Canterbury's antiquities, damaged in quake, painstakingly saved

Rebecca Helliwell from Emily Fryer Conservation Ltd conserves a Roman mosaic from 5th-6th century AD. It's in the ...
Duncan Shaw-Brown, The James Logie Memorial Collection, University of Canterbury

Rebecca Helliwell from Emily Fryer Conservation Ltd conserves a Roman mosaic from 5th-6th century AD. It's in the University of Canterbury's Logie Collection, which was badly damaged in the September 2010 earthquake.

The University of Canterbury harbours a notably fine collection of Greek and Roman antiquities known as the Logie Collection. It was badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake and has now been painstakingly repaired. CHRISTOPHER MOORE reports.

When she is not restoring and repairing art works, Emily Fryer modestly admits that she's rather good at jigsaws.

It's a handy ability for the Canterbury-based art conservator – especially when confronted by New Zealand's largest jigsaw puzzle. But this was no ordinary conundrum. For an intensive few months, Fryer and her team faced the challenges of repairing and conserving more than 200 items of precious ancient Greek and Roman art, much of which had suffered varying degrees of damage during Christchurch September 2010 earthquake.

Earthquake damage to the Logie Collection Gallery in 2010.
Duncan Shaw-Brown, The James Logie Memorial Collection, University of Canterbury

Earthquake damage to the Logie Collection Gallery in 2010.

The antiquities, including several unique ceramics, form the University of Canterbury's Logie Collection, one of Australasia's finest teaching collections of classical art. Most of the collection spans more than 2500 years from the Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean to the rise of the great city states of Corinth and Athens, the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and Sicily and beyond to Rome.

The ceramics, sculpture and jewellery provide an evocative glimpse into the cultures of the ancient world, one which continues to rank with the world's finest collections. Its oldest items are Neolithic shards dated to approximately 7000-5700 BC from Catal Huyuk in Turkey while its newest is a vivid late Roman mosaic floor from the fifth or sixth century AD.

First formed in 1957 following a gift of Greek pottery to the Canterbury University College in memory of a former registrar, James Logie, the concept of a world class collection for students, academics and the public was driven by a member of the classics department, Marion Steven. During the next six decades, the Logie became increasingly recognised for both the breadth and quality of objects.

Athenian Black-Figure Drinking Cup, about 530 BC and attributed to the Logie Cup Painter, the name vase of the ...
Duncan Shaw-Brown, The James Logie Memorial Collection, University of Canterbury

Athenian Black-Figure Drinking Cup, about 530 BC and attributed to the Logie Cup Painter, the name vase of the collection. ACC No: Inv. 56/58

But for its current co-curator, Penny Minchin-Garvin today this is much more than an outstanding treasure trove of classical art. This is ``a collection of small miracles", a description she doesn't use lightly.

At 4.30am on Saturday, September 4, 2010, the 361 fragile treasures which had survived nearly 3000 years faced total destruction when a 7.1 earthquake followed by a series of aftershocks struck Christchurch, causing the most extensive structural damage since the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake.

What exactly occurred on the sixth floor of the University of Canterbury's Logie Building was unknown. The security cameras were immobilised within seconds.

Logie co-curator Terri Elder showing Roman earrings to secondary school students on Classics Day. The earrings are dated ...
Duncan Shaw-Brown, The James Logie Memorial Collection, University of Canterbury

Logie co-curator Terri Elder showing Roman earrings to secondary school students on Classics Day. The earrings are dated to the 3rd or 4th century BC. File No: UC15-0272-20

As dawn broke over a battered city an increasingly apprehensive Penelope Minchin-Garvin could only wait until the building was declared safe to enter. Meanwhile she could only imagine the sight which lay beyond its doors. Fortunately one of the collection's major treasures, the 6th century BC Stilt Walkers' amphora was safely overseas, on temporary loan to the Getty Museum in California.

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But other irreplaceable objects were there, including the Logie Cup. Created in about 525BC and one of only three known black figure ``Eye Cups" in the world, the kylix is painted a profile portrait thought to represent Dionysus the god of wine and his consort, Ariadne. On either side is a pair of staring eyes. When raised to the mouth, the cup became a hypnotic mask. But on September 4, its fate was unknown.

Eventually Minchin-Garvin, joined by a small group of university staff and conservator Emily Fryer were allowed limited access to the collection. Fryer was acutely aware of the collection's vulnerability. "The sixth floor of a building in a major earthquake is not a good place for objects like this. Once we got in, the first impression was that everything had been affected. Glass shelves had concertinaed. Objects had smashed into each other. It was so chaotic and distressing and people were so emotionally upset that they felt they had to remove everything as soon as possible. "But my advice was that everything could be repaired and saved. People were talking in terms of loss but as a professional conservator, I had a different take on the situation."

Nevertheless it was a daunting sight. One of the larger ceramic amphora teetered alarmingly on its side after its base had been fractured in the first tremor.

``It was simply resting against the side of the glass case," Fryer remembers. ``If we lifted the case up, the amphora would fall. But that was the only way we could reach it. We had to understand how it was balanced and how it might move. We couldn't let the base shift any further otherwise we'd be left with a mound of rubble. Two people lifted the glass case very, very slowly, while others carefully watched the ceramic for movement. All this time, we were in a closed building waiting for the next aftershock. But we managed to save it."

In the following days, a team of individuals transferred every individual piece from the largest ceramic to the smallest fragment to the sanctuary of an undamaged Canterbury Museum. By the time that Christchurch was struck by a second massive earthquake on February 22 2011, most of the collection was out of harm's way. A full survey subsequently revealed that 264 objects required treatment with 68 facing major repairs, 89 minor treatment and 107 simply requiring cleaning. Ironically, many of the objects had been found in pieces when first excavated from ancient tombs. The Logie Cup had been broken into five pieces while the foot of its base had been detached. In others, highly friable paint had been affected after coming into contact with other surfaces.

Later in 2011, the boxes which now contained the Logie Collection were moved to Fryer's conservation studio where the painstaking task of conservation could begin. ``Fortunately my studio was completely unaffected by the earthquakes." she says. `` We worked on the objects in batches, initially establishing the source and condition of each piece by working through box after box of tiny fragments using the collection's published catalogue as a guide to where they belonged. It was a process which involved considerable time and patience."

One of the collection's prized items – an elaborate but breathtakingly fragile late 3rd century BC Canosan polychrome askos or reliquary for cremated human remains, had survived the earthquakes. But its circle of delicately moulded terracotta figures of mourners, mythical beings and other intricate detailing had suffered damage.

It wasn't the only patient in Emily Fryer's care. "All of the objects had already undergone massive repairs. We were facing repair work which in some cases, dates from antiquity," Fryer says. The team of three conservators worked quickly, liaising continually with the University of Canterbury.

Conserving the ancient objects entailed a careful cleaning process of each object to remove any dust which had fallen onto their surface during the tremor. Every step had to be carefully considered, the impact of each process gauged to avoid causing further damage.

``We knew that we were expected to do the best job possible. The fragments, large and small, had to be sorted, identified and classified before the repair work could start. We were not simply dealing with bits of pottery. These are beautiful art objects in their own right," Fryer says.

Part of the conservation process involves the question of whether the ceramic's complete history remains visible or whether it is shown in a pristine ``as new" condition. "We decided that there would be times when we showed the pot's life – including the fact that it had survived an earthquake. This is all part of the object's history," Minchin-Garvin says.

As well as a detailed dossier on each objects, photographic files recorded each conservation step. ``If there were losses, or an old fill, we didn't do any more work. We decided to let them to reveal their history. Modern conservation techniques involve ethical issues. We had lengthy discussions with the university about these questions," Fryer says.

In each case, all the repairs are reversible. The conservators used materials and techniques which can be removed by future conservators. Titanium white was included in the filler material, but is a pigment unknown to pre-20th century restorers and one which can be revealed by UV light.

"The idea is to keep everything honest. Nothing is invisible. Some objects were even kept in a broken state for study," Fryer says. "These are art objects and you need to read their history when an expert looks at them. Later this year, the restored Logie Collection plans to move again to its new permanent home in a 135 sqm gallery in the restored and earthquake-strengthened Chemistry Building in the Christchurch Arts Centre. Here they will be displayed in an environment which will provide almost total protection for their precious contents.

Emily Fryer has one further wish. One day she'd like to see a ``before and after" exhibition to celebrate the resurrection of the Logie's ancient miracles and the stories they tell. That's something which the artists who created them in the ancient world would understand and appreciate. 

 - Stuff


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