Amgueddfa Blog: Cadwraeth Ataliol

When Dr Christian Baars, the Senior Preventive Conservator at National Museum Cardiff, contacted me to ask me take part in his project, I’d never really thought about the work going on behind the scenes at a museum. I’d been on a tour I mean, beyond the ticket desk, café staff, security guards and perhaps cleaners if you’re there right to the end of the day. But have you ever thought about the work that goes into maintaining collections and displays? I doubt it.

Conserving the historic exhibits is one of the largest behind the scenes jobs. There are many things that can damage the artefacts, such as light, air pollution and moisture. But for a big collection of stuffed animals, such as in Cardiff, one of the big problems is pest insects. Lots of different insects, such as carpet beetles and clothes moths, like to eat dead animals. Dr Baars showed me some of the pinned insect collection, which are falling apart or disappearing because one of the beetles has got in to eat them.

We wanted to show the visitors that fighting these insects is a huge job and so we set about making a video that showed the damage the beetles can do. Luckily, Dr Baars had a dead mouse in the freezer (as you do!) which would do just the job. I added some beetle larvae to the dead mouse and left it in a box to be eaten. I used a time lapse camera to film the process of the mouse being devoured by the beetle larvae.  

The resulting video is on the right hand side of this page. Evidently, the mouse is getting progressively smaller as the larvae munch through its body. Now imagine this happening to the woolly mammoth, or the foxes, or any other amazing object at the museum. This is what museum conservators work hard to prevent and this is why we wanted to spread the word.

Once the video was finished, I showed it to museum visitors and asked people to tell me what they thought it was about. Most people had not heard about conservation in museums before nor about the damage insects may cause, even though some had experience with moths or similar insects at home. One visitor described it as fascinating. Another reminded me that “dead things always make good exhibits!” People certainly enjoyed the “gross factor” of a video of a decomposing mouse!

Yet the most important result for me was the finding that everyone wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at museums. Both adults and children understood the significance of the work. An adult visitor said “once it’s dead and in a case, you don’t really think about it about what happens after”, highlighting the need and the interest in what goes on to make a museum exhibit happen. And a younger visitor exclaimed “imagine you had a billion year old thing and it just got ate… I would very sad”. I couldn’t agree more.

While the purpose of this project was to educate museum visitors about pest management in museums, I think this experiment shows there is an enthusiasm for knowing more about the hard work of museum staff beyond those you see when you visit. In Cardiff visitors can come for free, but in a world where every institution is fighting for funding, we need to show the public that our work is vital and worth every penny. We showed that it is simple to raise awareness and that the work of conservators is worth an exhibit or two all of its own.

 

Charlotte @scicommchar undertook this project as part of a 'Learning Lab' placement while studying for a MSc degree in Science Communication at the University of the West of England. The University contact was Andy Ridgway, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication and Programme Leader MSc/PGCert in Science Communication, @AndyRidgway1. Many thanks also to Rhodri Viney, the National Museum's Digital Content Assistant, for help with producing the video.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 

Last week saw the 50th anniversary and the 18th conference of ICOM-CC (Committee on Conservation), the largest of the committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums). ICOM-CC has almost 3,000 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. In addition to their day job of preserving the world's history and culture, these members also promote the conservation of cultural and historic works. I was able to attend thanks to generous support by the Anna Plowden Trust.

The conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was enormous: more than one thousand conservators headed the call to report and debate. While Copenhagen is an amazing city there was not much time to explore it, what with 5 parallel sessions and hundreds of talks to listen to during a packed conference programme. I would like to pick out and share just a few of my personal highlights.

The data generated during collections monitoring in museums can be explored sometimes beyond their original intention. Cristina Daron and Matija Strlic from University College London explained how unexpected patterns can be discovered by analysis of existing data sets. For example, they discovered a clear link between damage to archival objects and use of these objects in a reading room. This sort of data mining produces results that cannot be captured by experimental studies, but which can be used to improve decision making.

On the theme of data, I co-presented a talk with my colleague Jane Henderson from Cardiff University on new ways of presenting conservation data; you can find a copy of the paper here. Our suggestion is to present results not simply in the all too ubiquitous bar charts and line graphs, but to use more meaningful visualisations that are easier to interpret and send the correct message to the receiver. This will help make quicker and better decisions and ultimately improve the care of collections.

Conservation of cultural heritage involves a lot of risk assessments – there is so much to do that we try to figure out as objectively as possible where the most urgent need for resources is. Alice Cannon from Museum Victoria, Australia, explained how the deterioration of an object does not always mean a loss. Hence, when attempting to judge value loss, judgments must be made by experts from different fields. The potential value loss of an object needs to be considered when undertaking a risk assessment that might want to predict the estimated deterioration of that object in, say, 100 years.

Every museum has a store (or several), hence storage is a subject close to the heart for most people in the sector. Lise Raeder Knudsen from Conservation Centre Vejle, Denmark, summarised almost 30 years of experience of building low energy collection stores in Denmark. The main principle of such stores is high thermal and hydric inertia. The Danish cultural sector has proven that such stores can have both lower construction and running costs, while at the same time producing a stable environment suitable for the long-term storage of cultural collections. One issue currently still undergoing research is the potential problem of indoor pollutants which may accumulate if there is insufficient fresh air supply.

Likewise, training is an issue that keeps resurfacing in conservation as in other disciplines. Alice Boccia Paterakis introduced the Interdisciplinary Training of Archaeologists and Archaeological Conservators Initiative (ITAACI) programme from the USA, where archaeologists and conservators are being brought together to work jointly and raise awareness of each other’s needs. The training theme also carried through to the poster sessions, where Monika Harter from London informed us how the British Museum, with some clever planning, had used succession planning to train two conservators for the price of one. This included the passing on of hard-to-come-by expert knowledge from one generation to the next.

My final highlight is Jonathan Ashley-Smith’s analogy of coffee shops to explain why, in his opinion, conservation needs a new approach to ethics. He explained that a new, bespoke, code of ethics would use a variety of ingredients to design something that suits each of the various and diverse disciplines that make up cultural heritage conservation. The internet would provide the ideal tool to publish a bespoke code of ethics, as well as conservation intentions, proposals and records all in one place and, ideally, in Wikis. Jonathan’s talk created more debate and Twitter traffic than any other talk and I suspect his idea will keep being discussed.

The conference programme was rounded off by various specialist working group meetings, technical visits, opportunities to see Copenhagen’s museums and social events. A packed week with countless inspiring conversations with colleagues from all over the world. Not always without controversy of course – some ideas out there are interesting but perhaps require further scrutiny. Perhaps a topic for a future blog or paper.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

There are times in life when a problem and its solution come together seamlessly.

The problem – one which every museum faces: cryptic causes of deterioration of stored objects.

The solution: investigation using the latest chemical analyses.

One step better: to combine this analysis with the mission of museums – inspiring people – and undertake the investigative work with full public engagement.

Like most museums, National Museum Cardiff has the task of slowing down corrosion to preserve collections. Think of your family silver tarnishing and you know what I am talking about. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of metal objects in our collection and you understand the herculean task we face when we come to work every day.

Like most museums, we do not have much equipment to undertake complex chemical analyses. So when we want to investigate the magnitude of potential sources of corrosive airborne substances in our collection stores, we often work in partnership with academic institutions.

SEAHA is an initiative between three universities with industry and heritage partners to improve our understanding of heritage science. Heritage science is multi disciplinary and includes experts with chemistry, imaging, IT, engineering, architecture and other backgrounds. One of SEAHA’s amazing facilities is a fully equipped mobile laboratory. We submitted an application last year for the mobile lab to come to Cardiff which, amazingly (there is much demand for this vehicle), was approved. Last week, staff and postgraduate students from University College London, one of SEAHA’s academic partners, visited National Museum Cardiff.

The Mobile Heritage Lab was at the museum for two days. During this time, we assessed environments and pollutants in collection stores and in public galleries. We undertook this work with full involvement of our museum visitors. The mobile lab was parked next to the museum entrance where we encouraged our visitors to explore the on-board analytical equipment. UCL staff and students were at hand to explain how science helps us preserve heritage collections, for example how UV fluorescence is used to explore paintings.

We received a visit by A-level students from Fitzalan High School in Cardiff in the morning. The students were especially interested in chemistry. After a quick introduction, we gave the students an ultra-fine particle counter to produce a pollutant map of the public galleries at the museum. The students used this equipment to measure ultra-fine dust inside and outside the museum. We are still analysing these data, but the early results indicate that the museum’s air filtration system is doing a good job at keeping dust out of the building. This is important because the gases associated with ultra-fine particles (for example, SO2) can damage paper and other organic materials.

We also measured concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in collection stores and found that levels were higher inside drawers in the Entomology collection than in the store itself; this is important in the context of entomological pin corrosion. We managed to confirm that work we undertook recently to reduce the levels of VOC in the museum’s Mineralogy store had been effective and successful. In addition, we used a thermal imaging camera to check whether relatively high temperatures in a display case are caused by heating pipes in the wall behind the case, or by in-case lighting.

The Mobile Heritage Lab’s visit provided us with an opportunity to answer some important questions about the way we care for the museum’s collections. At the same time, we managed to teach students the practical applications of investigative science and analytical chemistry. Lastly, we spoke to many museum visitors about the role played by science in the preservation of heritage collections. We are extremely grateful for the fruitful partnership with SEAHA and hope to collaborate on additional projects in the near future. For example, there are some interesting questions surrounding the deposition of different types of dust which we discussed over a beer on Thursday evening. Watch this space as multi-disciplinary heritage science is becoming ever more important for answering questions of collection care and preservation. Museums are best placed to working in partnerships on important scientific questions while achieving public impact by explaining to a wider audience how science works.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 The numbers of specimens in geological collections in the UK alone reach into the tens of millions. These collections are important for research, education and also commercially. Museums hold collections, but so do individuals and companies; exploration companies keep rock core samples which can be as valuable as £1,000 per meter.

There is now sufficient evidence to dispel the myth that geological collections are inherently stable and require fewer resources to preserve them than other areas of museum collections. In fact, a proportion of geological collections demand a level of attention and maintenance comparable with archaeological metal collections. This includes similar environmental and pollution-related considerations.

About 10% of known mineral species are sensitive to changes in temperature or humidity, or may react with air pollutants. One such mineral is pyrite – common in geological collections and one that is particularly troublesome. However, despite centuries of research on pyrite decay there is a dearth of knowledge in subjects that would help museums improve the effectiveness of their care of geological collections. This includes the categorisation of damage to specimens, methodologies for objective routine condition assessment, the definition of an adequate storage environment, and successful conservation treatments.

Currently available methodologies are not suitable for routine collection monitoring, results are not necessarily replicable, and, in the absence of guidance on suitable storage conditions, triggers and the suitability of conservation actions are difficult to determine. We need a more robust approach to the delivery of preventive conservation of geological collections.

We have now teamed up with the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at University College London, University of Oxford and University of Brighton to investigate these aspects of preservation of geological collections. A four-year studentship has been advertised which will be based at Oxford University but spend a considerable amount of time working at National Museum Cardiff. If you are interested in this subject, and have a background in, ideally, geology, chemistry or engineering, please do get in touch.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 

Museum displays get dusty, inevitably, but this dust won’t be there for long. Armed with a paintbrush and a portable vacuum cleaner the Preventive Conservation team is ready to move through the museum galleries, cleaning as we go.

Once upon a time, gallery maintenance was an activity hidden behind closed doors, only undertaken when there were no visitors in the building. But things are changing, and what we once did behind closed doors now happens whilst the museum is open. Everyone can see what happens behind the scenes and Preventative Conservation becomes a temporary display itself. By working in front of an audience we can explain what we do and why we do it, after all it may look strange carefully dusting a painting. If it looks as if we smudge the paint on a painting: we don't - we are actually cleaning finger prints off the protective glass.

So why do we have to do this in the first place? Firstly dust doesn’t look very good, especially when you notice the frame and even the protective glass has dust on it – things like that would give a museum an air of neglect. But this is not the only reason; dust also has the potential to damage our museum’s collections. Dust can become sticky and attracts water (hygroscopic), which can cause mould. Dust can also attract pests, leaving museum collections vulnerable to damage from insects. By cleaning museum collections we can prevent dust build up, reducing risks to collections.

Museum collections will always need to be looked after, and removing dust is one simple way we can prevent multiple forms of damage to our heritage. Keep a look out for us in the museum galleries brushing a sculpture, we are always happy to talk about what we are doing!

P.S. Look out for the other activities we are doing in the galleries, we may be repackaging museum collections to reduce the risk of pest damage, checking pest traps, or cleaning the Natural History and Geology displays. There is always Preventative Conservation to do in the museum!

This guest blog was written by our volunteer Will Tregaskes who is giving a talk on this subject at the 'Conservation Matters in Wales' conference on Thursday 8th June 2017 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.