In Conversation with Heritage Conservator Penny Byrne

    The conservation and upkeep of the Abbotsford Convent is a vital and never-ending task. The 110+ year-old tessellated tiles lining our public walkways are beautiful, but in a state of increasing disrepair; much of it crumbling, with gaffer tape a temporary protection. This year, with the help of the Convent’s network of supporters, the ACF has engaged heritage conservator Penny Byrne to repair the fragile tiling. We talk to Penny about what’s involved in such a delicate project, the impact of a National Heritage listing, and her upcoming tenancy at the Convent. 

    The heritage tessellated tiles lining the Convent building’s public walkways are well over 110 years old and, as everyone can see, they’re crumbling. You’ve been tasked with the unique job of repairing them and securing these walkways for the future. How do you approach a delicate conservation job such as this considering the site’s significant history?

    Working on such an important project as this takes teamwork. A big part of getting a great result will be utilising my skills and conservation knowledge and carefully selecting the right people with the expertise required to assist with the works.

    I will tap into my extensive Heritage Conservation networks both here and in the UK, and be sure to work closely with Heritage Victoria, as they must sign off on any conservation works on heritage listed buildings.

    The Abbotsford Convent was proudly added to the National Heritage List in 2017, alongside icons such as the Opera House, MCG, Great Barrier Reef, and Uluru. As custodians of the Convent, it’s our duty to protect and maintain every piece of the precinct – and heritage restoration work is delicate, rigorous and methodical. Can you share with us some of the processes you undertake when restoring precious pieces of history such as those you’ll be working on throughout the Abbotsford Convent for this project?

    First of all, a detailed Condition Assessment and Conservation Methodology needs to be developed. This will involve undertaking a thorough inspection of the condition of the entire tiled area, and the building as well, as any underlying structural issues need to be addressed as part of the conservation process.

    Also, detailed photographic documentation of the current condition of the tiles will be recorded.

    Research will then be required into traditional encaustic tiling techniques, and into current best practice conservation materials and methodologies. Using materials in the restoration process that are sound from a heritage conservation point of view is essential.

    Sourcing replacement tiles will also be required as there are sections where many tiles are missing. This will be done in consultation with Heritage Victoria to ensure the new tiles comply with heritage requirements.

    As the project progresses, it will be essential that I oversee all aspects of the works to ensure quality control throughout the process.

    Finally, an ongoing Conservation Management Plan will need to be developed to ensure the ongoing care and repair of the tiles, as they will continue to need upkeep into the future.

    On a completely different note – congratulations on receiving a spot as a tenant at the Convent. What drew you to the Convent as the site of your new studio?

    I’m really excited to be joining the Convent community. As a visual artist as well as a freelance conservator I can’t wait to have my studio at the Convent. It will be great to be surrounded by like-minded creative people.

    And with the Yarra River so close by and the gorgeous Convent gardens and surrounds, it will be a wonderful place to come every day. I’m sure it will boost my creativity.

    And of course there’s also the great coffee!

    Once you’ve settled into your new studio at the Convent, what’s next for you?

    I’ve got a busy time coming up – I’m having a solo show at Warrnambool Art Gallery in early 2019, I’ve been commissioned to make a new work for the Museum and Art Gallery of NT, I’m undertaking a three week residency at Canberra Glassworks in October, Bendigo Art Gallery are exhibiting my Venice Biennale work in their Gothic exhibition later in the year, and I’m having my next solo show with Michael Reid in Sydney later in 2019. Plenty to keep me busy when I’m not conserving the Convent’s heritage tiles!

    Find out more about the Abbotsford Convent’s Walk With Us appeal to help restore our crumbling tiling and open up the dilapidated heritage balcony. If you’d like to contribute to the appeal, you can donate online or call Alexandra Murphy, Head of Development, on 03 9415 3607.