Artists, art lovers, and gallery goers in general who just drop in for a cup of coffee or to browse the gift shop, will have no doubt noticed that the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ) has been closed for a while. Renovations started on 5 May and the gallery was completely closed a few weeks after that. It is scheduled to reopen, towards the end of July or early August.
The Gallery has been slowly falling into a state of disrepair over the past 30 years due to central government’s inability to adequately finance such organisations.
The leaking roof has been getting steadily worse, to the point where the safe keeping of some of the extremely valuable art works in the permanent collection was threatened. The domed skylights were leaking in places, some of the glass and Perspex panels in the skylights were cracked and the gutters between the roof sections had rusted away. The sad old ‘grande dame’ of galleries was badly in need of a facelift and some tender loving care.
Thanks to some generous donor funding to the tune of US$400,000 the Gallery is now able to do some essential maintenance work to deal with the most serious problems.
One of the most urgent problems was the leaking expansion joint that runs through the Gallery from front to back. The building is over 100 metres long so the expansion joint was included in the original design to allow the building to expand and contract in response to changing temperatures. The old copper flashing has since been removed and the joint sealed. The domed skylights have been replaced with new ones and the damaged plaster in the light wells has been restored. Along the front and back edges of the roof, cement coping stones, meant to seal the edges, had begun to break up. In fact they had expanded and shifted so much that on some of the corners of the building they had pushed the terrazzo façade off completely. The coping has since been replaced with aluminium flashing, which is probably more in line with the original design and the terrazzo is being repaired.
The building was designed by Messrs. Montgomerie and Oldfield who also designed the Harare City Library – formerly the Queen Victoria Memorial Library. Building started in 1955 and it officially opened in 1957. Very few of the original drawings still exist so much of the repairs have had to rely on uncovering the layers of past repairs to reveal the causes of the current problems.
The flat roof in particular presented a number of difficulties. It appears that the roof was originally sealed with layers of felt and mastic asphalt. On top of this had been placed concrete cooler tiles which had sunk into the waterproofing and caused major problems. These had to all be removed and in the process it was discovered that the cement screeding had begun to break down. Large areas of the screed had to be replaced, which was not in the original budget. On top of the new screed they have now applied a torch-on waterproof membrane which will then be covered with expanded polyurethane insulation board with gravel on top.
The gutters between the glass skylight sections were originally made of steel and then also plastered with a cement screed. Needless to say these had rusted through and also needed to be replaced and again this was not in the original budget. The old skylights had been made from Georgian wired cast glass with Perspex diffusers in front of them. Many had cracked and been badly repaired. The panes in the skylights will all be replaced with laminated white opalescent glass with new Perspex diffusers – a mammoth and slightly dangerous task in itself. But at least the building will now be completely waterproof.
However, that’s not the end of the renovations. The building is still in need of a complete overhaul of the electrics and the lighting. The air handling system – which helps to maintain the temperature and humidity, needs to be completely replaced. It’s vital to install a new fire suppression system, particularly in the storage area where much of the permanent collection is kept. The parquet floor in the main gallery needs to be refurbished. These are not just cosmetic changes but are necessary for the continued successful running of the institution.
Funds are limited and it is estimated that at least another $600,000 is required. You can help to preserve and maintain this important and unique institution by becoming a Friend of the Gallery or by making a donation directly to Ms Doreen Sibanda, Executive Director, The National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Julius Nyerere Way, Harare.