Amgueddfa Blog: Cadwraeth Ataliol

What do you do if you have minerals in your collection that have a tendency to react chemically? For our research student Kathryn Royce this means: growing minerals from a super saturated solution, then sticking the crystals in a climate chamber for a few weeks and forcing them to dehydrate.

Yes, you read right, some minerals can dehydrate. There is a good number of mineral species which are poly-hydrated, meaning, minerals that contain water molecules as part of their crystal structure. Many of these mineral species can, under certain conditions, lose some of these water molecules. This process actually turns the mineral into a different mineral – just one with a lower hydration status.

For example, the mineral melanterite (FeSO4 · 7H2O), which has 7 water molecules, may lose some water molecules if kept at a relative humidity below 57%. The resultant products include either the mineral siderotil (same chemical formula but only 5 water molecules) or rozenite (4 water molecules). In the context of wanting to preserve melanterite in a museum collection, the dehydration products siderotil and rozenite, whilst minerals in their own right, would be classed as deterioration products and, hence, their appearance be undesirable.

To understand this process, and define how we would characterise the concept of ‘damage’ to mineral specimens, Kathryn is now analysing the deterioration products using a combination of different analytical techniques, including X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy, Raman spectroscopy and computerised tomography scanning. The results will help us develop a methodology for long-term monitoring of geological collections in museums and improve the care of such collections in museums.

This research is being undertaken at National Museum Cardiff in collaboration with the School of Geography and Environment at University of Oxford and the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA), and kindly supported by OR3D, BSRIA, the Barbara Whatmore Charitable Trust, the National Conservation Service, and the Pilgrim Trust.

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

One of the best reasons for housing heritage collections inside buildings is that the building keeps the weather out. Paintings, fossils, books and skeletons are best kept dry, and walls and roofs protect our collections (as well as staff and visitors) from the elements.

In addition, many of the objects in our collections also need specific temperature and humidity ranges to prevent them from suffering damage. Too high a humidity can cause swelling of wood, for example, initiating cracks in objects, or, if humidity gets even higher, mould growth. Therefore, National Museum Cardiff has a complicated air conditioning system. This system is more than 40 years old and has been maintenance-intensive and inefficient for some time.

We are happy to report that, after several years of planning, we have just completed the installation of new chillers and humidifiers at National Museum Cardiff. The purpose of chillers in the museum is to provide cold water – for lowering the temperature of galleries and stores in the summer, and for dehumidifying stores and galleries if there is too much moisture in the air. Humidifiers achieve the opposite effect: they increase humidity in stores and galleries if it is too low. Low humidity is usually a problem during the winter months – you may have experienced your skin drying out at home when you have the heating on in winter. To prevent our collections drying out we cannot apply skin cream; instead, we maintain a minimum level of humidity in stores and galleries.

The chillers and humidifiers have been commissioned now, and are working well. They have already proved that the control of our indoor environments is better than it was before. A very positive side effect of the new technologies is that they are much more efficient than the old equipment. In fact, they are so efficient that we are anticipating to shave almost 50% off our annual electricity bill for National Museum Cardiff, saving the planet more than 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is the equivalent of taking 100 cars off the road, or the average energy a family home uses in 38 years.

By investing in such new technologies, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales continues to ensure the safe storage and display of the nation’s heritage collections, whilst at the same time making a massive contribution towards the National Assembly’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (Environment Wales Act 2016).

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

 

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

Cultural heritage collections need a friendly home. 'Friendly' means: a building that protects the collection from the elements – wind, sun and rain. Conservators worry a lot - and rightly so - about pigments fading when they are exposed to light, about stuffed animals being eaten by insect pests, about wartime medals corroding because of the presence of air pollutants. But it’s no good having a fantastic pest management system if the roof leaks. Getting the basics right makes the job of the conservator an awful lot easier and is better for the collection.

Like many museums up and down the country, National Museum Cardiff is housed in a historic building. The museum contains 30 public galleries and 50 collection stores which accommodate almost 3 million objects. This is only part of the national heritage collection of Wales and arguably something we want to protect for the benefit of current and future generations.

But being in a historic building, as beautiful as it is, has its challenges. Much of the building infrastructure is aging and needs modernising. Our roof needs some tlc. Our air conditioning systems are so old, there is nobody left in the museum who was around when they were first installed. And the electrics in parts of the building are not far from receiving a birthday telegram from Her Majesty the Queen.

All of those issues are a problem not just for visitors and staff, but also for the collections. Therefore, we have started modernising our museum building. In the past few years we already had parts of our roof replaced. Less publicly visible was the recent replacement of the electrical infrastructure in the west wing. We are now in the process of undertaking much more work to improve the building.

Some of this work will happen behind closed doors: replacement of our chillers and humidifiers with new, modern and efficient technology, making the museum leaner and greener. Other work will be more obvious to our visitors, including works to the roof of our south wing. Various works will require the temporary closure of some of our public galleries – please bear with us during this time, we are keeping the rest of the museum open and, once the works are completed, all galleries will be accessible again.

One difficulty remains: once all the works are completed the museum will look like nothing ever happened – we do not have a brand new building to show off for all our efforts. BUT the building will feel and operate differently. It will form a more reliable envelope around our collections. It will require less maintenance, saving us money and staff time. It will be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, reducing our energy bills and forming a substantial contribution towards lowering our greenhouse gas emissions.

During this time of potential disruptions please bear in mind the end product, which will include a better museum experience for visitors today (well, next year) and in the future. And a building that continues to help us look after Wales’ national collection.

Should you have any questions at all about our refurbishment programme in relation to the collections, please do get in touch. We will be happy to assist in any way we can.

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

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.