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Sunday, May 15 • 10:30am - 11:00am
(General Session) Visions of Disaster: bringing the blur into focus

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The Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art, designed and built from 1896-1909, is widely considered to be Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau in the world. The building was voted the best building of the last 175 years by the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) in 2009 and is widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most important buildings as a prescient of the modern architectural style. However, on 24th May 2014, a devastating fire broke out. At the time of the fire, the building housed students from across the School, GSA Archives & Collections, and the Mackintosh Library. The fire and water severely damaged the building, its original fixtures and fittings, and the Archives & Collections. The iconic Mackintosh Library was destroyed along with the book collections it contained. Just as Charles Rennie Mackintosh was often described as a ‘visionary’, this paper will use vision and sight as a metaphor through which to present GSA’s story. The paper will look at how the school responded to the emergency initially, and how the visibility of the School to national and international audiences, instantly, both helped and hindered progress. It will then look at the approach taken in the building’s restoration and the collection’s recovery projects. In particular it will explore how preconceived boundaries were blurred – between the building and the collection; between the artefacts and the infrastructure within which they sit; between the original and the authentic; between preservation and ‘future-proofing’, repair and renewal; between what has value and what incurs cost; between old and new; past and future. We will discuss how, while all the differing elements affected by the fire needed to be assessed individually, their interdependencies and overlaps demanded an holistic vision and integral approach to restoration, reconstruction and conservation, from both a strategic and logistical perspective. Ultimately the restoration must ensure that the building is equipped to fully function as a living, breathing art school, as it always has, whilst recognising and preserving its cultural significance. We will look at how the architects, librarians, archivists, curators, contractors, conservators and managers worked together to bridge the gaps, focus the blurs and re-imagine, re-construct and re-organise the school’s assets. The paper will illustrate the complexities of the tasks, by looking at the approaches taken in a number of contexts – for example, how assessing the water-damaged textiles was necessarily done blind; how the conservation of the fire damaged plaster casts were governed by the building restoration; how re-building the library raised questions and insights on the nature of authenticity, and thence the tension between the authentic and the functional; how negotiating with insurers prompted a review of GSA’s heritage. The team from GSA will share strategies, experiences and learning from the disaster, and will ponder the benefits of re-envisioning GSA’s cultural assets in preparation for potential future, unforeseen disasters.


Polly Christie

Recovery Project Lead, Archives & Collections, Glasgow School of Art
Polly studied languages as an undergraduate and completed her Masters at the School of Library, Archive & Information Science, UCL in 2000. Since then Polly has worked in the arts sector, promoting the access and use of art and archive collections for teaching, learning and research... Read More →

Sarah MacKinnon

Project Manager: Mackintosh Restoration, Glasgow School of Art
Sarah MacKinnon studied at the University of Greenwich and The College of Estate Management. Sarah is a Chartered Building Surveyor and holds the RICS Post Graduate Diploma in Building Conservation and full membership of the IHBC. She spent a total of 10 years as a Local Government... Read More →

Sunday May 15, 2016 10:30am - 11:00am EDT
Room 210 AB/EF