Smiles for the new plaque

Credit: Mike Peckett

Credit: Mike Peckett

One of the most exciting outcomes of this year’s roof refurbishment has been the discovery of graffiti left by the Victorian roof painters. You may remember our first finding, back in April when the names of G. Thicke and J. Randall were found scrawled high up in the rafters. These voices from the past inspired Museum staff, the roof team and many of our blog followers to reflect on the construction of our fabulous building and the workers who built it.

Credit: Mike Peckett

Credit: Mike Peckett

Fixing the plaque into place Credit: Mike Peckett

Fixing the plaque into place
Credit: Mike Peckett

As the roof works come to an end and the scaffolding is dismantled, the Museum is filled with the sound of clanking metal and banging wooden beams. The building is being revealed one level at a time. This seems like a good opportunity to mark the end of the project and leave a little message of our own for future generations.

Last Thursday, staff from Beard Construction, Oxford University Estates Services and other members of the roof team climbed high up into the roof for one last time. Just feet below the original graffiti discovery, they attached a brass plaque listing the names of the team involved in the roof refurbishment, and also included a special nod to the Victorian artists George Thicke and J Randall.

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L-R: Neil Hyatt, Steve Colmer, Stephen French, Les Smith, Stuart Knapp, Zdzislaw (Arnie) Milaszewski. Credit: Mike Peckett

This special occasion was a good opportunity to get some of the group together for a few final photos with a spectacular backdrop. The smiles say it all, really!

Peter Hutt and Jamie Bennett Credit: Mike Peckett

Peter Hutt and Jamie Bennett
Credit: Mike Peckett

For me, the most satisfying element of the plaque installation is that once the scaffolding is all down, the Museum has re-opened and the visitors have flooded back in, the plaque will be completely invisible from the ground. Continuing the tradition of the graffiti, which was hidden for 150 years, the only people who will see the new addition will be the next team to embark on an ambitious roof project. The names will then provide them with a glimpse of the men and women who have made the roof what it is now.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Coming down


The picture above gives some impression of the latticework of scaffolding and ladders that have grown to occupy the spaces inside the Museum. In places the density of the scaffolding is visually impenetrable as you can see in the black and white photograph below.

A dense structure of lines  and levels cuts across the upper gallery level of the central court.

A dense structure of lines and levels cuts across the upper gallery level of the central court.

Some of the very top layers of this scaffold are set to come down now that the tiling on the central apex is completed. Where tiles have been cleaned or replaced the sunlight pours in to the upper spaces and the sky is clearly visible beyond. Previously, the tiles offered only a murky view of the outside world, obscured by decades of dirt and organic growth.

It is a great experience poking around in the normally sequestered heights of the Museum’s architecture. I have been lucky to be able to get up there a number of times during the construction work, photographing the different phases and the unexpected finds that have been uncovered in the process.

One thing you notice up in the roof is the level of intricate detailing that was applied right to the very top of the structure. Beams are painted with strikingly colourful geometric patterns; finials and capitals offer ornately-sculpted flora, each distinct from its neighbour; and even the pipework carries little decorative flourishes here and there.

The story of the design and construction of the building is recounted in articles available in the Learning More section of our website. These are worth a read if you’d like to know more about the thinking and work behind the Museum building, which originally opened in 1860. There are also plans for an exhibition that will reveal the Pre-Raphaelites’ influence on the design of this so-called ‘cathedral to science’, following a period of research by Dr John Holmes.

As the scaffolding is struck and the building contractors descend back to the lower levels, so the secrets of the Museum return to their hiding places. We have already discovered a number of names and dates scrawled, painted and even carved into the structures – more on that soon. But perhaps there are more messages from the past, overlooked during the current roof work. If so, could it be another century or more before anyone claps eyes on them?


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Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Reports from the rafters

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The roof is what this is all about. Our beautiful canopy of 9,000 glass tiles has been admired since the Museum first opened, but has caused 153 years’ of worry by letting the rain drip through into the interior. The determination to clean and seal the roof is the whole reason for this year’s closure.

Stephen French high up in the roof

Stephen French high up in the roof

To get this job done effectively we needed a great team, so Beard Construction appointed Stephen French as Site Manager, drawing on his years of experience as a roof tiler. Despite all his experience Stephen has never worked on a project quite like this one before…

I caught up with Stephen for a chat about how he and his team are getting on. Stephen describes the Museum building as “completely individual”. But the opportunity to work in such a unique piece of architecture has certainly provided some challenges along the way.

All the glass tiles are being removed, cleaned, re-fitted and sealed with mastic to keep the water out. Below you can see some tiles back in place, held firmly by plastic struts, while the mastic dries.

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“There’s no manual for this job; we’ve had to work out what the original designers were thinking as we’ve gone along,” Stephen explained. “There’s no second chance with a project like this,” he adds. Indeed, once the scaffolding comes down and the Museum reopens we can’t get back up to the tiles without starting all over again.

Les Smith and Stuart Knapp

Les Smith and Stuart Knapp

It will come as no surprise that one of the biggest challenges facing the Beard team was the great British weather. The heat of the summer forced the guys to take regular breaks from the scorching temperatures; at one point, high up inside the glass roof, the thermometer read over 50°C! Then downpours of rain brought work to a complete stop because the mastic won’t adhere to the glass when it’s wet.

Jamie Bennett and Pete Hutt

Jamie Bennett and Pete Hutt

Stephen speaks very highly of his team. Usually there are around nine people working on site at any one time, and several of them have been involved since the first phase of the roof refurbishment back in 2011-12. There is a wide variety of skills needed for this project, so the staff includes roofers from Attley’s Roofing and specialist carpenters from RS Carpentry and Building Services. Some of the men even come down from Middlesborough each week to work in the Museum!

Despite the weather, the complicated roof design and the unique materials involved, Stephen is very positive about the whole project. He loves the building, and compares the roof to a dinosaur’s skeleton, going so far as to say “This is the kind of job that gets you up in the morning!” Up into the rafters indeed.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Photo credit: Mike Peckett

Roof with a view

Roof top at sunset

Credit: Mike Peckett

Earlier this week, sunshine and storm clouds created the perfect conditions for this dramatic shot. Mike Peckett, who is a member of the Front of House team and an excellent photographer, was up on the Museum’s roof capturing the latest developments in our restoration project. More to come on that soon, but I couldn’t resist sharing this beautiful image to end the week.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

It’s all relative


A while back we featured a great little story about some graffiti, which was discovered high up on the Museum roof. You may remember that it was painted by two of the craftsmen responsible for creating our beautiful Victorian building. The graffiti reads “This roof was painted by G. Thicke and J Randall, April 1864″

Roof graffiti

The graffiti in the rafters of the roof

The story picked up quite a lot of press attention, featuring in the Oxford Mail and BBC Oxford, and that blog post is our most-read so far. But one reader’s attention was particularly attracted by the names of the painters. Oxford resident Debbie Moorwood has been tracing her family history for some time, so when she spotted the familiar name G. Thicke, she decided to do some extra digging.

After consulting the Victorian censuses and tracing back through her family tree, Debbie revealed that painter George Thicke was actually directly related to her husband, Steve Moorwood. Steve is George’s great great great grandson!


Staff from Beard and Purcell join Steve and Debbie in the roof rafters.

Excited by her discovery, Debbie contacted us directly through this blog and we thought this was a fantastic opportunity for the graffiti artist’s relatives to see his work up close.

So, last week I had the pleasure of meeting Debbie and Steve Moorwood and we joined staff working on the roof project to climb high up into the roof. It was also a good opportunity for Debbie to share her discoveries about her distant relative, George Thicke. He was born in Glastonbury in around 1809, so would have been roughly 55 when he painted the graffiti on our roof. He is first spotted living in Oxford in the 1841 census, when he was a resident of the Cowley Road and, most importantly, listed as a painter! Later he moved around the area, living in St Clements, Headington and finally Shotover, before his death in 1887.


Debbie said of the experience: “We had an amazing time visiting the Museum roof. We never expected to get a full guided tour of the whole building and Steve loved it, especially the building works. We can’t wait for the roof to be finished and for the Museum to open again, when we’ll be dragging our kids & family in to have a look. I think the museum has become quite a special place for us now.”

We now have a good picture of one of our infamous roof painters, but J Randall remains a bit of a mystery to us. So far, we think he was John James Randall of St Ebbes, Oxford, but we know very little else. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could track down one of his relatives next?

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Roof revelation


Up in the rafters
Credit: Mike Peckett

Our beautiful Victorian roof is a masterpiece of wrought and cast iron topped with 8,500 glass tiles. It’s one of the first things our visitors notice when they enter the Museum, and its leaks are the reason we’re closed this year. But what many people don’t notice is that the glass is supported by decorated wooden struts, painted with bright geometric patterns, and contrasting surprisingly with the organic Gothic detail of the rest of the building.

Whilst the construction team from Beard were up in amongst the rafters last week, they spotted a surprising addition to the paint work. Hidden high up, and out of sight of even the most observant of visitors, was a message from the past. The roof decorators had left their names and the date of their work painted onto the woodwork for future generations to discover.

Roof graffiti

Credit: Mike Peckett

The message reads “This roof was painted by G. Thicke and J Randall, April 1864”. In general, we don’t approve of graffiti inside the Museum, but this discovery felt pretty special. Well done Randall and Thicke, you did a great job!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Once in a whale

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Orca skeleton
Credit: Mike Peckett

Among the Museum’s large collection of mammal skeletons are five whales (Cetacea), each suspended from the roof in the main gallery. As part of the Museum renovation efforts, it was decided to give these specimens some much needed conservation treatment: 150 years of continuous exposure to light as well as fluctuating temperature and humidity levels has left these skeletons in a poor condition. The types of damage noted include: a big build-up of dust and dirt; cracking of the bone material; secreting of fatty oils; missing sections, such as fingers and ribs; and the corrosion of metal areas, as well as water-stains from the leaking roof!


The whales hung from scaffolding ready for conservation
Credit: Mike Peckett

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150 years of dust gathered on the skull of a Lesser Fin Whale
Credit: Mike Peckett

Thanks to a successful PRISM grant from the Arts Council England, we have very recently hired an Assistant Conservator to help me complete this huge task. Together we will have six months to complete the treatment which will include in-depth cleaning of the specimens, stabilising loose or cracked areas, and replacing missing segments and corroded wires. We’re aiming to have five beautiful whale skeletons which look clean and scientifically accurate, as well as being stable enough to withstand another 100 years on display.

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Credit: Mike Peckett

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Credit: Mike Peckett

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Credit: Mike Peckett

Although we’re closed for 2013, many visitors are still passing through on their way to the Pitt Rivers Museum. We thought they would like to see what’s going on, so we’ve built a window in the construction boards, enabling the public to see the whales. If you’re visiting, pop by to see our conservators undertaking this exciting and important work.

Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Sciences

Moving on up

Moving on upAs the scaffold is noisily constructed around us, the roof work is about to move even higher into the heavens. To support the workers at the highest levels of the roof, a ‘winged’ platform must be extended through spaces made in the glass tiling and out to the external rooftop for anchorage.

There are 8,500 glass tiles on the roof, although around 2,200, in the south aisle, have already been stripped and cleaned during the first phase of the repair work last year. In the current phase a further 360 tiles have been removed so far.

The majority of the tiles are from the original Victorian construction, but there have been some later replacements, installed after high winds caused slates in the swift tower to fly off and smash the glass. These later tiles will be removed and replaced with new ones containing a UV filter sandwich layer.

On Thursday and Friday this week, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is hosting this year’s University Museums Group Annual General Meeting. Delegates from the meeting were treated to a view of the higher reaches of the roof thanks to a special tour by the project architects Purcell.

Moving on up

Moving on up

Moving on up

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator