British Museum blog

Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch

Lauren Buttle, candidate for a Masters of Art Conservation, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

As a student placement in the Western Art on Paper Conservation Studio at the British Museum this summer, I was expecting a few objects to be placed on my workbench that would present some new and interesting challenges. I was not, however, expecting a 3.5 m x 3 m, 16th-century print collage.

As readers of Joanna Kosek’s previous article on this project will know, the task of unframing Albrect Dürer’s Triumphal Arch and transporting the work to the conservation studio was a major undertaking on its own. Now that the work is in the studio, the even trickier question arises: how do you clean the centre of such a large print? Unfortunately, as high-tech as the brand new studios here at the British Museum are, the option of having conservators suspended from the ceiling like ninjas, was not part of the design brief. A more practical option was designed by heads of department, Joanna Kosek and Caroline Barry, along with the conservation mounters.

To transport the print to the studio, a large tube was designed and created to gently roll up the Triumphal Arch. A secondary, smaller tube was then created to catch the print as it was partially unrolled onto the table. The surface of the print could then be cleaned in horizontal bands across the edge of the table and then rolled beneath the table surface onto the second roll in stages.

Diagram of surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

Diagram of the surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

 

Although the print has been behind glass for at least 30 years there is still some surface dirt. If dust and dirt were not removed at this early stage then any subsequent wet treatments would fix the dirt in the paper fibres. While the surface cleaning of the print continues, the team carefully documents all aspects of condition and structure of each sheet of paper: everything from tiny pinholes to large watermarks and embossings. This information helps to inform us of the history of the print and will come in very useful during the next stages of treatment. To do this, thin sheets of transparent polyester are placed over each of the 42 individual pages that make up the image, and all characteristics of the page are mapped using permanent markers and a key of symbols created specially for this project by conservator, Megumi Mizumura.

Conservators, Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservators Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Once the mapping is complete, the fun begins! The conservation team has been hard at work for several weeks now using a variety of different dry sponges, erasers and brushes to lift the surface dirt from the print, taking care to avoid all printed media. This means using magnification and a steady hand to carefully clean in between each printed letter… for 10 square-metres. Luckily for us summer students, the conservation team have been happy to let us step in and get involved.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

The cleaning continues in the studio for now. Once this is complete, the next step will be to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages. No doubt, there will be more exciting challenges to come!

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging

Ivor Kerslake, Photography and Imaging Manager, British Museum and Joanna Russell, Scientist, British Museum

Before any conservation treatment could commence, and with the Arch now out from behind its screen of glass for the first time in a generation, we were granted the opportunity to create a series of high-resolution images. The British Museum’s newly commissioned photographic studio was cleared for two days and Dürer’s masterpiece was expertly transported down the six flights of stairs and carefully unrolled in the main studio. Because of the fragility of the print we were unable to position the work vertically, which would have made our work considerably easier, so it was delicately unrolled on the floor. The challenge was then how to get high enough over the print to get it all within one shot. This was the first real test of the new facility. We decided to use a mobile extendable work platform (MEWP). Since the studio had been designed to enable access to and photography of large objects, we had sufficient space to manoeuvre.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Senior photographers, Kevin Lovelock and Saul Peckham used their skills to light the print to give an even and colour-balanced appearance, and also employed a raking light technique to highlight areas of special interest to both conservators and curators.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print verso (back) in raking light

The print verso (back) in raking light.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed '1515', the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed ‘1515’, the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

While the print was in the photographic studio, scientists Joanna Russell, Joanne Dyer and Antony Simpson took the opportunity to capture some detail shots using infrared and ultraviolet imaging.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Visible light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – beyond the red end of the visible spectrum is infrared radiation, and beyond the violet end is ultraviolet light. This non-visible radiation can also be recorded in images, by using special lights, cameras and filters. These imaging techniques may tell us more about the materials or construction of an object or artwork, depending on the ways the materials interact with the different wavelengths of light.

The ink used for the print absorbs infrared radiation, so appears clearly in these images, and is likely to be a carbon-based ink. However, an ink inscription becomes invisible in the infrared image, showing it is made using a different type of ink, probably iron gall ink.

TA_Pic_ed2

Left: A visible image of a detail from the Arch. Right: An infrared reflectogram of the same detail. The words ‘The Gate of the Nobility’ do not appear in the infrared image.

Ultraviolet light causes some materials to luminesce, that is to give off visible light. The ultraviolet-induced luminescence from the paper has a yellower appearance in one area of the detail shown below. This reveals that the scene in the bottom left of this detail is printed on a separate piece of paper to the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

The information revealed from these images can tell us more about how the Triumphal Arch was made, and can help to further inform the process of conserving the print.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. To find out more, see the earlier blog post here.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: a moving experience

Joanna Kosek, conservator, British Museum

Dürer's paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximillian

The display of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) monumental Triumphal Arch in the Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 in autumn 2014 was a great success. The enormous print, produced at the height of Dürer’s career to glorify the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519), appeared appropriately majestic in the softly lit room and attracted over 70,000 visitors in three months. Originally designed to be pasted on the walls of princely castles, the impression at the British Museum was never used as originally intended, and is one of only a handful to have survived. In the Museum the print, which measures four metres by three metres, had been lined onto a textile backing and had long been displayed in a massive frame by the Gallery Café. After the Room 3 show it was time to take the print down to inspect, conserve and store it in darkness to help preserve it.

Dismantling the exhibition started with detaching the glazing which consisted of three four-metre-high pieces of laminated glass that had been painstakingly installed back in September by expert glass handlers.

Now we watched the delicate operation of lifting the heavy glass in the reverse order of installation and, yet again, held our breath when giant suckers manoeuvred the heavy green-tinted glass panes, one by one, to expose the beautiful cream-coloured early 16th-century paper.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

Detaching the glazing from the print.

In the meantime, in preparation for taking the print down, we had constructed a huge half-metre-diameter tube in the Museum’s state-of-the-art Paper Conservation Studio. This ‘quicker-by-tube’ production needed to be sturdy but light. As nothing like this was commercially available, the team of conservation mounters made their own using transparent plastic sheeting filled in with foam padding and cardboard rings to prevent collapse, which could damage the print. There was a lot of laughter as two of the team plunged inside the roll to fix the padding! No effort was spared to make the roll perfect for the job.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The specially made tube being carried to Room 3 via the Great Court.

The day of the great descent arrived on 17 November. Equipped with two scaffolding towers and supported by heavy object handlers and curators, and filmed by the Museum’s Broadcast team, we first attached the top edge of the vast print to a four-metre-long rod using heavy linen tape.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

Attaching top edge of the print to a rod and taking the print down.

We could then slowly lower the rod plus print down through three successive platforms from person to person and from hand to hand. The print itself was also supported on a huge sheet of plastic with its sides and bottom held taught. Soon Dürer’s masterpiece was safely supported on the floor, and the moving of this flat paper giant did not seem such a difficult challenge now…

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

Inspecting and rolling the print up for transport.

With so many helpful hands to roll it safely, in no time the print was taken onto its grand ascent to our Paper Conservation Studio in the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre. As we had already rehearsed the route carrying the empty roll, we had no surprises, although that did not apply to crowds of bewildered visitors.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

The print being taken through the Great Court to the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

At last the arch was unrolled on the large tables in the Studio and while admiring it and planning what should come next we posed for picture as a memento.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The print laid out in the WCEC Paper Conservation Studio.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , , , ,

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See this beautiful beaded blanket in our special exhibition #SouthAfricanArt, which traces the history of this nation over 100,000 years. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets before the exhibition closes on 26 Feb.
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Learn more about the fascinating history of this nation in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, closing 26 Feb 2017. Follow the link in our bio to find out more.
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Read more stories of love💗from around the world in our #ValentinesDay blog post – follow the link in our bio☝🏼
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