We go behind the scenes with English Heritage Conservator Leesa Vere-Stevens as a new exhibition and redevelopment project get underway at Hadrian’s Wall. She tells us how she’s helping to redisplay the world-famous collections at Corbridge Roman Town – and why chiselling and forklift truck driving are essential parts of the job.
Why did you get into conservation work?
I got into archaeological object conservation because I love dealing with and finding out about historical objects that real people saw, held, used or made hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. In my role as a Collections and Projects Conservator for English Heritage, I work with colleagues and external contractors to carry out the care and conservation of our collections and help make them accessible to the public.
There’s huge variety in my work. I can be working on cannons at Berwick–Upon–Tweed one minute and commissioning conservation treatments of Roman tent leather and cremation urns for display the next. I also get to travel to amazing English Heritage sites throughout the North East and North West of England.
What are you working on at the moment?
For the next year I’ll be working on a redevelopment project at Corbridge Roman Town, one of English Heritage’s sites along Hadrian’s Wall. It has one of the largest, most varied and interesting on-site collections of Roman material in the UK. Most famously it’s home to the Corbridge Hoard – an assortment of armour, tools and personal effects that was found buried in a wooden chest.
What’s special about working with Roman collections?
Working with Roman objects is particularly rewarding because a great deal is already known about Roman culture, which means there’s a lot of scope for more detailed investigation of objects. It’s exciting to be involved in updating the displays and bringing material out of storage for the first time. We want to ensure the collection remains relevant to the public and this project gives us an opportunity to tell new stories about Corbridge and the people who lived there.
What does your work at Corbridge involve?
We’re working hard to ensure the collections can remain accessible to the public for as long as possible. That means creating an environment which preserves the objects to the best levels that conservation technology can provide. Many of the display cases were cutting edge in the 1980s, and while they’ve done a great job in the last 30 years, they need upgrading to the latest environmental standards. We’re also re-configuring the museum space which involves removing and redisplaying some of the stone collections.
If you’ve recently been to Corbridge and walked around the museum, you’ll see that we’ve already removed the huge stone inscription panels which were positioned against the windows and all the funerary stonework near to the shop area. This was done to enable the redevelopment programme to run smoothly, to protect the objects from building work and to prepare a space for a new temporary exhibition about the Roman Cavalry.
Why did you have to chisel out some of the objects? Didn’t that damage them?
A number of the large inscribed panels had been mounted in concrete in the 1980s so myself and expert stone conservators chiselled them out carefully without damage. A tent with an extraction unit was constructed around the work so that any dust created was contained and not distributed throughout the museum.
How did you move such heavy pieces of stonework?
While some of the smaller pieces of stone could be moved fairly easily by two people, others required a team and the use of specialist equipment such as genie lifts, ‘A’ frames, pallet trucks and forklifts (yes, English Heritage trained me to be a forklift truck driver too!). We also had to build special pallets for transport and support.
On average four people a day were working on site during this project but behind the scenes there were another ten or so independent contractors and other off-site staff at English Heritage without whose work the project wouldn’t have been so successful.
What has been your favourite object you’ve worked on so far?
Probably the tombstone of Barathes who was a standard-bearer originally from Palmyra, Syria. I love this piece because it represents the long distance movement of people in the Roman Empire and shows how international the Roman world was, even to the extent of its most northern border. And of course it resonates with world events today.
What happens to the objects now?
The objects have been carefully and individually packed and moved into safe temperature and humidity controlled storage. Before redisplaying them, we’ll check each object individually, record its condition, compare that with the previous last records, decide on any necessary conservation treatment and implement it. Then we’ll work with the curators and designers to decide the best placement, mounting and accompanying information. So you can see there’s a tremendous amount of work involved with each object!
When can visitors see the newly displayed collection?
The new museum at Corbridge is scheduled to open in April 2018, but the current display will stay open until September 2017. Now is a great time to visit as we’ve just installed a brand new temporary exhibition about the Roman Cavalry which will be open for the whole summer.
Corbridge Roman Town is open 10:00-18:00, 7 days a week, until 30 September 2017.
Ticket prices (without Gift Aid) for non-members are: Adult: £6.50, Concession: £5.90, Child: £3.90, Family: £16.90.