Time for a little early spring cleaning at Blenheim Palace as they unveil their latest tour “Restoration & Conservation”, an exclusive peak at the process of refurbishing one of Britain’s most cherished stately homes. We talked to Karen Wiseman, Blenheim’s Head of Education, about the new tour and the trials of heavy hoovering.
Culture Calling: Hi Karen! Blenheim Palace’s “Restoration & Conservation” tour starts on Monday 9 January. Could you tell us a little about what the tour is all about and what visitors can look forward to?
Karen Wiseman: The tour explains to visitors how we care for the collection. During the winter we do what we call the “deep clean”. This is, in the first instance, a comprehensive review of the collection followed by a thorough clean alongside the ongoing conservation and restoration works. The tour explains how the tapestries are cleaned and how we deal with gilded frames etc. It will also talk about various projects such as conserving the Boulle furniture and how the art restorer cleans the paintings.
CC: As you say, the tour exhibits Blenheim’s “Deep Clean”. What exactly does this involve? What sort of wear and tear does the palace accumulate over the year?
KW: When the Ops Team do the deep clean they start first with the ceiling and then work their way down. They use museum hoovers, soft paint brushes and they hoover up the dust. There is no point in dusting in the traditional way because all that does is move the dust around.
The main wear and tear comes from visitors – accidents like their bags bashing a marble topped table, or from the chewing gum left stuck to the furniture. Other factors which affect the collection in terms of wear and tear is the damage done by light and moisture. Light doesn’t just fade the colours in fabrics over time it can also shred fabrics. So we do our best to reduce the exposure of the collection to direct sunlight whilst still having enough light so the visitors can see. Also visitors will insist on breathing and the moisture in the breath of 700,000 people can affect the fabrics.
Photo Credit: Blenheim Palace
CC: Which of the art pieces in the tour requires the most care and attention to renovate?
KW: Probably the most intricate pieces to restore are the Boulle furniture. Possibly the most tricky to clean is the silver centre piece which comes apart and there is a knack to getting it back together again. One of the Operation Managers used to be the 11th Duke’s Butler so he knows everything there is to know about cleaning silver and in particular that piece.
CC: Not all of the tour is about Blenheim’s interior. One of the big renovations is of the ‘Capability’ Brown Cascades. Could you tell us a little about this process?
KW: The dam was constructed between 1764 and 1774 by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to hold back the waters of the River Glyme and create the centre of his landscape at the end of the Blenheim Lake. Owing to the age of the dam and the requirements of the Reservoirs Act, repairs and engineering works to strengthen it were deemed essential.
The works were carried out between May and October 2009. On completion of the project, 36,000 daffodils were planted around the dam, making it a spectacular attraction every spring.
CC: Blenheim Palace is obviously revered as a site of immense cultural history, but it also has to constantly modernise to remain a modern, exciting attraction. How do you balance those two needs – to preserve and update?
KW: The overriding aim of the Estate business is to preserve the Palace and its collection for the future. The bulk of our visitors come here because of the displayed artefacts and art and the Baroque architecture of the Palace so the historical nature of Blenheim is very important. In terms of the modern elements of the business, the Blenheim Art Foundation has introduced an annual modern art exhibition. The premise being that the family have collected and displayed art throughout the 300 year period of the Palace’s history and so the modern art exhibitions continue this tradition.
CC: “Behind the Scenes” themed events seem very much in vogue at the moment – Modern Art Oxford has had similar exhibitions over the last year. It’s a very contemporary idea. Why do you think people are interested in these kinds of tours? And why are they so popular now?
KW: I have been at Blenheim for over 10 years and the visitors have always been fascinated by how we care for the collection and the fabric of the building. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised that some things we do are exactly the same as they do – we clean the windows using water, for example. We perhaps are more gentle with the old panes of glass here than we need to be at home but the process is the same. They are also interested in the specialist methods of cleaning. One of the most frequent questions we get asked is ‘Are you scared handling the objects?’ Of course when you first come here it is daunting but we are trained and we take great care.
Possibly the reason people are interested in the behind the scenes type tours is simply the very normal fascination of ‘how’s that done?’ – a fascination that perhaps never leaves us from childhood.
Blenheim Palace’s ‘Restoration & Conservation’ tour begins on 9 January. For further details, please see their website.