On the 29th April 2015 a fire started in the basement, spreading throughout the building, eventually breaking through the roof. The fire brigade were on the site for eight days and helped many salvage objects, including cutting paintings out of frames. Once the Fire Brigade had left the property was handed back to the National Trust, who immediately shut the site down. As the fire had spread, rooms fell in on each other and damage to the structure was excessive. Before the property could be accessed, large burned timbers had to be lifted out using a crane to prevent further damage. Claire showed us before and after photographs of rooms which showed the total devastation caused by the fire.
Claire explained how lessons had been learned from Uppark, Windsor Castle and Glasgow School of Art, all heritage buildings that had suffered fire damage. Stabilising the building had to take precedent, so there was no access to the building until September 2015, when the archaeological salvage began. The processing of objects began with the site being divided into quadrants, and as objects came out, they were assigned a quadrant code and a room code. Due to the floors collapsing in on each other, objects were found in unexpected places within the ruin of the building. The House team were invaluable, drawing up handwritten plans of where objects were in each room. This knowledge was crucial, as was Surrey Infantry Museum providing photographs of their displays.
Staff decided, ‘if in doubt, retain’. There were two phases of retention and disposal: the first, initial salvage from the building; and the second, post-salvage, ‘taking stock’. In phase one ‘material trees’ for each different material type were given to the archaeological contractors. Claire showed examples of these for ceramic, plaster, and wood. These showed types of each material that could be salvaged, and what to do with each piece. For instance, the ceramics material tree was divided up into sanitary ware, decorative tiles, utility wares and decorative ceramics, each with their retention or disposal instructions for the salvage team.
Staff set up a ‘salvage village’ in the grounds to process objects under cover in poly-tunnels. As the lead roof had collapsed in, all objects coming out of the house were contaminated, so everything went in to quarantine before it could be cleaned. With is no on-site internet access staff recorded information on Excel spreadsheets, also recording a percentage of how complete each object is, with some inevitably being as low as 1%. This does not, however, indicate disposal candidates as it is hoped more pieces of objects may turn up at a later date.
The fire and subsequent salvage operation has given the National Trust the opportunity to learn more about the structure of the house, for instance, a pistachio nut was found in a piece of the plaster. The process for Clandon Park will be long, but it has been made easier by having a good salvage plan in place. Clandon Park are now working towards the formal deaccessioning process, though there are still rooms in the building that cannot yet be reached.