The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II – CODA: The Remarkable Responses to Our Evidence of Injuries; and Thomas Hoving’s Rant of Denial
Before considering the third and concluding part of our examination of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, it might be helpful to note the responses made to the first two posts (“Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” and “How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes”). Without exception, these have comprised outright expressions of support and/or of indignation and distress at the fate of the frescoes. Such phases as “I had no idea”, “I was horrified to see” and “that things were so bad” abound. Serious and intelligent websites have reported our accounts in similar terms. As is discussed below, no one has challenged our evidence of injuries and everyone who has responded has been shocked and alarmed by it.
Bob Duggan on the Big Think site expressed this concern with precision: “When I learned that my very breath and perspiration could contribute to the slow destruction of the frescoes, I felt sad. However, when I read Art Watch UK’s accusation that the Vatican undertook a 20-year restoration project of the frescoes ‘in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering’ (which has not yet happened), I felt rage over the local mismanagement of a global cultural treasure…” Duggan added that he was “reminded of a similar, more recent restoration fiasco involving Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic. Years after the artist’s death, overzealous conservators stripped away darkening varnishes applied by Eakins to reveal the brighter colors beneath that were more in line with the Impressionism then en vogue.”
Ikono, an organisation dedicated to democratizing art through the production and broadcasting of short films that present art to the wider public sphere, reported that “ ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting,’ writes Artwatch in an excellent two-part article on the Sistine Chapel Restorations…”
Our case was re-presented in the pithiest form imaginable on the Left Bank Blog: “OY! According to ArtWatchUK: ‘The Vatican authorities are in conservation crisis today because they stripped the Sistine Chapel frescoes bare in the 1980s and 1990s. They did so against material and historical evidence that Michelangelo had finished off his frescoes with additional glue or size-based a secco painting. That original, autograph material was removed in full knowledge that the stripped-down bare fresco surfaces would thereafter be attacked by atmospheric pollution unless given some other protective covering. An attempt to coat the frescoes with synthetic resin (Paraloid B72) was abandoned leaving some surfaces clogged and the rest unprotected. The authorities then promised to install hi-tech paraphernalia that would somehow prevent the polluting atmosphere from making contact with the Chapel’s painted walls and ceiling. As was shown in our previous post, that cockamamie promise was not delivered. Today, in a chapel increasingly over-crowded with paying visitors, these stripped-down frescoes stand in greater peril than ever.’”
A number of questions arise. If the import of the evidence we have assembled over the past 23 years is so clear to so many, why does it have so little traction with the authorities who sanctioned the affronting restorations? Does the absence of any challenge to our evidence mean that everyone is now (privately if not openly) persuaded that – quite aside from the present and ongoing environmental assaults within the chapel – Michelangelo’s painting has indeed been gravely and irreversibly injured artistically, in terms both of its individual component parts and its general orchestration of effects? Or does it show that the authorities, in pursuit of their own interests, are now impervious to and politically insulated against any criticism?
When we first began making this case over two decades ago in the dark pre-digital era, the ink was scarcely ever dry on our criticisms before someone or other claimed that our comparative photographs were misleading; that old painted, drawn, or engraved copies of the ceiling were not to be trusted and had no force as testimony; that we were technically ignorant, or victims of “culture shock”, or agents of mischief – or worse. Could it really be, as it still sometimes seems, that no matter how grave and persuasive the evidence of injuries might be, there exists a wider disabling public resignation and conviction that nothing might today impede the lavishly funded, sponsorship-attracting, Conservation Juggernaut?
To be institutionally specific and somewhat blunt: could it be that the Vatican authorities today think it better to continue sheltering behind a fantastical fairy story of the transforming powers of Wicked Soot and Imperceptibly Darkening Varnishes, than to concede a professional misjudgement made by a small group of in-house experts over a third of a century ago?
Our colleague in France, the painter and the President of ARIPA (The Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), Michel Favre-Felix, adds weight and urgency to these considerations with a two-fold reaction. In the first instance, he too was startled by our further evidence of “this incredible statement by the chemist: ‘Ammonium carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up’”, and the little-noticed admission of the ferocity of the cleaning agent AB 57 by the chief restorer and co-director of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci: “Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work”. As Favre-Felix notes, whenever a given chemical is known to have even the slightest effect on the original colours, it is rightly forbidden to use it.
His second and generous reaction was to offer further visual corroborations in the form of evidence produced for ARIPA’s journal Nuances of other damages made on the monumental figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The injuries to one of these, the Cumaean Sibyl, are of great strategic significance in our joint battles. That is, we have just shown in our two previous posts the gross damages inflicted on two of the greatest figures that came at the end of Michelangelo’s cycle when he was at the height of his conceptual, painterly and figurally inventive powers – his Libyan Sibyl and his Prophet Daniel (see Figs. 2 and 3). To that catalogue of injuries, the further evidence of this third case must surely now establish an indisputable and irresistible critical mass? Of the ceiling’s twelve alternating Prophets and Sibyls that constituted Michelangelo’s most heroic monumental and spiritually expressive achievement, we can now demonstrate how three in a row of these painted colossi suffered grievously. Statistically, a sample of a quarter might be considered sufficient to make a general case? We could, God willing, pursue the evidence further if necessary, but is it not now time sufficient for the Vatican to confront and address past heritage preservation errors and desist from what would otherwise constitute an effective falsification of scholarship and art history?
The Portuguese online newspaper Publico reported our criticisms of the Sistine Chapel’s restorations on the second of March. Professor Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, was quoted in further criticism of the restoration. The present director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, conceded a pressing need for ameliorative environmental measures which he said would shortly be announced. Unfortunately, he nonetheless and bullishly defended the restoration itself as one which will last for centuries – even before any measures have been announced. (We understand that since those comments were made, the promised announcement has retreated from this April to “the end of the year”.)
If we might at least now be sure that the Vatican is aware of our criticisms and evidence, we recognise that for its part, the Vatican will also appreciate the potential material and political risks of abandoning defences of the restoration. Visitors to the chapel greatly swell attendances to the Vatican Museums. In 1976, about 1.3 million people visited the museums. By 2007 the number had reached nearly 4.3 million, netting some $65 million and providing the Vatican City with its most significant source of income. An admission of error would also embarrass the many major players within the international art world who proclaimed a Revolutionary Restoration in the 1980s. To what degree of embarrassment might be sensed in an ill-tempered and defensive outburst by (the late) Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a filmed interview for a portrait of the late painter Frank Mason, an early critic of the restoration and a founding member of ArtWatch International.
Thomas Hoving and selected dialogue from an interview in the film A Light In The Dark:
00:53:02 – Thomas Hoving:
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Frank Mason). There’s a guy at Columbia, some professor who’s been screeching about this for years. (pause) Turns out that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (pause) Do you think Michelangelo was honestly going to deliver it to the Pope something that looked dirty?! (laughs) His marble was going to look gray, his marble was going to look blackened out?! You think that he really mixed his fresco to look like that?!”
01:07:01 – Alexander Eliot:
“I wouldn’t say that the Sistine ceiling had been destroyed myself. I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that it had been desecrated.”
01:07:24 – Thomas Hoving:
“I was part of the desecration personally, if this idiot is right. I am part of it so he ought to put my name on it. (pause) I was invited by the man who cleaned it, Paolucci – whoever, (pause) [Gianluigi Colalucci was the chief restorer and co-director of the restorations, which ran from 1980 to 1994. Antonio Paolucci became the Director of The Vatican Museums in December 2007. – Ed.] to come up in the rickety elevator (makes sound effect of elevator) all the way to the top, and he gave me a beautiful fresh sponge, dipped it in the solution and (he) said OK clean. And they were finally doing the Separation of Earth, (uh) Separation of Light and Darkness, the last one. They started with the Flood and worked backwards. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Ya, try it.’ I went (reaches up) ‘shooo!’ (wiping motion) And this thin film of black just disappeared.
“It was just built up soot over hundreds of years from the stoves that they used to drag in there when the Cardinals all had to meet. That’s what they all did. They had little cubby holes, their servants had cubby holes, they had tents, they had bunks, full service catering, and stoves.
“And fresco is impervious to anything other than being blasted by (uh) laser beams you know (does sound effect) out of Star Wars. Not only did they not desecrate or ruin it, they didn’t do anything to it that wasn’t there. So the guy is full of shit (!) if he said that they damaged the Sistine ceiling in any way, they didn’t! I know it. I was there. I cleaned about eight inches of the Sistine ceiling – personally!”
01:10:11 – Thomas Hoving:
“It’s not a controversy, the guy is full of it (Alex Eliot) He’s never been there, he’s never seen it. Did he clean a part of it?”
Interviewer Sonny Quinn: – “He made a film…”
Thomas Hoving: “Big deal.”
SQ: “He was close enough so he…”
TH: “Close enough? It’s about 55 feet, give me a break!”
SQ: “…they built scaffolding for him and he was there for six weeks…”
TH: “During the cleaning?”
SQ: “No, before the cleaning…”
TH: “Ya, so?”
SQ: “Well, he wanted everybody to examine his film and…”
TH: “Ah the guy is just full of it…”
For the record (once again), in 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream. Eliot was up there on the scaffold, every bit as close to the ceiling as Hoving was to be – and for much longer. On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious record of the unrestored ceiling awaits a re-showing. One can only wonder why the Vatican never pressed the testimony of that filmed footage of the pre-restoration ceiling in support of the later cleaning.
For footage of the cleaning itself in progress, see the Ikono site mentioned above which links to three short films. The narrations of all are unspeakably hagiographic and tendentious: critics of the restoration are said to have been “divided”, while the restorers displayed a “passion for their task that recalls that of Michelangelo himself”. The restoration’s outcome is said to “speak for itself” and to have answered “all but the most severe critic”. Most brazenly of all, an outing for that old canard: this restoration had provided “rich opportunities for study”.
We should perhaps resign ourselves to the possibilty that the Eliots’ film may never be aired again – but it will never be possible to expunge all the photographs of the unrestored frescoes that permit the kind of directly comparative visual analysis routinely conducted on this site. Such comparisons truly do “speak for themselves” because they permit like fairly to compare itself with like. For those with eyes to see, such photo-comparisons will forever tell the same heart-breaking story: a misconceived, technically aggressive restoration inflicted grievous injuries on Michelangelo’s art.
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Review: Deadly Docents, Dirty Varnish and a Big Educational Push at the Frick
The hardest thing to do in today’s internationalised world of museum administration is to stand still. A trip to New York always compels a visit to the delightful time-frozen art palace that is the Frick Collection but it would seem that, even there, maintaining the status quo there has proved unendurable. Madcap schemes to build new galleries for new exhibitions under the Frick’s garden have been drawn up. It is possible that the new director, Ian Wardropper (former chairman of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), has dampened ardour for the kind of curatorial and physical “bolt-ons” that have skewed similarly bequeathed jewels like the Wallace Collection in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington (where today the historic works and their period architectural setting have been swamped and diminished by curatorial and architectural expansionism; where today “Special exhibitions are a signature element …offering new perspectives on the work of contemporary and modern artists.”) The Frick’s director does however seem minded to expand the audio tours and “other educational programs” and a book prominently displayed in the Frick’s shop (see right) serves as explicit manifesto for Education’s bid to interpose itself noisily at the very centre of museums between art and its visitors. As the painter Gareth Hawker describes below, something vital and of the essence is threatened by the prospect. And, as the painter James Keul discovered on a recent visit, something similar is already up and running at the Getty:
“The docent in the Rembrandt room of the East Pavilion upper level, which covers art from 1600-1800, was speaking to a tour group of about 20 people, mostly middle-aged, and asking what observations people had made on the small painting of the Abduction of Europa. One member of the group asked why all of the paintings appear so dark. The docent answered that varnish and oils applied over the years had darkened, leaving many works darker than they were intended to be. Presumably, this was meant to plant a seed in peoples’ minds that all dark paintings are the result of a darkened varnish rather than an intended effect that was used, in this case by a Baroque artist, to provide contrast and thus bathe a picture in a divine light…”
Gareth Hawker writes:
Visitors who plan a quiet hour or so contemplating works of Art in an American museum risk being accosted by guides called “Docents” who intend to deepen their museum experience. Docents, according to Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, the authors of “Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience” (2011, Getty Publications – see Figs. 1 – 4), seek to enable the visitor to “make meanings”. The book’s purpose “is to explain making meanings – to open the world by means of art”. Although many readers might be baffled by such sentences as: “metacognition is a byproduct of practice and it facilitates profound experience”, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s respective positions as Head of Education at the Frick Collection, New York, and Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, requires that their campaign to help docents influence a whole culture by shaping the public’s attitude to works of Art be examined.
Docents are amateur enthusiasts, who have been trained to a high level – though not to degree standard – in both teaching and art history. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, and are of all ages. They probably think of themselves as more or less ordinary people who enjoy appreciating art and wish to help others to do so.
The position of the Docent was created in 1907 in response to a perceived need. Visitors to art galleries wished for a guidance in appreciating works of art which was deeper than that being provided by art-historical lectures. Docents were trained and appointed to meet this need by providing an education in aesthetic pleasure. Nearly a century later, there is no longer agreement about what might be meant by “an education in aesthetic pleasure”. So this book appears at an opportune moment, just when museum educators are seeking to clarify their roles.
In order to help redefine their objectives, Burnham and Kai-Kee refer to the work of the educationalist John Dewey who wrote in his classic 1934, Art as Experience, that “The task is to restore confidence between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” Dewey had identified an ideal response to a work of art. The visitor would begin by gaining an “experience” (that is, a sense of unity). A teacher might help the visitor in this, by stimulating and guiding his thoughts, but without ever imposing any view or judgement. In this way, “guided interpretation” might help the visitor to “make meaning” – to recognise relationships in many aspects of life and art. At its highest this process can generate a sense of over-arching interconnectedness which Dewey called a “culmination”.
In one exercise, students working in a group are encouraged to offer up any ideas and reflections which come to mind in reaction to a painting. These “thought showers” sound as if they could be open and productive, but, if a student asks an awkward question, the process seems to go into shut-down, as the following account (p. 71) may illustrate:
“The picture (the Frick Saint Francis by Giovanni Bellini) is beginning to cast its habitual spell. Suddenly, without warning, in a slightly confrontational tone, one man in the group asks, ‘What’s the difference between a work of art and a mere illustration? This might be just an illustration.’ [See Fig. 2] The question raises larger philosophical issues that are more difficult than he probably realizes and than I can accommodate in the context of a gallery program. I urge him to be patient. Perhaps the experience of the painting may begin to resolve the question, at least for him.”
The docent hopes that the student’s experience of the painting might begin to resolve his question – ignoring that fact that it was his experience which had prompted the question in the first place. Perhaps only certain types of experience are acceptable. (Dewey made a distinction between “experience” and “an experience”). The docent also suggests that the student’s question might be resolved, “for him”, as if his question were personal; as if he were troubled by a mental hang-up; and as if she were his counsellor. But his question was not personal. It was a general question about how works of art may be classified. An answer which was good only “for him” would not have addressed the issue – if indeed such an answer could have any meaning at all.
So, to summarise, the teacher has judged that her student has had the wrong kind of experience, but will not explain why; she judges that he is probably ignorant of issues which are connected with his question but she will not tell him what they are. This begins to look less like an application of Dewey’s theories and more like a power-struggle in which the docent issues a put-down and asserts her superiority.
As so often throughout the book, while the theories seem perfectly innocuous, even illuminating, it is the way in which they are put into practice which gives cause for concern. The authors seem to share a general squeamishness about talking about artistic quality. This is a mindset which is just as prevalent in Museum education in the UK as in the USA. While the authors appear to accept Dewey’s observation that works of aesthetic merit may be found at all levels of human endeavour, not solely in High Art, they apparently interpret this to mean that one must not point out the difference between good and bad.
The authors do mention the importance of looking and seeing, but by these terms they seem to mean finding and telling stories, rather than observing shapes and colours. Works are treated as objects to be read, like books, with stories to be discovered and assimilated. Looking at a painting for its artistic qualities is considered only as a small part of a student’s involvement, not of central importance. (Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lecture, with its concentration on qualities such as colour, tone and shape, would form a stark contrast to the narrative approach outlined here.)
For the authors, talking is an essential part of the process of experiencing a work of visual art. The authors would like to see the docent become increasingly prominent in museums. They wish to see teaching develop in such a way that, “galleries may be defined as places where dialogues take place around works of art” (p. 151). This means that galleries would no longer be defined as places where one goes to look at paintings. They would no longer be quiet. The authors envisage galleries “filled with the hum of conversation […as] educators move from the periphery to the center.” But this move may have harmful consequences. If visitors learn to think of the appreciation of works of art as a series of “experiences”, with little regard to artistic quality, their eyes will be closed to many fundamental aspects of the art of painting. Such visitors are unlikely to observe that some pictures are better than others. They will not notice when quality has been reduced over time: when paintings have been degraded by insensitive restoration “treatments”. Their non-judgemental, non-critical stance will make them easy prey for apologists who promote restorations with appeals to crude sensation such as, “now we can see what was underneath that dark paint!” or, “now look at how bright that blue has become!”
Works of art will be relegated to the status of tools which enable the visitor “to open the world by means of art.” Defining the function of art in this way is simplistic. Art can have many meanings or none at all, yet we can still recognise that it is “right” – if our minds are quiet. Yet the museum of the future which the authors envisage is hectic and noisy.
“Responsible for the continuing translations of meaning that occur in the new museum, the educators who teach are the most accomplished members of the education department, best qualified to shape and animate museum programs. They lead the department, define its philosophy and mission, and overturn the historical definition of teaching as a peripheral, volunteer, or entry-level activity.”
If, by “translations of meaning” the authors mean anything like the “guided interpretation” we have seen in the verbatim accounts of their teaching sessions, we know that it will involve subtly pressurising the visitor to conform to their view of art, “shaping and animating” his “experience”.
A quiet hour contemplating beautiful paintings looks likely to become ever more elusive if the authors get their way.
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Brighter than Right, Part 2: Technical Problems of Protection, Health and Safety at St Paul’s Cathedral
On June 15th the BBC news website reported that a £40m 15 years long restoration of St Paul’s cathedral by “state-of-the-art conservation techniques” had recovered Sir Christopher Wren’s “original vision” and left the building “as fresh as the day it was completed”. Major restorations invariably generate breathless accounts of recovered original glories made by vanquishing the “grime of centuries” – but grime only ever dates back to the previous restorations. At St Paul’s these were in the early and late twentieth century and the proposals for this last restoration explicitly declared that far from returning the interior to Wren’s original painted scheme, it would be stripped to a never-intended, never encountered state of bare-stone whiteness – see Part 1. As for the operation being “state-of-the-art”, consider these defensive/confessional remarks by David Odgers, of Nimbus Conservation, in 2005 just after the remains of Wren’s paint had been stripped: “Being completely inexperienced in the use of the material at the beginning, the learning curve was steep and problems of protection, health and safety issues and night time application had to be addressed”. This is the story of that learning curve.
The method used for cleaning the St Paul’s interior was novel and experimental but as such it was unproven. In both its composition and its effects it earned censure from leading conservation experts (see below). The cleaning agent was an adapted, commercially available, latex rubber poultice laced with a mix of chemicals that were said to comprise an agent tailored to be similar to the mild alkalinity of Portland stone – a special version of the “Arte Mundit” water-based paste manufactured by the Belgian company FTB Restoration. The instigator/director of the restoration, the architect and the 17th Surveyor to the Fabric at St Paul’s Cathedral, Martin Stancliffe, admitted (at a lecture on October 21st 2003) to having slim knowledge of matters chemical and of having devolved – “entrusted” – responsibility for the application of the new paste to the Nimbus conservators (who were learning on the job while the cathedral remained in full commercial and ecclesiastical use).
This state arose despite Mr Stancliffe’s boast that Nimbus had been selected as contractors after “the optimum formulation of the material had been achieved.” In practice, Nimbus, being entirely unfamiliar with this supposedly thoroughly researched and tested material, found its application by hand to be “slow, messy and to leave a streaky appearance on the cleaned stone.” Thus, when this multi-million pounds single-sponsor restoration was approved and underway it was discovered that: a) the result would look awful; b) it would take forever; and, c) it was leaving a terrible smell (of ammonia) throughout the cathedral.
With the restoration in full progress, the manufacturer went back to the drawing board and radically changed the paste’s approved composition and method of application. It has not been made clear of what the chemical changes consisted or whether approval for them was obtained (see below). With thousands of square metres of stonework to be cleaned, FTB Restoration devised what Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers described as “a method for spraying on the material using compressed air with a specially designed pump and nozzle”. This enabled each restorer to apply in “only a few minutes” up to 3.5kg of chemically laced latex paste per square metre (See Figs. 1,2,3,4 & 5). The industrial speed of application – between 50 and a 100 square metres a night – and, with it, the wider commercial prospect of buildings remaining open to business during interior restorations, caused great excitement in the upper tiers of heritage administration. With 2m visitors a year to St Paul’s and admission charges then at £6, now at £14.50, closing St Paul’s during the interior restoration would likely have lost something in the region of £50-60m, but, as we will see, the technical “solutions” to the initial unanticipated problems created serious consequences of their own.
Approval for the Arte Mundit cleaning method had been given by The Cathedrals Fabric Commision for England in November 1999 following claimed earlier approvals by a bevy of heritage watchdogs: English Heritage; SPAB – The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; The Victorian Society; and The Georgian Group. It is not possible to establish the precise chemical basis on which formal approval was given by the CFCE because, in breach of good conservation practice, the three technical parts of the eight parts submission document have been withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality. For information on technical matters we must rely on the cathedral’s own fluctuating (and self-contradicting) published accounts, on our correspondence with Mr Stancliffe (which was terminated by him in March 2003), and on documents obtained by cathedral employees whose health was affected by the restoration (see below).
In December 2002, Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers gave a joint account of the ongoing restoration in Conservation News. They explained why the Arte Mundit poultice method had been adopted and why the so-called “Mora Poultice” method had been rejected. It might be noted that the latter is a cocktail of thixotropic paste, sodium bicarbonate, ammonium bicarbonate, detergents and the aggressively powerful chelating agent EDTA – ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid. That poultice had been designed for cleaning marble buildings and was used experimentally on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes to disastrous effect (see our post of April 1st). By 1992 research had shown that the brightness produced was not a product of marble surfaces having been cleaned but of their being etched by the EDTA into dissolved irregularities which scatter light in all directions.
It was thus known before this restoration began that consuming stone is a consequence of EDTA levels being either too high or left too long on the surface. The Mora poultice was also rejected because the copious amounts of water needed to remove it would have turned St Paul’s Portland stone brown when, as we saw in Part 1, Mr Stancliffe’s ambition was to produce white stripped-stonework in defiance of Wren’s original warmly toned oil painted decorative scheme.
Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers reiterated in their joint Conservation News article, that the chemical composition of their Arte Mundit paste had been “specifically formulated” after a great deal of research (but by then the research seemed to have run into the restoration itself). While it had been found necessary at the outset to add EDTA to the latex paste, they said, this had been done only “at a concentration of 2000mg/kg (0.2%)” precisely to avoid injuries to stone when used at solutions of 11% in the Mora poultices. Before discussing the hugely varying EDTA levels seen to have been used at St Paul’s, consideration should be given to Arte Mundit’s initial principle cleaning ingredient – the pungent alkali ammonia.
Sprayed applications compound the health risks associated with hazardous chemical products. Although Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers admitted “the downside of using compressed air is that the Arte Mundit is applied as a fine particulate and releases ammonia into the atmosphere”, they seemed to regard this as a nuisance rather than a threat to health. Until then, as they put it, the paste had “contained ammonia” but, because “St Paul’s is visited by thousands of people each day, it would be inappropriate for the Cathedral to smell of ammonia.” They added that “Recent developments have meant that the concentrations of ammonia have been significantly reduced in the Arte Mundit so that potential risk has been minimised.” It was not there said of what the “developments” consisted or to what figure the ammonia had been reduced, but it was admitted that atmospheric concentrations of ammonia (which is generally detectable at 4ppm) had reached 10ppm in the cathedral. Needless to say, reducing the smell of the most pungent chemical ingredient is not the same as eliminating or reducing the risks presented by all the chemicals present in the sprayed paste.
Sand blasting the interior surfaces had been rejected partly because installing absolutely airtight isolation to retain airborne dust would have been too expensive (see Figs. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9). In April 2003 a Health and Safety Executive officer (who was under the impression that the only change made to the Arte Mundit paste had been a reduction in its ammonia content and who seemed unaware that EDTA had been incorporated even though it was listed in the manufacturer’s safety data sheet to which she referred – see Figs. 10, 11 & 12) reported, in a seeming counsel of ineffectuality, that “In order to clean a large, old cathedral it is expected that dust will become airborne and it may be that this is contributing to the respiratory problems [of staff members]”. Despite not finding any trace of what she termed “EDA” anywhere in the cathedral, she had “asked the contractor to improve the ventilation in the work areas during the cleaning process.” (See Figs. 3, 4 & 5.) Quite mystifyingly, she added that this EDA, “was not a separate substance within the mixture but we wished to ensure that it was not produced as a by-product.”
When in October 2002 a member of the cathedral’s staff who had suffered severe skin afflictions requested a copy of the manufacturer’s material safety sheet (Figs. 10, 11 & 12), she discovered that the paste was then containing EDTA at up to10% – which is to say, almost the same as in the discredited (and rejected) Mora Poultice, and therefore at up to fifty times greater than the figure shortly to be claimed by Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers in the December Conservation News.
That safety sheet was no rogue document. In March 2003, when declining to answer our questions on inconsistencies in the official accounts, Mr Stancliffe produced certain “fact sheets” which, he averred, “answered all potential questions which you or anyone else may have on this aspect of our interior cleaning programme.” The sheets (entitled “The Arte Mundit Fact File”) were models of un-clarity and consisted entirely of questions jointly put to the restorers and to the Arte Mundit manufacturer by themselves, along with the answers they gave to their own questions. Thus, to “What controls are in place to ensure that the application and removal of the Arte Mundit is competently handled?” (their question 23), Nimbus/FTB replied “The contract has been entrusted to a company run by and employing accredited conservators.” This circular defence would suggest that the restorers, even while learning on the job, were judged capable of monitoring their own performance as well as the performance and the safety of their untested and still evolving methods.
These “fact sheets” contain contradictory material. They give an account (in answer to their question 16, “Has the formulation been changed?”) of the manner in which Arte Mundit’s composition had been changed after the 1999 approval of its “optimal” formulation: “In the first fifteen months of using the material the concentration of ammonia was less than 0.5%. Further development of the product allowed to [sic] reduce the level of ammonia, which is now less than 0.005%.” This account prompts two concerns. First, the reduction of ammonia to one hundredth of its original levels is not confirmed in official restoration documents (see below). Second, in answer to question 16 it was also stated that, regardless of the claimed dramatic reductions of the ammonia level, “The level of EDTA was not changed and the efficacy of the product remained identical.” This beggars belief: there are two cleaning agents in the paste, one an alkali, the other an acid – ammonia and EDTA. If the former was reduced to a hundredth of its original level, how could the efficacy of the whole not have been diminished on the one hand, and slewed in its pH composition, on the other? And, for that matter, what is the level of the EDTA? There is no confirmation in the “fact sheets” of Mr Stancliffe’s and Mr Odger’s joint claim in the December 2002 Conservation News that EDTA was used at 0.2%. In answer to question 4 (“What are its [Arte Mundit’s] constituents?”), EDTA is mentioned as a component but no figure is given for it. In answer to question 7 (“Are there different types?”), it is said: “Yes there are five different types, Arte Mundit I, II, III, IV and V. These are similar except the concentrations of EDTA differ with the lowest concentration (less than 2.5%) being Type II and the Highest concentration being Type V. Arte Mundit I contains no EDTA.” So what type was being used at St Paul’s? To find an answer we must turn to question 15 (“What type is used at St Paul’s?”) where it is revealed that: “After tests carried out at St Paul’s Arte Mundit V was formulated by Dr Eddy de Witte to address the specific conditions found at the Cathedral.” But on this answer we learn that the type of Arte Mundit which contains the highest levels of EDTA (at up to 10%), Type V, was the very one that had been specifically developed for St Paul’s – so from where does the figure 0.2% derive? Had EDTA been required only at the Stancliffe/Odgers claimed level of 0.2%, it would surely not have been necessary to develop a special type of Arte Mundit at all, because the already existing Type II, containing EDTA levels of up to 2.5%, would more than have sufficed?
When a cathedral worker whose station was next to a cleaning area complained to the Clerk of the Works on May 13th 2002 that strong smells were affecting her throat, he prepared a report (see Fig. 13) on May 17th saying that he had asked Nimbus to “get details of material, and improve ventilation”. On that day, she fell sick and was off work for a fortnight with a blocked nose and a bad chest having reportedly been told by the Clerk “Don’t worry, whatever they were using has been banned, they shouldn’t have been using it”.
In the following August a Health and Safety Executive COSSH ASSESSMENT (Control of substances harmful to health – see Fig. 14) identified the main active components of the Arte Mundit paste as: “EDTA (<30%); ammonia (<0.5%)”, which is to say with ammonia still at its original (and not the claimed massively reduced levels) but with EDTA levels then at up to an astounding 150 times higher than Stancliffe and Odgers were to claim publicly in December 2002.
The consequences of exposure to the EDTA-laced Type V paste, as stated on FTB Restoration’s own Material Safety Sheet of August 16th 2001, (where EDTA levels were already put at 10% and not at the later claimed figure of 0.2% – Figs. 11, 12 & 13) were said to be: “irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin”. The primary route of exposure was: “Skin and eyes contact. Vapours inhalation.” The symptoms relating to use were: through inhalation – “Sore throat. Cough. Shortness of breath”; by skin contact – “Redness”; by eye contact – “Redness, pain. Tears”; by ingestion – “Abdominal pain, nausea.”
The staff member who had requested the safety sheet had recorded her own afflictions as they occurred. They made disturbing and progressively grimmer reading (– see Fig. 13). Because that member of staff had previously suffered from skin ailments, a specialist medical examiner who had been hired by the cathedral and who, (like the HSE inspector mentioned above) had accepted the claim that “the only change that was made [to the Arte Mundit] was to reduce the level of ammonia from 0.5% to 0.005% because of ‘the slight smell of ammonia that was present after the initial application’”, contended that her afflictions could not, “on the balance of probabilities”, safely be attributed to airborne chemicals in the cathedral. Nonetheless, he admitted that his decision might have to be reconsidered were “compelling further evidence in favour of occupational causation to be adduced”. This staff member had not been alone in her afflictions. In January 2003, a Press Association article (“Cathedral staff ‘have symptoms of chemical poisoning’”) reported that:
“Staff at St Paul’s Cathedral have been falling ill with symptoms of chemical poisoning, it emerged today. The Health and Safety Executive is sending investigators to the London landmark after staff reported suffering chest pains, respiratory problems and skin complaints. Chief suspect is the substance being used to clean the stonework of the historic building as part of a £40million restoration project. Arte Mundit, a cream paste that removes stains and dust on most surfaces, is being sprayed on to the fabric of the building. It contains ammonia, the smell and intensity of which has prompted the cathedral authorities to carry out all spraying at night. The man in charge of the project, surveyor to the fabric, Martin Stancliffe, was not available for comment today…Another substance in the cleaning mixture that might be causing the health problems is latex – it can cause skin allergies, sneezing, throat irritation and asthma…St Paul’s Cathedral registrar John Milne said that 20 out of 150 people working at the Cathedral had reported conditions which might be related to the restoration…”
In the March 2003 Conservation News, the St Paul’s/FTB Restoration method (as described there by Stancliffe and Odgers in December 2002) was challenged by conservation specialists. Professor Richard Wolbers, conservation scientist and solvents expert at the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, University of Delaware Art Conservation Department, charged the authors with appearing “not to understand very well the chemistry of the materials they are using” and of seeming to “resort to what I would call several common (and spurious) arguments to rationalise the ‘safety’ of their cleaning systems over other methods cited.” For example, he wrote, “EDTA is one of the strongest chelating materials one could bring to such a surface.” It would certainly dissolve “any calcium carbonate beneath it in the stone substrate that it may come into contact with…It is almost as if they simply adopted a commercial material that was easy to obtain or apply without considering what specific chemistry they were bringing with it to the stone surfaces or how it might affect the other constituents they might be adding.”
Professor Wolbers was highly critical of a number of other technical features of the programme but reiterated his fear that the authors “seem to have taken a poorly characterised material, a latex paste, and modified it with the addition of a considerable amount of EDTA (largely as an adaption in their minds, I suppose, of one of the main ingredients in the Mora’s AB57 cleaning system).”
John Larson, Head of Sculpture and Inorganic Conservation at the Conservation Centre, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, said that applications of moulding materials had contributed so much damage over the past 200 years that museums around the world “have now banned” their use, and that the application of liquid latex by brush or spray “has a dramatic effect on porous material such as stone…as it dries latex shrinks and clings tenaciously to the surface.” The effect of pulling it off the stone “exerts strong mechanical forces on the surfaces when the stone is carved and deeply undercut, as shown on the cover of Conservation News.” (See Figs. 1 & 2.)
Seemingly in the face of such attacks, accounts of the St Paul’s/FTB Restoration method shifted once more. In the May 2003 Conservation News Mr Stancliffe and Mr Odgers ignored Prof. Wolbers’ criticisms, which, they said, would be answered in a future article not by themselves but, instead, by the man who had developed Arte Mundit for the Belgian firm, Dr Eddy de Witte. Having said in December 2002 that “The original oil paint [of Sir Christopher Wren] is found to soften and can then be removed with water and scrubbing and this is both acceptable and desirable, as it is removing an unwanted and dirty paint layer”, Stancliffe and Odgers now insisted that Arte Mundit “is certainly not a paint stripper.” Apologising for having “misled” readers on the point, the pair claimed that when they had said “original oil paint” they had not been referring to the original oil paint but to “subsequent distemper applications and not to the original paint.” The distemper “is indeed softened by the latex”, they added, “as it would be by soaking with water”. At this point they admitted that the paste contained EDTA but gave no indication of whether it was at solutions of up to 0.2%, 10% or 30%.
A key concern of conservationists facing such methodological discrepancies was whether or not the EDTA migrated into the stone during the periods of curing after being sprayed as a water-bound paste on to porous surfaces that had already been attacked with caustics and abrasives by previous restorers. With regard to Prof. Wolbers’ fear that Arte Mundit’s EDTA would have the time and the opportunity to invade and damage the stone yet another set of Stancliffe/Odgers claims was revised. In their May 2003 account, they claimed that the latex solution was sprayed to a depth of only 2mm and left for only “two or three hours” when in December 2002 they had said that the curing lasted “usually 24-48 hours”. In May 2002, Conservation News reported that the latex was removed after “one to four days”. In April 2003, the BBC reported that the latex was left on the stone surfaces for between “One to four days [depending] on the thickness and temperature”.
In December 2002, Stancliffe and Odgers had claimed that after removal of the Arte Mundit paste and subsequent washing and scrubbing, the stonework “still retains a patina”. In May 2003 they admitted that John Larson had rightly pulled them up for their “inappropriate use of the word”. Today the surface of the stone can be seen to have been left porous, susceptible to invasion by pollution, and chalky. Its weakened surface can now be rubbed away with a wipe of dry cloth – see Figs. 15 and 16.
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