November - putting the castle to sleep
If you’re one of those people who think that working for the National Trust is a part-time Spring, Summer and Autumn occupation and that the end of the season heralds the beginning of late starts and long lunches, let me tell you about the work of the Conservation Assistants, who use this limited time to assess, monitor and deep clean the State Rooms in readiness for the thousands of visitors we welcome each season.
Every room is, quite literally, cleaned from top to bottom: scaffolding is erected so that the ceilings, panelling and tops of picture frames may be carefully brushed; furniture is moved, carpets are rolled back and floors are waxed. Every object is inspected for possible damage, which is recorded before being cleaned with the appropriate equipment and then covered, to keep the dust off.
Consider these three basic reasons for a period of closure:
- Humidity levels are closely measured – high humidity can encourage mould and attract insect pests, and low humidity can cause woodwork to shrink.
- Light - one of the most potentially damaging enemies to any collection, it can cause irreversible fading to paintings and textiles – opening the property all year round would expose the collection to too much light.
- Dust – one of the biggest tasks is removing the dust (if left, it can become cemented in place).
Considering these tasks alone, you will see that the Conservation Assistants now have their busiest time ahead of them.
Over the past few years, we have opened our doors on the weekends of the ‘closed season’ to allow members of the public to appreciate what our team is doing – and how they do it. These popular tours have introduced our visitors to a fascinating ‘behind-the–scenes’ experience, and some of our visitors have been so interested that they have become regular attenders or volunteers!
A Guide conducts our visitors through the mostly dust-sheeted rooms, explaining how the castle is ‘put to bed’ at this time of the year, and how the conservators approach their enormous task: the sight of ladders, helmets and safety harnesses often gives rise to admiring comments from those who thought that conservation was just a matter of ‘dusting off’ old furniture!
- Muskets and armour, for example, are cleaned in situ, by flicking the dust off the objects into the gauze-covered nozzle of a hand-held museum vacuum with a pony-hair brush – the soft bristles are the best for removing small grains of dust.
- Brass is cleaned in the same method, then coated with Renaissance wax, which arrests tarnishing and fingerprints.
- Wooden furniture may be waxed, but doesn't need to be done more than once every five years!
- Ceramics and glass are all packed safely away for similar brushing or gentle washing.
The tour features aspects of all these considerations, as well as a graphic description of the sorts of insect pests which may be found in the Castle – and in every home!
Visitors can take part in 45 minute conservation tours on November weekends. Tickets are timed, and are avaialble from the Ticket Office on the day (places limited). Normal off-peak admission prices apply. National Trust members are free. Conservation tours are also available on February weekends.