22nd Nov 2015
As we have a good old British grumble about the first chilly spell of the winter, I couldn't resist naming this post after the famous phrase from George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, better known to many as Game of Thrones. After all, Martin has claimed that Scott's Waverley Novels, particularly Ivanhoe, had a great influence on his work. But more on this another time...
Ser Loras Tyrell rides in the joust at the Tourney of the Hand in Game of Thrones. The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood refers to the saga as 'Ivanhoe with the rape and gutting scenes included.' Gritty would have been a gentler turn of phrase!
The arrival of winter heralds a time of change for Abbotsford, and oddly it isn't a case of closing everything down at the end of November as our seasonal opening times may suggest. Visitors are still enjoying the house and collections as I sit here typing this and it couldn't be a more beautiful example of a crisp and still winter's day, but underneath the calm water we are paddling away ferociously!
A lot of people approach me and ask out of genuine curiosity what goes on here when the house closes to the public, and indeed why it has to close at all. I have no doubt that, although the number of intrepid visitors would be small in the colder months, we will always have people keen to come and explore Abbotsford, no matter what the weather. And so, this post is an attempt to try and explain to those of you that might not know, why so many historic houses tend to close in the winter and what is going on behind those closed shutters.
Abbotsford with a beautifuldusting of snow last winter
Of course some houses and stately homes are family-owned and close in the winter so that the occupiers can 'reclaim' particular wings or key rooms in the house, particularly as Christmas approaches. With Abbotsford in the hands of a charitable trust, this isn't something we have to worry about, although we do have an 1850s wing of the house dedicated to private holiday accommodation which is open year-round for bookings. Sometimes historic houses close because of the risk posed by adverse weather conditions and the difficulties of ensuring access and safety around the gardens, the approach to the house and even out on the wider estate. This is certainly something we are not immune from here at Abbotsford, even though the site as a whole is more bijoux than many of the other stately homes in the area. Locals will know that the winters in the Borders can be extremely harsh and becoming snowed in in this little riverside hollow is not unheard of!
The primary reason that we close between December 1st-February 29th is in order to conduct an intensive period of museum housekeeping across the interiors of Abbotsford known as 'conservation cleaning'. In a nutshell, this signifies a very different type of cleaning than you or I would conduct in our homes - it isn't a case of applying liberal amounts of elbow grease and coating everything in Brasso and detergents! This approach is a method of cleaning interiors and artefacts that focuses on non-invasive techniques, thereby protecting vulnerable historic decoration and antiques from harm. This means we always have to steer away from traditional chemical cleaning agents and use an entirely separate kit designated for the Scott-period interiors at Abbotsford. Some examples of the type of things you would find in our kits are: HEPA filter museum vacuums of various sizes complete with specialist attachments, a battalion of brushes with different types of natural bristles, including goat hair and pig hair, deionized water, microcrystalline wax polish, cotton swabs, gauze and an awful lot of powder-free gloves!
We cannot wait to eliminate the layer of dust that has settled on the tops of the helmets in the Entrance Hall!
Although our daily housekeeping routines tackle the dust and dirt that can build up around floor and shoulder height, the closure of the house allows us to work through the rooms from ceiling height downwards in a circular motion to ensure that the dust we disturb falls downwards and is removed as we go. One of the main reasons we have so much to do here in the winter months is the sheer amount of material here in Scott's 'museum for living in'. Put simply, dust has no shortage of surfaces to settle on! Abbotsford's ceilings are not as high as in many other historic houses but reaching the cornicing and the tops of paintings and shelves still requires building the tower scaffolding and using a mid-range platform for cleaning the wall-mounted items. We approach the very high areas on a rotational basis and this year it is the turn of the Chapel and Library, along with the Entrance Hall which always requires cleaning at height due to the position of the room in the house and the array of collections items it contains.
Tackling the picture frames and the cornicing in the Chinese Drawing Room in February 2015
I'm sure there will be many people out there who are thinking that Scott certainly didn't dangle around at perilous heights cleaning all these artefacts on the walls and that in all probability he wanted it to look dusty and antiquated, and I'm sure there is an element of truth in that, judging from the brief he gave David Ramsay Hay for artificially aging the paintwork in the Entrance Hall. But this isn't about aesthetic principles, although all of the team involved in the closure work would love for their work to be noticed and commented upon; sadly because our work does not make everything gleam, this tends not to be the case! Our main aim is to protect the collections items by eradicating any impacted dust and grime. In our own homes, we may well see a little dust as no harm whatsoever and certainly in museum environments, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't over zealously clean surfaces, but in actual fact a buildup of dirt attracts two things that we try and avoid at all costs: moisture, which can be harmful in itself, and insect pests that seek moist environments and live by feeding off the proteins in dust, amongst other foodstuffs.
One of the joys of conservation cleaning: a different view of something we know so well - Henry Raeburn's 1809 portrait of Scott
When I mention museum vacuums to people, even some of our volunteers, they often give me a withering look as if they suppose that the prefix 'museum' when used in equipment purchasing has the same effect as the word 'wedding'! In some cases this is most certainly true and you can find fantastic substitutes that are not branded for museum or conservation work for a fraction of the cost, as long as you keep a careful eye on what things are made from. However I think these vacuums are fantastic pieces of kit, offering complete adjustment of suction so that you can hoover carpets and hard floors comprehensively alongside delicate textiles, books, plasterwork and carved wood, all with the same appliance. They come with many fine brushes and nozzles so that you can reach and remove the dirt ingressed around the spines of books and in the crevices of carvings and gilt frames. Not to mention the fact that one of them is a backpack museum vacuum for working at height, affectionately known by our team as the 'Ghostbuster vac'! When we are using one of the vacuums on delicate objects, particularly books and textiles, we always start on the lowest suction setting and cover the end of the narrow tube with a square of gauze or fine netting secured with a plastic band. This is a method used to examine whether the cleaning is removing more than just dust, such as detached leather fragments or textile threads. If this is the case the item cannot be vacuumed and must be hand brushed or in some cases, left well alone if it is simply too fragile to be handled.
Our largest Museum vacuum or the 'Ghostbusters Vac'.
The 9,000 or so books in the Abbotsford Library are all hand cleaned over the winter, some using direct appliance of the museum vacuum and others, perhaps of a significant age or with a binding in a state of deterioration, are hand brushed into a box with a hole in the side for the vacuum attachment. This way the dirt is contained and picked up without risking harm to the book. With many of the key insect pests that can cause havoc in museums enjoying devouring a good book, so to speak, this is also the time to visually check each volume and note down alterations in condition or areas of concern. It's a huge task and one in which we have to be extremely careful to preserve the order of Scott's books on the shelves, just as he left them in 1832. This preserved order is of course one of the most famous attributes of the Abbotsford Library. Last year the books took our team just under four weeks to complete and this year we're hoping to beat that record!
One of the trickiest areas for book cleaning is the Study Gallery.
Of course cleaning isn't the only thing going on here over the next 2-3 months. We are also completing essential maintenance works across the site and planning ahead for the changeover of the Visitor Centre exhibition books in early January. I'm also working on a very exciting project for our new 2016 exhibition in the historic house, launching at the beginning of April. Blog readers will get the first news about this hot off the press in due course...
I shall be photographing our behind the scenes activities over the next few weeks to share with you all in a winter roundup early next year, so do keep checking the Abbotsford Collections blog.
Thanks for reading and wrap up warm!
Collections and Interpretation Manager