Last edited 02 May 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Maintaining the buildings of Oxford University

Emilia McDonald is head of conservation and buildings at the University of Oxford.


The University of Oxford’s conservation and buildings team maintains and repairs a widely varied portfolio that includes internationally recognised historic buildings.

The Radcliffe Observatory.jpg
The Radcliffe Observatory, built to designs by Henry Keene and completed to the designs of James Wyatt (Photo: EugeneStarostin, Wikimedia).

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 constituent 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 calamities and disasters through planned repairs, building 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 connection 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 numbers 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 handrail 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, columns 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 building gently cleaned. Once the building was shrouded in scaffold, the story took a number of unexpected turns. The prominent flag pole at first floor level on the building’s balcony, for example, was found to be worryingly close to becoming detached from the structure, and a number of the more delicate areas of the statuary around the building required swift consolidation. However, by far the greatest logistical issue faced by the project was yet to come.

The roof of this lovely building is made of slate. Not those nice small slates, easy to carry up and down scaffolds. The slates which make up the roof of the Taylor Institution measure approximately 2 feet by 4 feet, and roughly an inch and a half thick. They are very heavy and when attached to a scaffold winch they tend to act a little like sails. All manageable with a bit of planning, unless in the month and a half that the scaffold is up we experience unseasonably high winds, coupled with high rainfall.

Ordinarily we would have extended the scaffold hire and waited for the weather to pass. But the St Giles’ Fair was fast approaching. The highways licence for the scaffold expired the day before the fair started and was not extendable, due to safety concerns associated with the crowds of visitors and the narrow pavements.

We thought flexibly. The principal contractor extended its working hours and dodged the worst of the weather to get as many of our replacement slates up on to the roof in the time available, and we managed to secure most of the replacement roof. We had to accept that two of the slates would not be on the roof in time. So localised patch repairs were made to the two least damaged slates, and the new slates which had been intended for the site have been put into storage for the future.

In autumn 2017 the Society of Light and Lighting chose Oxford to host its showcase Night of Heritage Light. Six of the university’s most iconic buildings were lit, using a variety of freestanding temporary lights.

Working with the university estates electrical team, led by Rob Gregg, each of the chosen lighting design teams had to find suitable and sensitive runs for wiring and power. The temporary wiring had to be hidden from view during the days leading up to the event, with no damage being done to the buildingsfabric.

An interactive display of blue lights at the Radcliffe Observatory winked on and off as people mentioned the event on social media channels, while the Bodleian quad hosted a selection of lighting schemes designed by local school children. External facade lighting to the History of Science Museum, Radcliffe Infirmary and the Ashmolean made use of a range of colours and moving images. The son et lumiere show at the university Museum of Natural History was spectacular.

From an architectural point of view the crowning jewel was the modest soft white lighting of half of the circular Radcliffe Camera library building. The stark contrast between the lit and unlit portions of the building brought into sharp focus the positive impact that high-quality, unobtrusive external lighting can have on the appreciation of an asset’s significance. Architectural details that are lost within the set piece of Radcliffe Square during the day were picked out in the evening when the lights came on. The lighting of the building, designed by Michael Curry of dpa lighting consultants, revolved around layers of light. All the lights were non-UV emitting, to prevent damage to the historic stonework, and all fixings were non-invasive.


This article originally appeared in Context 166, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2020. It was written by Emilia McDonald, head of conservation and buildings at the University of Oxford. Previously she worked as a heritage specialist in local authority planning departments.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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