Context 166 - November 2020

34 C O N T E X T 1 6 6 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 0 EMILIA McDONALD Maintaining the buildings of Oxford University The University of Oxford’s conservation and buildings team maintains and repairs a widely varied portfolio that includes internationally recognised historic buildings. Having responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the built fabric of the University of Oxford’s teaching and research buildings, gardens, libraries and museums is a pretty good day job. I get to swan around some of the most beautiful listed buildings in the country, many of them listed at Grade I and II*, and there is immense satisfaction in knowing that I contribute towards their preservation for future generations. The university’s functional estate portfolio includes four of the top six most visited free tourist attractions in south east England (the Ashmolean Museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of the History of Science) and the largest UK university library at the Bodleian (which stretches over 28 buildings). We maintain and repair a number of the most internationally recognised historic buildings in the UK, the buildings, structures and spaces of the university’s three registered historic parks and gardens, and many of the other unlisted buildings within our care form important con- stituent parts of conservation areas. What we do for much of the time is rather mundane. We don’t particularly like ‘exciting’. Exciting in our world is flooded basements, leaking roofs, broken windows and overflowing toilets.We prefer the simple life, avoiding calami- ties and disasters through planned repairs, build- ing condition surveys and reactive maintenance that keeps the structures sound. The mark of a good project for us is that once we have gone our alterations and improvements go largely unnoticed. Here are a few of our current and recent projects. The Oxford University Museum of the History of Science occupies the original Ashmolean Museum building on Broad Street in central Oxford. This little gem, Grade I listed and dating to 1679–83, is purported to be the oldest continuously functioning museum in Europe, and possibly the world. A long, wide staircase provides the central access core of the museum space. While not original to the building, the staircase is architecturally interesting and of great significance, creating a strong connec- tion between the various galleries, offices and workshop spaces. With an increased focus on accessibility and enhanced visitor experience, the museum was becoming aware of the need to improve safe access up and down the stairway. As visitor num- bers increased, the stairs started to suffer from bottlenecks, and visitors started to complain of a lack of hand holds on the outside edge of the staircase and the width of the bannister rail on the inside edge. The conservation and buildings team was asked to find a way of providing a suitable hand- rail to both sides of the stair. The solution was a bespoke, hand-crafted handrail in hot forged mild steel with a waxed finish, the colour and tactile nature of which would reflect the surfaces of a number of the historic scientific instruments in the museum collection. The Taylor Institution, housing part of the Bodleian library collection, is attached to the Ashmolean Museum. Listed Grade I, it has a fine facade with neo-Greek entablatures, col- umns and friezes. The condition survey picked up a number of issues with the roof and parapet which required fairly urgent attention. We prepared a package of works to get the roof issues fixed, the parapets relined in lead and the The entrance to the Museum of the History of Science. Inside, new handrails to the main staircase have improved accessibility (Photo: Mike Peel, Wikimedia) Opposite: Oxford University Museum of Natural History: its design by Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward was influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin (Photo: Diliff, Wikimedia)