method used to hang the pieces that might damage the building. Eventually an ingenious combination of double-sided velcro, metal rulers and extra strong magnets was devised to hold up the delicate paper art works and they look fantastic in the atrium.”

If you would like to find out more about events and scholarship around this exhibition, visit the Ancient Voices Project website and the curator’s blog.

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