European Heritage Open Day 2014

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Last weekend, 13 -14 September 2014, was European Heritage Open Day (EHOD for short).

This is an annual event which started in 1984. It takes place over the second weekend in September each year and is an opportunity for people to visit interesting places that they may not normally think of going to see.

There are a few variations on the opening weekend. Some places (like National Trust properties) open on one or other of the days and others open on both. Some places (again like National Trust properties) are normally open to the public for an entry fee but are open on this occasion for free; others are normally closed to the public but open for one or two days only each year during this event!

National Trust properties open for free on Saturday only, Sunday is a normal entry day again.

It is a popular event, over 60,000 people in Northern Ireland avail of the opportunity to investigate their heritage. This year here at Mount Stewart we had 1687 visitors to the property, of which 779 entered the house. With our show house smaller than usual because of the ongoing building work, we were probably at full capacity for the day.

Happily most of our visitors this season seem to have enjoyed seeing behind the scenes, watching some of our conservators in action and learning about the project and are keen to return in the future to see the end result – which is going to be rather fabulous (not that I am biased or anything…)!!

We are starting to get some of our showrooms back again which is very exciting and encouraging for us. We are starting to clean and prepare these rooms and furnishings are being returned to them. We have a busy winter ahead of us as we re-instate all the rooms ready for next season.

Next Sunday, 21 September, will be the last open day for our house this season as our contractors have work to do in a few of the areas that are currently open to the public. This needs to be completed before we open again next Spring.

Then, from next week onwards, it is all hands to the pumps as we get down to work. Everything has to be ready for the re-opening of the showrooms, which will be back to ’normal’ – except even better than ever!

Sheena

Busy, busy, busy!

Amongst the busiest of the ‘subbies’ are the electricians (fondly known as the sparks) – Irwins Electrical Contractors. They are a local family business currently run by John Irwin.

They are a busy firm with both commercial and domestic contracts, doing both installation and maintenance. They work in large jobs such as in government buildings as well as smaller jobs in private homes.

Our team leader is Brian. Brian started as an apprentice over 25 years ago and has worked for Irwins for 11 years. At the moment he has a team of ten – four apprentices and six electricians. Last year the team was smaller and also some of the personnel were different. Brian can often be seen pouring over maps of the house as he figures out the routes for all his wiring.

The whole building is being rewired and also with pyro wire, which is incredibly stiff and hard to bend and work with. So pushing the electrical wires under floor boards and through gaps takes a lot of time and effort! However it is the toughest and most fire proof wiring about, so Mount Stewart should be safe from electrical fires for many years.

They also have to set up any temporary lighting that is required. A good example is the lighting currently in our Central Hall. But there is lighting required all over the building so that the work can be carried out. So the sparks can be found beavering away anywhere – roof space, basement….

Part of the electrical work is for the upgraded alarm system, Irwins put in all the wiring and then Crane Communications, our alarm company, attach and commission the new sensors. This is ongoing as they have to come in behind the building work. We currently have two systems (old and new) in operation – which is great fun (not)!

Our plumbers are local firm Maurice Stevenson & Co, another family firm founded in 1921 and currently run by Mrs Stevenson.

Peter is the head plumber in charge, but not on site every day. Stephen is the on-site plumber; he and his assistant can be found laying pipes and peering under floorboards around the building.

One time recently when, one Saturday, there was no hot water in the house, Stephen came in and tracked down the problem. A hot tap had been knocked on very slightly the previous day and because the bath was well wrapped up and protected from all the work going on, this was not seen or realised. Stephen turned off a couple of taps and soon the boiler temperature was rising fast, back up to its proper level.

Sheena

Meet our hard working sub-contractors!

Our main contractors are local firm H&J Martin. They are a family run business dating back to 1839, around the time the Stewarts were adding on to their house at Mount Stewart.

This is not the first time that H&J have done work here, they were the firm who did the work on our new reception area in 2001-2. Also they did the work on the Temple of Winds in the mid 1990s. They also did some work for the Londonderry family over the years up to the 1950s.

H&J now work in many countries – such as the UK, Republic of Ireland, Germany, Romania, Saudi Arabia – both in building and property maintenance, it’s great to see a Northern Ireland firm do so well internationally! One of the best aspects for them working on our project is that they are all presently living at home instead of having to live abroad/away from home and family as is fairly normal.

The team here is headed up by Maurice, who is the Project Manager. Maurice has been with H&J for forty years, starting as an apprentice joiner in August 1974. He has worked on many commercial projects over the years including hospitals, schools and shopping centres and was involved in the refurbishment of The Opera House after it was bombed in 1993.

Kelly-Ann is the Site Manager; she has been with H&J for about eight years and started in a more office type job as a document controller before moving into the more hands-on management side of the business. Kelly-Ann is working towards her CIOB (Chartered Institute of Builders) qualifications and takes a practical approach to training, learning on the job from her experienced colleagues.

Brian is the Assistant Site Manager, he is with H&J for one year, and his background is in a degree in Construction Engineering & Management.

They are the main three managers onsite, but there are others occasionally ‘passing through’ – such as Doreen, who is a Quantity Surveyor.

R&M Joinery are our hard working joiners.

R&M are Rab and Marty, both former H&J employees now in partnership for some three years.

This is a very busy section as there is much joinery (some temporary, some permanent) to be done on any building site. They build temporary doors, frames, platforms and barriers, as well as working on floors, skirting, windows and all the wooden parts around a house.

At Mount Stewart they employ several joiners as well as a labourer/stone mason.

Sheena

Our wonderful subbies!

As mentioned before in my earlier diaries, Mount Stewart House is currently in the middle of a huge restoration project.

After a couple of centuries of being lived in and over 35 years of National Trust visitors, the house was in need of some TLC. This is a very exciting time for those of us who work there, as we are seeing our house being ‘done up’ and secured for the future.

Our main contractors are local firm H&J Martin. They have several sub-contractors (known as ‘subbies’) who carry out the specialist work such as joinery, painting, plumbing and electricals.

There is also the firm DJV Insulation who have been working on the asbestos removal.

Asbestos removal has been a major challenge, taking about twice the time it was expected, as at the time (1920’s and 30’s) the bathrooms were installed in the house; asbestos was the miracle substance being used in building work. It was only many years later that it was realised how dangerous it can be (it is fine when in undamaged condition, the danger starts when it breaks down or gets damaged) and many older buildings are riddled with asbestos – including Kensington Palace in London!

DJV are a family run business from Hillsborough with over 20 years experience in asbestos removal. A major reason they won the Mount Stewart contract was the experience of their foreman, David.

They work (and have to) in a very careful and particular manner. Areas have to be sealed off with tents, the men work in safety gear (goggles, helmets, suits, breathing apparatus etc.) and stringent safety procedures are followed – it is always better to be safe than sorry!

The tents need to be air tight, so a smoke test is done before the work starts to make sure. A controlled exit route is established for removal of contaminated material and nobody else should be within the route during the specified removal times. This contaminated material is carefully disposed of later.

It is very detailed work. For instance, absolutely everything under the floorboards needs thoroughly cleaned (pipes, wires, beams, plaster) and this takes a long time.

I remember one Friday last year, when the DJV boys told me that (after a week working at Mount Stewart) they had to go to Ballyquintan beach the next day. Sadly it was not to enjoy ice-creams or build sandcastles but to remove asbestos that someone had dumped there!

Father and son team, Bill & William McAllister carry out the all-important air tests to ensure that, firstly, asbestos is present and then that the area is clear after removal.

It is good to have responsible & skilled people to carry out such potentially dangerous work.

Sheena

Desks, computers and paper!

As with every job in 21st Century, we on the house team have lots of paperwork to complete.

Michael and Matthew, the conservation assistants (c/a’s for short) get off fairly lightly – their paperwork mostly involves filling out records, the regular spot checks and readings for instance.

It is Andrea, the House Steward (HS for short), and I, Assistant House Steward (AHS) who have the joy of the bulk of the paperwork! Andrea’s most absorbing paperwork job is ‘The Guide Rota’, she also looks after the house volunteers (both conservation and guiding) and the pre-booked groups, making orders and various other jobs with plenty of forms to fill out!

My biggest regular paperwork job involves visitor figures, both daily record sheets for the guides to fill in and the monthly ‘counting’ sheets that are input from the daily forms. The monthly sheets are on Excel and can be (for a non techie like me!) very complicated, as we need to record everything each day. We also need annual totals for each scheduled individual time (such as the number of people who went on the 12noon tours through the season), the total for each week (not easy when the week is over two months!), the numbers on pre-booked groups, how many did free-flow, how many didn’t make it onto a scheduled house tour (happily not too many!) etc. This all is very time consuming as everything has to be added up individually and accurately.

Over the past number of months, I have also been preparing ‘Condition Reports’ on the computer, taking useful details such as inventory numbers, descriptions, measurements and photos from our computerised inventory system (called CMS) and copying them onto the paperless forms on the computer. I am doing this for each showroom and area and it means that we can update our records as we carry out detailed cleaning this season in the Hague conservation studio. Later, as everything returns to normal, we can fill out these records wherever the item in question ‘lives’ – either a showroom or a store.

There are also regular checks to be carried out and recorded – either weekly, monthly or quarterly, you’ve guessed it – more paperwork!

For the start of this season, guide info packs had to be produced, including details of the exhibition now in place – provided by Louise, our House & Collections Manager (HCM) – and the highlights of the collection currently stored in the Central Hall. A simple list of two sides of pages became a detailed list of nineteen. Safe to say that the photocopier did overtime as I had over 1500 copies to make!

With the amount of paper and computer work to be done, it is a pleasant surprise to occasionally get out of the office and into the house!

Sheena

Conserving the collection

A bit more about Conservators and their work this time.

We on the house team are trained in general preventative conservation, which means we are able to deal with the day to day needs of our historic house and its collection.

Sometimes we have need of the skills and/or advice of a Conservator – this is a person who specialises in a particular medium – ceramics and glass perhaps or photographs or historic lighting or many others….They have detailed knowledge of their chosen subject and will be called on in an emergency – perhaps some item has been knocked over and broken or there has been a leak…

Recently mould appeared on a print in one of the bathrooms. This is strange as a) the area is not especially damp and b) all the other pictures (even hanging beside it) were not affected. I took down all the prints & pictures in the room, put the other (unaffected) ones into another room for safety and carefully packed away the affected print into a box. I also cleaned away the mould that was left behind on the wall – inhaling mould is not good for one, so wearing disposable gloves and a mask are advisable while dealing with all this. However there was also mould on the mount of the print under the glass and this needed an expert’s attention. We were fortunate that Graeme, one of the National Trust’s paper advisors, was visiting shortly afterwards and he has taken the print away to deal with in his work studio at home.

Many of our experts come over from England, but we in Northern Ireland are fortunate in having several local conservators who do great work for us. Fergus (furniture), Kathy (textiles), Christine (gilt work) and Jane (paintings) have all been working away at Mount Stewart during 2013 – often witnessed by our visitors and guides – and they should be doing much more sterling work in our new conservation studio. This is the first such facility for the National Trust in Northern Ireland and is situated in ‘Hague’, one of the bedrooms. We hope that our visitors will be able to see them working their magic during the 2014 season and beyond…..you might even get to see the house team in action too!

During the week of 17 February we were swamped with visitors! There were a few conservators among them – the two James’ (one does silver, the other does paint – the type on walls), Trevor (stone), Terry (chandeliers); also Sally, the National Trust magazine editor (the current issue features Mount Stewart), Anne, the Health and Safety Officer (checking out our new visitor route), not to mention Fergus and Rebecca (a trainee furniture conservator gaining work experience with us) and all the more usual house and project teams and their fabulous volunteers – good job the house is large (though the staff room does get rather crowded at break and lunchtimes!)

One of our more unusual recent visiting conservators was Nigel who specialises in Natural History. He was here to work on the giant Irish Deer antlers.

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These were seen and marvelled at by visitors last season, while they were temporarily living in the Entrance Hall. They are now back in their usual home – secured high on a wall in the Saloon – having been repaired and strengthened. After the project is complete the Saloon will be open to the public at certain times, so visitors will have the chance to see these incredible antlers – though they don’t seem so huge when so high up!

Sheena

A quick update from the conservation team

Hi all,

So what has been happening on the conservation front at Mount Stewart? Well in the last five weeks we have been fully booked in Hague our conservation studio, we have had glass chandeliers, gilt floor lights, doors, floor skirting boards, altar hangings and pelmets which have had their turn in ‘hospital’ this month, all coming out in ‘good health’ in a much improved condition.

In the first two weeks of May we had Terry Brotheridge – freelance lighting specialist onsite continuing the re-wiring all of our fixed light fittings housed at Mount Stewart. I attempted to work out the precise number of lights he is working on and after counting seven chandeliers and over sixty wall lights I succumbed to averaging that we have over 120 fixed lights. This does not account for the free standing table lamps and floor lamps we have in the collections which are also being rewired; Richard from Irwins (our electrical contractors) is carrying out the careful re-wiring of these. He had to undertake a rigorous test in conservation object handling, administered and scored by myself and our House and Collections Manager before he was entrusted and able to work on the lamps. He passed with flying colours and to date has re-wired around 180 free standing lamps from our collection!

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All of the lights across the property are having their bulb/lamp holders changed from bayonet fittings to screw-in, so no downward pressure will be placed on the arms of the lights when these require changing or cleaning in the future, this is how breakages have occurred in the past. The wiring on all the lamps is being upgraded to double insulated, clear, 3 core wire with earthed lamp holders, in which new LED bulbs/lamps will be fitted. LED lamps last longer and emit less heat than a tungsten bulb/lamp, reducing damage to the object and surrounding collections, as well as being energy efficient. These new amendments will ensure that the lamps, wall lights, and chandeliers are preserved for future generations as we will no longer run the risk of scorching our delicate lampshades and breaking delicate, glass and gilt wooden arms from our chandeliers.

So to continue….

Mid May Fergus Purdy – furniture conservator paid us a visit in Hague; he worked on numerous skirting boards and doors from the upper floors of the west end of the house, removing inlays which had suffered from woodworm damage and old repairs which have failed. He then cleaned the items and fitted new sections of wooden inlay and veneers, staining and waxing them to match the original item. Fergus will be back working in Hague (conservation studio) 9 June through to 20 June, Monday to Friday; do come and visit Hague and see his fabulous work!

On Friday 23 May, the doors were moved out of Hague in order to create space for four textile hangings and eight pelmets to be laid out on the benches in preparation for assessment this week by Melanie Leach, one of our freelance textile conservators. Many of the textiles at Mount Stewart have deteriorated over the years, they are one of the most delicate and susceptible materials to light damage, surface dirt accretion and wear and tear. As many of our textiles hang, it is important that they are conserved, to ensure that they do not suffer and fail under their own weight. Many of the textiles are also undergoing deep cleaning to remove all the dust and debris which has accumulated over the years; this entails careful conservation vacuuming carried out by our project conservation volunteers all trained in this specialist cleaning method. In some cases further work such as wet conservation cleaning and repairs are required, these are all carried out by our specialist textile conservators, both offsite and in Hague. Holly (one of our volunteers on the textile team) will update you on more works which have been occurring.

Melanie Leach showing the project conservation volunteers how to carry out dry conservation vacuuming of textiles

Melanie Leach showing the project conservation volunteers how to carry out dry conservation vacuuming of textiles

This week (start of June) we have Graeme Storey ‘taking the reins’ in Hague, he is a specialist in the conservation of paper and will be here for the week working on our vast collection of paper/vellum lampshades, only about 180 in our collection of which Graeme will be assessing and working on. Wish him luck!

Graeme at work in Hague our conservation studio

Graeme at work in Hague our conservation studio

As for the rest of the team, Christina, myself, the project volunteers and house team volunteers, we’ve been enjoying tea and cake whilst the conservators have been working hard in Hague….…. If only!! No, we’ve been working hard, moving collections out of storage for conservation works, returning them to storage once works are complete, continuing with the careful cleaning of the vast collection of textiles in the house, packing collections going away for conservation, monitoring the collections in store, cataloging and organising collections in storage……..all in preparation for THE REINSTATEMENT!!!

DUN DUN DAH!!

Take a quick peak at our some of the collections in store.

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We have already nearly completed reinstatement of items in the family’s private rooms, currently reinstating their collection of books. The reinstatement of the main rooms across the house will be starting this summer……..so… if you are currently volunteering within the property or have experience in handling collections in the museum sector or similar and wish to join the project conservation team, we have a role for you here!

I think we are now up to date with conservation works at Mount Stewart, it has been a busy month, yet quiet and peaceful as we have not seen or heard the joiners in weeks! They’ve been hiding from us in the west end of the house!

Next month’s happenings coming soon……..

Lauren