Conserving History at Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey is known for its long history as a church and its connections to the monarchy as the site of coronations; however, just as fascinating is the history of the building itself. From its early beginnings more than a thousand years ago the Abbey has been through many changes, and so has a great story to tell. With the many reincarnations, adaptations and additions to the building that have taken place, different sections date from the 11th century up to present day. With such a wealth of history within the walls and floors of the building, as well as the treasures found inside, it is crucial to preserve this for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
Westminster Abbey is unique for a building of its type in that it has a full-time conservation team specialising in a variety of disciplines dedicated to the task of conserving its fabric and objects from its collection. The conservation team was started in 1999 with the arrival of Vanessa Simeoni, Head Conservator, who specialises in stone conservation. She is assisted by Lucy Ackland, a fellow stone conservator, and Krista Blessley, a paintings conservator, with Diana Heath as part-time metals conservator. Due to the variety of materials within the Abbey, expertise is also sought from freelance conservators (in particular during the run up to the opening of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in 2018) to assist with textiles, wax, wood, leather, paper and glass.
Conservation at Westminster Abbey is a huge challenge as the building is not a museum but a working church and a busy visitor attraction. The building and many of its objects are still used for their original purposes. Conservation at the Abbey aims to minimise damage and deterioration that may result from this.
Preventing deterioration wherever possible is key in a building of this size and one of the major projects which the conservation team has brought to fruition is the introduction of Heritage Cleaners. They are specially trained by the conservators to clean in a way that properly cares for the fragile surfaces in the Abbey. It is hoped that this new initiative will provide a long term contribution towards the preservation of Westminster Abbey for generations to come. An environmental monitoring system is also in place (around the Abbey precincts) to measure the humidity, temperature and light levels in different areas. Data from this monitoring helps to identify some of the environmental causes which can lead to deterioration. Understanding the causes of deterioration is crucial to prevent future damage.
In preparation for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries opening in 2018, the conservation team is preparing many objects for display which have not been shown to the public since the closure of the museum in 2015 or have been in storage for many years (within the Abbey’s triforium). In their conservation studio they currently have this wonderful beast (above) which previously stood on the buttresses of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. It was carved in the early 1800s as a replacement for the previous carvings that had started to erode. This carved dragon was removed from the buttresses during the restoration project which took place during the 1970s-90s when the beasts were replaced again.
Also in the workshop is this Romanesque capital (above) which was thought to be from the 12th century cloisters of the Abbey. It is one of many pieces of stonework that have been found around the Abbey site, and the damage to two of its sides suggests it may have been cut and reused as a piece of masonry at a later date. The design around the sides of the capital depicts the biblical story of the Judgement of Solomon and some of the details are incredibly well preserved. On closer inspection, it is possible to see old restorations which will be improved upon before it is redisplayed in the new galleries. Conservators work to a code of ethics that makes minimal intervention and reversibility key to their approach.
If you would like to find out more about the work of our conservation team you can read our blogs about the conservation of the Cosmati Pavement: prior to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries this was the largest project undertaken in the last 20 years. You can also find out more about the work done, and the pavement itself, on the website devoted to the Cosmati by clicking here.