British Museum Hirayama Studio

The Project

Two Planorama® cabinets one for the studio’s incoming and outgoing work, the other for work in progress and mounting silk rolls configured to match the breadth of a single Japanese tatami mat.
The Challenge

Purpose designing and building Planorama® cabinets for the traditional spaces of the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio for Eastern art on paper and silk.
The Result

'The large drawers are great for storing large flat objects like the two six-panel folding screen paintings we are currently working on.'
It comes as a visual surprise to find two of Conservation By Design’s hi-tech, shiny aluminium Planorama® cabinets sitting at the heart of the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio. Housed in the elegant, grade 1-listed spaces of a Victorian former savings bank a few steps east of the British Museum’s monumental Great Court, the Hirayama accommodates the conservators and experts who care for and preserve the Museum’s extensive collections of Japanese and Chinese pictorial art on paper and silk. And, while modern technology, such as lights and microscopes, play a part in its work, the studio’s design and atmosphere conjure up a thoroughly traditional image of East Asia.

On one side of the tall and airy, lantern-roofed space, Japan specialists work at low tables placed on traditional tatami mats that reduce the danger of dust as well as forming a clean and soft surface on which to air-dry scrolls and paper. On the other, their China counterparts work at tall, trestle tables with lacquered tops, their bright red colour shining through wet artworks during treatment to enable safe repairs and evenly applied linings.

The character of the interior reflects the working practices of a studio that has built its global reputation for conservation and preservation excellence on its ability to transplant age-old techniques practised in Japan and China for centuries into the context of a modern Western museum.

The Hirayama team continues to conform scrupulously to craft methods that demand skills acquired during apprenticeships that take up to a decade. Senior Conservator at the Hirayama, Qiu Jin Xian spent 15 years training and working at Shanghai Museum before she joined the British Museum nearly 30 years ago. Mrs Qiu, a master craftswoman to her fingertips, specialises in the time-honoured craft of mounting scrolls, a process so delicate and painstaking that each scroll can take up to a year to complete.

So why, you might wonder, should an atelier devoted to perfecting traditional conservation  methods have chosen to install storage cabinets so unapologetically modern?  According to Caroline Barry, joint head of Pictorial Art Conservation at the British Museum who commissioned the two cabinets, Planorama’s® tailor-made character was a key consideration. ‘Conservation By Design was able to design each cabinet around our space and our needs,’ she says. ‘One incorporating a specially designed light box table sits near the entrance and is for the studio’s incoming and outgoing work such as Chinese rubbings, paintings or pieces of calligraphy; the other for conservators’ projects in progress and Japanese mounting silks is in the middle of the room.’

Casting an eye over the two cabinets provides a real insight into what Planorama’s® ‘bespoke design and manufacture’ really means. The dimensions of the work in progress cabinet in the middle of the room have been configured so that that the lightweight aluminium cabinet exactly matches the breadth of a single tatami mat and is able to sit comfortably on its casters secure on the supporting structure of the delicate floor beneath. The height of the cabinet drawers have been specially configured to accommodate the dimensions of the rolls of precious mounting silk scrolls they house.

Meanwhile, the other Planorama® incorporates features that allow it to transcend its function as a storage cabinet. It incorporates a purpose-designed flush-fitting light box set into a Trespa worktop table that sits above the storage drawers and moves in and out on low friction sliders attached to the inside of the table. When the conservators want to use the light box to look at work in detail, they can pull the table forward and sit comfortably at the desk for as long as they need to without the risk of damaging the cabinet or its contents.

There was also the vital question of the protection that Planorama® offered by comparison to conventional cupboards the Hirayama previously used. Made of inert aluminium, the cabinets are all equipped with drawers secure against insects. Artworks within these lightweight drawers are protected from dust thanks to brushes that fit vertically and horizontally on the cabinets and along the length of each drawer. To identify the contents of each drawer the full width Planorama® drawer handles have a slot designed to accept text produced on a hand held label printer, one of which is supplied with every new Planorama® customer.

 So how do the Hirayama’s Japanese and Chinese conservators believe the Planorama® cabinets improve their working environment?  Mrs Qiu thinks they are ‘very useful’:  ‘The deeper drawers allow us to store boxed scrolls as well as flat objects and the lightbox is good for inspecting paintings,’ she says. Her Japanese colleague Kyoko Kusunoki agrees: ‘The large drawers are great for storing large flat objects like the set of two six-panel folding screen paintings we are currently working on,’ she comments.  ‘And our large collection of mounting silks are easily viewed and accessible in these new drawers. In Japan, they are normally stored in special thick, linen bags’.

For more information and quotations please contact Robert Campbell on +44 (0) 1234 846352

Alternatively you can complete our online Planorama Questionnaire which will help frame your precise requirements. Once complete a member of our showcase team will be in touch.