We’re nearly there now!

It is full steam ahead towards the re-opening of the house on 20 April.

We on the house team are currently spending much of our days cleaning silver, loads of it!

We will have a new and amazing silver display for our visitors to see from next season onwards. Most of it has never been on public display before so it has been kept in a safe for many years and is in need of cleaning.

There are some lovely items amongst it and I’m sure many of our visitors will enjoy looking at it.

We have also been spending time on our knees – scrubbing stone floors.

The Black and White Stone Hall floor was in bad need of some TLC. Tracey, a stone conservator spent a total of four weeks here. Tracey and one of her colleagues spent the first week cleaning the floor, then in the second week she worked with the house team and volunteers showing us how to deep clean the stone. This is a time consuming job with lots of careful scrubbing, then it needs to be well rinsed off and left to dry.

This took us up to Christmas and then Tracey returned in the New Year. Now the floor was finished and she was working on other things, the Chapel ceiling and the alabaster lamps from the Central Hall.

The Chapel ceiling had a few holes that needed filling; this had been done before Christmas by another of Tracey’s colleagues. He worked some of the time from above in the roof space, which meant that he could do a much better and easier job in securing the gaps. He then resurfaced underneath and Tracey finished off by painting, carefully colour matching with the existing ceiling.

The four Central Hall alabaster lamps needed cleaning – a delicate job. I was interested to learn that you do not wash alabaster with water, as this will damage it.

Our friends from Linney Cooper are back again laying carpets and other flooring. There is a new carpet for both the East and West stairs and landings, as well as the first floor corridors connecting them.

We are also getting together the ceramics display ready for the new season. Again there are hundreds of ceramic objects in the house, dinner services, tea services, ornaments, many of which are really lovely and some of which again will be new to public view, so it will take some planning to get it right!

Winter has always been a busy time for National Trust house staff, but not usually quite as frenetic as the current one is at Mount Stewart!

Sheena

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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

Day to day in the house

Hello again!

Well, it is now our second house diary blog post and I think it might be a good time to tell you a bit about our ‘normal’ routines of work inside the house.

Through the year, we have two distinct seasons – the open or summer season and the closed or winter season. We normally open in or around St. Patrick’s Day (17 March) and close again on the last Sunday in October/ first Sunday in November. In 2014 our open season is 8 March – 2 November.

Our routine during the open season is to clean and prepare the house for the visitors. I usually start by unlocking the inner doors and opening the shutters to leave the rooms ready for the conservation assistants to clean. Then the floors are all vacuumed or dry mopped daily and the flat surfaces of the furniture are dusted. As close as possible before the opening time (11am this season) the blinds are ‘set’ ie. opened to the proper level for the amount of light on the day. On a very dark day the blinds will be raised up high – sometimes fully, on a bright, sunny day they are kept lower down – sometimes fully. These may need adjusting during the day as the weather and light can change. Also the lights will be switched on – if not needed earlier for cleaning, ropes put in place and everything checked and ready for the first visitors.

There are bigger jobs that need done too, such as cleaning the central hall floor. To wash, rinse, dry and then finally polish this huge floor takes up to four hours (the whole morning), so it can only be done when we know there are no visitors in the house as it is dangerous to have people walking on wet floors. It is also very annoying to have dirty footprints appearing on the floor you are trying to clean! Detailed dusting of the rooms is also required regularly throughout the season.

Then there is the closed season and the winter clean! The first thing needed after closing is to do an inventory check of the contents, then dust covers can be put over the furniture and the team moves in to do the detailed annual clean.

We do a room or area at a time, starting with the cornicing and high items (off a scaffold or high step ladder), then do the lower items (off a lower step ladder or the floor) and finishing with the skirting and floor. We use vacuums (back pack & regular), brushes and dusters. For many years, my colleague Michael and I have spent much of our winters up and down ladders – the help of our volunteers is most welcome as they can pass up equipment and keep an eye on things (best not to crash into the chandelier directly behind one!)

This past winter we did not clean as we had to assist the project team with the protection, packing up and removal of the contents of the normal showrooms as our contractors are working there this year – a huge job as each room contains many items (furniture, ornaments, books, pictures, curtains, carpets) all of which need careful packing and removal or in-situ protecting.

Well, now you have a brief idea of all the work that keeps the house team busy throughout the year. I hope to tell you about these things in more detail in future blog posts.

See you then!

Sheena

Welcome to the house diary!

Hello & welcome!

My name is Sheena and I am the Assistant House Steward in Mount Stewart House. This is the start of a house diary in which I aim to show you some of the work we do.

So, to begin with, a quick introduction to our wonderful historic house…..

While the estate was purchased by the Stewart family (later the Marquesses of Londonderry) around 1740, the present Mount Stewart House was built over two phases – 1780s & 1840s. It has been lived in by many of the family, including Lord Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary during the Napoleonic times. It was gifted to The National Trust by Lady Mairi Bury (the youngest daughter of the 7th Marquess – she and her Mother previously gifted the gardens and the Temple of the Winds during the 1950’s) and opened to the public in 1977. Lady Mairi lived much of her life in the house she was born in, until her death here in November 2009. Her daughter, Lady Rose Lauritzen, has taken over the mantle & her personal memories of Mount Stewart are invaluable to us.

We are currently in the middle of a major restoration project which is due to complete in March 2015, which makes it a particularly exciting time to visit Mount Stewart House!  It is a massive work in progress which aims to restore Mount Stewart to its glory days in 1920’s & 1930’s when Charles & Edith, the 7th Marquess & Marchioness, lived here while he was the minister of Education in the first Northern Ireland government. Over the years Edith, Lady Londonderry, redecorated the house and started her world famous gardens. Jill, one of our garden volunteers keeps her own weekly garden diary of the ongoing work happening outside our front door; it is well worth looking at – even for a non-gardener like me!

The building is being stabilised, redecorated, rewired and replumbed. All the windows are to be removed, repaired and replaced – our chief joiner, David writes interesting blog posts about their work, whenever he can find a few spare seconds in which to do it! Our main contractors are a local firm H & J Martin and they are certainly kept busy here at Mount Stewart.

Also, inside the house there is much work needed to look after the contents. Apart from the day to day care (carried out by me and my house team colleagues) there is expert care that is done by specialist conservators – we have had several of these here during the past year or so and look forward  to enjoying their skillful and knowledgeable work in the future.

So, that is a brief introduction about Mount Stewart House and I look forward to delving into these subjects, along with many others in the future.

Looking forward to renewing our acquaintance then,

Sheena