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Re-arming Venus

A seventeen tonne marble sculpture, the 'Spirit of Liverpool', is the first exhibit visitors will see at the city's new £7.2 million arts Conservation Centre when it opens this month and work begins (visitors will be allowed in later in the year). But not as she looked 120 years ago, when in pristine condition she graced the roof of the nearby Walker Art Gallery. The close-up shock of her decrepitude, ravaged by a cruel century of Liverpool's sea air, rain and pollutants, demonstrates the purpose of the new centre. 'She stands as a symbol of what conservation is all about' says head of sculpture conservation John Larson.

As the picture below shows, it was temporarily restored with plasticine features replacing the eroded originals to make a mould to cast a new statue for the Walker. Once the new statue is in place these 'cosmetic' parts will be removed and the 'Spirit' will once again show her true age.

This technology has controversial applications too: computer-generated replicas of sculptures might upset some purists. John Larson's justification is clear: 'We would only suggest a replica where the condition of the original is such that it would clearly lead to its loss or distintegeration.'

Liverpool's Conservation Centre is the first in the country to house the conservators and restorers of a national collection of artworks on one dedicated site. It is also unique in allowing the general public to view the workings of what has traditionally been a low-profile profession. The National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside comprises six venues and owns some of the largest collections in Britain.

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