(Reading) Up on the roof

Court

With the view from the gallery looking quite different these days, I was inspired to pull out some historic photographs from the archive of the roof’s original construction. Hoping for a glimpse of what to expect once it’s returned to its original glory, I also discovered some interesting facts about the architectural feats required to raise the roof the first time around.

The Museum was designed by the famous Irish architectural team, Deane and Woodward, which won the contract through a contest held by the Museum Delegates in 1854 (the Museum opened in 1860). One of the few stipulations of the contest was that the design had to feature a glass and iron roof to cover the court, and that the Museum had to be built for less than £30,000.

OUM roof

The design of the roof was quite innovative for the time, but the budget for construction was tight: originally £5,216. However, Skidmore, the iron-worker employed to execute the building of the roof supports, proposed that it could be done for much less if wrought iron, a cheaper and more malleable metal than cast iron, was used instead.

Pillars

In fact, a further £2,000 was needed to complete this magnificent and heavy piece of construction because of this miscalculation on Skidmore’s part: the stronger cast iron was indeed needed to construct the load bearing pillars that held the glass roof safely in place. Wrought iron was still used for some of the work and, being more malleable, it proved the perfect choice for the intricate detailing that was planned for the pillars.

As Skidmore himself stated, it “held out the possibility of uniting artistic iron-work with the present tubular construction, and a prospect of a new feature in the application of iron to Gothic architecture.”

And so it was. More than 150 years later the roof remains visually impressive, even if it is a little leaky around the glass work. The picture below shows the current preparations for repairs that will restore the roof to its original splendour, ready for the Museum’s reopening in 2014.

Current roof work

by Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

Raising the roof

Raising the roof

As a year of closure stretches ahead of us, it’s easy to feel down about the boards and darkness that are replacing the spectacular views across the Museum court. Our regular visitors have certainly expressed sadness and disappointment that they will be deprived of their favourite museum for a year. But we have to remember that it will all be worth it in the end: the restoration project will return the roof to its full Victorian glory and give the building below the respect it deserves.

During a trial last year one third of the roof’s glass tiles were delicately cleaned, restored and resealed in an attempt to keep the rain out. This test proved successful – the rain drops ceased and the light flooded in. The project to repair the whole roof was given the go ahead.

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A close-up of the glass roof tiles before the trial cleaning project

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And sparklingly clean afterwards!

At the same time, staff were treated to a guided tour of the roof itself. We scaled ladders and scaffolding high up in the south aisle of the Museum. It was remarkable to see that the careful details of carved screws and painted beams are as beautiful and painstaking at the very peak of the roof as they are at eye level, down in the courts below. It made us all appreciate the effort and care that the Victorian architects, engineers and artists put into creating this masterpiece in the mid-19th century.

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The pinnacle of the south aisle’s roof

Up close, it was also easy to see dust on the metalwork and the ancient grime that has steadily built up on the glass tiles. We all wanted this faded glamour to be returned to its original glory; there was no denying it, the roof works were an essential project.

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The detailed metal work that adorns the roof

Although we’ll miss the specimens and the stunning architecture during this closure year, the roof restoration will ensure that the Museum is back to its original best for another 150 years… and hopefully many more after that.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer