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11 May 2023

Bringing Back the Binns: behind the scenes with the Collections Care Assistant

Written by Maravillas Sanchez-Morales, Visitor Services Assistant – Collections Care (Forth Valley Cluster)
Over the past months, the Forth Valley Collections Care team has been immersed in a conservation project to bring back the Dalyell family portrait collection for display.

The reopening of the House of the Binns at the beginning of April presents a yearlong conservation project, completed with the reinstatement of the original collection. From the 800 objects removed from the morning and dining rooms, a total of 35 paintings were individually assessed and packed away to protect them until the roof works and redecoration were completed.

As my colleague Kirsty Redmonds, Visitor Services Supervisor – Collections Care (Forth Valley Cluster) previously described in an earlier Bringing Back the Binns blog, the removal and storage of the family portraits was one of the main challenges that we faced in the project. This was not only because of the intricate process ahead, but also because of the history that all the family portraits around the walls contained. Therefore, they had to be perfectly preserved in their hanging locations. During the process, we worked together with two specialist art handlers and with the supervision of the Regional Conservator, Lesley Scott ACR.

Prior to the removal of any of the paintings, we mapped, documented and measured the fixing locations of each one. This information was invaluable to help rehang the paintings to their original design, as well as to have a record of the process.

Working safely from a scaffold tower, we took down the paintings one at a time and divided the team in order to tackle different procedures. One team member was in charge of condition assessing and documenting the paintings; another team member was focused on cleaning stable paintings of the loose dust from the front and reverse (a skilled procedure undertaken with upmost care to prevent any of the painted surface being damaged). Most of the paintings were in good condition, the dust build up mainly due to the difficulty of access to clean them. Some problems, such as mould on the reverse sides of images and some loss of adherence of moulding on frames, were noted. This is mainly because of the location of the paintings, next to heaters and windows which cause fluctuations in the environment. These paintings received special attention, removing the mould prior to them being packed, and storing in bags the fragments of gilded moulding from the frames to re-adhere later.

Time-lapse of removing, condition assessing and cleaning a painting

Once all these processes were completed, we packed the artworks using inert conservation materials that could protect delicate surfaces from handling and dust, and provide environmental buffering – such as Tyvek, tissue, or cotton tape – while following methods of best practice alongside the two art handlers. During the process, we learnt from them what to use and how to temporary pack without adding any kind of problem to the artworks.

All the paintings were stored on site throughout this process in the business room. We chose this room because of its location (away from the roof works and the plaster from the redecoration of the morning and dining room) and the isolation, with stable temperatures and relative humidity. The latter was of great importance, as all the problems that were visible on the paintings are related to changes in the environmental conditions.

A few months later, we started to move back the paintings with the rest of the collections. The process that we followed was almost identical to what we had done previously, but in reverse. We unpacked the paintings, and checked if they had suffered any kind of alteration we had not noted previously in condition reports. We paid special attention to those paintings that previously had suffered from mould, which in a few of them had reappeared due to mould spores being activated. We removed it again and we treated them, ensuring we removed any further spread of mould spores.

Regarding the loss of adherence of a few of the frames, as we had recorded where the detached mouldings came from we were able to consolidate them. We then re-adhered the gilded fragments that we previously had saved, all under the supervision of the regional conservator. For these framed paintings, we have created unique maps that show all the losses. This is very helpful and an easier way to document for the future, to see if there is any change over time as we are again heating the room spaces. This is a challenging aspect and alongside our environmental monitoring system we are going to be supervising on a day-by-day basis the regulating of heaters to control the humidity, as heat has a direct effect on the moisture content in the air.

As some of the paintings are rehung on external walls and because of environmental concerns, the art handlers designed specific protection for the backs of these paintings, to protect the canvases from changes in the environmental conditions and prevent the accumulation of dust (which in turn attracts moisture). They also replaced how the framed paintings were hung and assessed the stability of the picture hanging furniture (now using chains instead of rods and attaching to rings and J hooks on the back of frames).

The process to put the paintings back in the morning and dining rooms was uniquely special. It was a moment that we had been dreaming of since the project had started! Working at certain heights with the room below your feet is a privilege that you only experience when you are working on a project like this one. We followed a very intricate process, with two people above the scaffold and three on the floor. Depending on the location or weight of the framed painting, the process could be at times arduous. At the end, just to hang the paintings back in place took six full days. This shows how intricate the process was, the importance of working with experienced art handlers and having enough time set aside.

Now that we have reopened to the public you can visit the house and contemplate the multiple family portraits, knowing the full process behind their placements in the morning and dining rooms. As a team, we are very proud and happy of what we have achieved: completing all of the processes, following museum best practice and learning new techniques every day – such as how to tie cotton tape safely to a painting to prevent the plastic wrapping from touching the delicate painted surface.

Our conservation work is still ongoing in the dining room, in which we are currently cleaning different objects from the collection to put them back on display. If you see us around, do not hesitate to speak with us about the collections or the care process. We are always happy to talk about how we ensured the paintings at the House of the Binns can continued to be seen and protected, and how we work daily to care for the collections on site.

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