Salvage work at Glasgow School of Art

The fire at The Glasgow School of Art made National News on Friday 23rd May; devastation and partial destruction of one of Glasgow’s best loved and iconic buildings. The Fire Brigade was on site within 4 minutes and according to reports saved over 70% of the building structure. Fire is unfortunately accompanied by collateral flood damage due to the large quantities of water used.

Those close to the School of Art were first on call; Glasgow University is now home to teaching staff and students working on the Textile Conservation MPhil programme. I was called out, to the nearby Reid Building, the following Thursday to volunteer help with the School’s archive textiles; mostly historic items used for reference. It was important at this stage to make sure textiles were safe and drying properly and quickly enough to prevent mould growth and dye run. Historic textiles are weakest when wet so handling and laying out was done with care.

Nothing, until you have experienced salvage work, prepares you for the conditions: noise, high humidity, adrenaline and high temperatures; none of which are not designed for human comfort! Also, everything is a compromise when space is at a premium, materials and equipment in short supply, time of the essence and tiredness can overwhelm.

In between directing and encouraging the students to maximise space for drying, improve drying methods (whilst maintaining reasonable support for the textiles) and making a risk/monitor list I worked mainly with the Library staff on an inventory and image file to record objects saved. By the end of the day I was dead on my feet. Out of very difficult circumstances we pulled together a good days work. Thanks to Glasgow University: Karen Thomson (teaching staff) and students (Maria, Emma, Rosie, Emily, Alice, Moe and Melissa, Glasgow Museums (Helen M Hughes) and of course the very resilient Glasgow Art College staff.

Here is a personal account of work from student and YCL intern Rosie Chamberlain.

click on images to enlarge and see caption.

I am a Fine Art graduate so my initial thoughts were with the GSA fine art students. I know just how much work goes into a final degree show – the culmination of three or four years practical endeavours; then, to loose the best of your coursework in a fire, how devastating.

The fire however became a rare and valuable learning opportunity for students on the Textile Conservation MPhil course from the University of Glasgow as we were called in as volunteers to salvage the archived/reference textile collection.

Some smoke damage and dye bleeds were observed; however it was mainly textiles damp from the firefighting that occupied mine and the other volunteers’ time. We worked quickly to improve drying time to reduce the risk of mould growth, which has the potential to cause permanent staining and weaken textiles.

Being called upon to salvage artefacts after an emergency thankfully isn’t a common occurrence for conservators in the UK. The GSA salvage operation was a rare and invaluable opportunity for all the conservation students involved. The experience enabled us to develop effective communication, quick thinking and creative problem solving; crucial skills needed to perform salvage work, early on in our careers.