Spirit of place, spirit and place, place past and future A review of the third Church Buildings Council International Symposium, London 31st October 2013 By Graham Voce

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It is not often that one is introduced to the venue of an event as being a late mediaeval King’s favourite dining room; having done that the Dean of Westminster laid out the background to what would be a unique blend of place, people and professionalism, bringing together an impressive range of presenters on important and innovative work. Under the moderation of Anne Sloman, Chair of the Church Buildings Council, the presentations ranged widely across current church and cathedral conservation topics, with as much focus on specific conservation topics as on their strategic frameworks.

Christoph Herm of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts gave a good review of the interdisciplinary approach to conservation at Naumberg Cathedral, covering not only original polychromy in the building but also the economic and regional aspects of tourism associated with the cathedral, starting off the day’s theme of a broad and practical focus. This breadth was continued by Tobit Curteis and the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s Rupert Featherstone and Lucy Wrapson, illustrating how to help East Anglian rood screens survive the ravages of inadvertent and deliberate human vandalism, added to pervasive climatic and insect threats, in a holistic and long-term way. This theme was continued in the strategic overview that underlies the work of Monumnetumwacht (Monument Watch) in Flanders, as presented by Tanya Bourgeois. Tanya’s premise that “within certain limits, financial or other, most owners are keen to take care of their buildings” was a hopeful note against some rather alarming examples of a lack of care, some types of which, sadly, are all too familiar.

From the damp expanses of East Anglia and Flanders we were then taken to a different set of challenges, both climatic and cultural, by Nicholas Pickwoad as he guided us through a history of recent conservation activity at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. This was a portrait of a challenging but encouraging and hugely important project that showed how successful heritage conservation is inextricably bound and interleaved with human creativity, personal foibles and ingenious problem solving.

On to Cologne, and in particular the choir screen paintings in the Cathedral there; Adrian Heritage moved from an investigation of the specifics of the paint and techniques used and their history in the cathedral to the integration of such research into conservation management structures and how such ‘macro’ matters as communication, co-operation and strategy have to work in support of, and be inspired by, the ‘micro’ matters of scientific and historic research and specific or specialised treatments.

The final presentation before the Open Forum session was from Tobit Curteis and from Vanessa Simeoni, looking at the conservation issues for the Abbey itself as a working church, a centre of the UK’s ceremonial life and as a nigh-thousand-year old building. Having to deal with thousands of tourist visits every week, Royal weddings and other national events plus regular daily worship is an illustration of managing the macro and micro in conservation in a rather intense way, a burden nevertheless lightly borne.

This led very well into the tour of the Triforium under the guidance of Ptolemy Dean, Surveyor of the Fabric of the Abbey. This was very rewarding indeed, one of those rare chances to see behind the scenes of one of London’s most familiar buildings, and yet be still at the very heart of matters; the form of the building itself came very much to the fore and the sense of place was very strong; it will be interesting to see the spaces of the Triforium after the plans to make the space into a conservation studio and take the contents of the Abbey’s Museum have been implemented. The Abbey continues to live and develop. We also had a quick introduction to the conservation of the Coronation Chair and its new setting was a much appreciated ‘extra’.

Anne Sloman explained that the plan was to keep these events to a limited size and that it was over-subscribed several times. The benefits of this containment were that the presentations were immediate and personal and the almost collegiate approach made discussion with the speakers easy and fruitful. Particularly in the open forum session at the end of the day there was much useful dialogue and questioning, sharing of knowledge and insights. There was also an air of optimism and achievement to be built on that came out of the event which, perhaps, is as important as the research and practical conservation expertise and research presented here.

A thoroughly well-planned, well-delivered and worthwhile day.