‘Conservation Cleaning Day’ at Newstead Abbey sounds like a very complicated and high end role at the Abbey. And it is. It happens because every artefact has a place within the walls of that ancient place.
Every item has a history and a value, whether financial or historical. And because they are woven into the story of the building and its inhabitants they all need due care and attention.
But largely it is about dust. Because every room is a dust magnet. And it is a never ending task, keeping it at bay and keeping the rooms in a presentable condition to the thousands of visitors it welcomes every year.
The process is overseen by the Abbey’s curators. Simon Brown is currently Newstead’s curator of artefacts at Nottingham Museums and he is there to oversee a team of staff and volunteers all eager to lend a hand and get up close and personal with some truly beautiful antiques.
It’s about a lot more than simple getting out the polish and a sponge – no chemicals are allowed near anything because they can cause irrepairable damage. Cloths are designed to be as soft as possible – scratches on wood are a catastophe. Each brush (whilst looking like a standard artists paint brush) is designed for a particular surface – from wood, to ceramics, to glass. Some fabrics are lightly hoovered, using special net guards to protect the fragile textiles from damage.
But aside from the dusting and hoovering it is a chance to step over the barriers that keep the artefacts at arms length and get within inches of some incredible items.
As I stalked the corridors armed with a duster, I had my camera to hand and got a chance to see things I had missed up until now – from carpentry marks in the back of chairs, to the tiny head details on an Italian chest.
It’s an education on its own. And well as being useful, it’s a chance to get to know Newstead just a little bit better.
One of the first things that popped into my head when I first got involved in the cleaning days was a poem my mother wrote many moons ago about dusting. It seems appropriate given that Byron wheedles his way into many of my updates that I should include it. Please read and enjoy. I rather like it.
I’m looking down at a yellow cloth
red-stitched around the edge.
I’ve wiped the coffee table,
the chairs, and window ledge.
It was only done a while ago;
it was clean, it shone
but now it’s covered in dull grey film
which dropped, unheard, unseen.
A thankless, fruitless task is this;
a never-ending drudge.
For over thirty years I’ve cleaned;
the waste of time, begrudge.
I think of all the things I’d do,
if it wasn’t for the drag,
of shining surfaces in my home,
with a greasy, yellow rag!
And then one morning quite by chance,
I heard on the radio;
a Scientist from London,
who asked us; did we know
that dust is not just flakes of skin,
that drop from hands and face,
but microscopic bits of stars
that find their way from space.
She said it’s not just fluff and mites
that lurk in all our beds.
It’s not just unseen bugs or lice,
that live on people’s heads,
but sand from the Sahara
that’s blown halfway round the world;
or little specks of pollen from exotic
It comes from far-off galaxies.
It’s billions of years old.
It’s been there since the first Big Bang.
It’s iron, silver, gold.
It’s all around us everywhere.
It’s in our food and drink.
It’s on the dining table;
and even in the sink.
Since learning of its origins,
I’ve come to think anew;
about the stuff that dulls the shine;
I didn’t have a clue!
I didn’t know it came from space,
or drift of scorching sand;
across the world to the yellow cloth,
I’m holding in my hand!
© Susan C Oliver