Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales


Mrs Beeton, spreading Victorian housekeeping wisdom through the medium of her 1861 classic “Book of Household Management” (still in print in 2016!), said in her introduction: “What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement.”

Every conservator can identify with that; how many times have we seen objects damaged by inadequate environmental controls, neglected pest management, or insufficient pollution control? Panel paintings will split when the humidity in a gallery fluctuates widely; taxidermy displays are devoured by dermestid beetles; and lead objects, even minerals, corrode to dust in the presence of airborne organic acids, a typical indoor pollutant.

For conservators, the modern version of Mrs Beeton’s book is the National Trust’s “Manual of Housekeeping”. This is a book that has grown over the years into something now requiring a good sized tree to print it on – and, according to the National Trust’s paper conservation advisor, Andrew Bush, should be the only book in your collection that is badly damaged (from frequent use for reference purposes, of course). Conservation has changed from the use of traditional remedies into a science in its own right, with many dedicated scientific journals where the latest research is published. The National Trust, as one of the largest employers of conservators in the UK, runs an in-house training programme to ensure dissemination of cutting edge research to the coal face, as it were. Last week I had the pleasure of going through this week-long training – and a pleasure it was indeed.

The course (held this year at Attingham Park, an almost 250 year old mansion in rural Shropshire) is both an introduction for new staff and a refresher for long established conservators, which is reflected in the intense programme: each day was packed with demonstrations, workshops and lectures. Shorter sessions introduce the agents of deterioration and advice on the care of carpets, rugs and paintings and their frames. Practical workshops deal with diverse topics such as the conservation of paper, ceramics, metals and natural stone – each with their own material properties, risks and preservation techniques.

Even Mrs Beeton was able to tell us that “Essence of Lemon will remove grease, but will make a spot itself in a few days”, but did you know that it takes up to seven people to remove a large painting safely from a wall? Or that the corrosion on the copper kettle leaves permanent damage in the form of pits which are visible even after careful conservation treatment? That much damage is caused to floors by the sheer number (and type) of shoes walking across our heritage sites? That light causes irreversible damage to pigments and materials which even the best conservator cannot repair?

This is where preventive conservation, the pre-emptive care of collections, comes in. We know the mechanisms causing damage to objects. The challenge for heritage organisations is therefore more than simply fixing objects when things go wrong – instead, the focus now is on ensuring that as little damage as possible happens in the first place.

This means undertaking dust surveys to set up cleaning management plans; risk assessing collections for the presence of mould and managing the store/display environment accordingly; spot checking collections for pest damage and monitoring the occurrence and movements of pests around the museum; monitoring and adjusting light levels to avoid sensitive objects being over exposed.

For many years the advice was to wear cotton gloves when handling paper. But libraries and archives found that much damage was done to sensitive documents through the use of cotton gloves, which reduce manual dexterity, allow sweat and oils through from the skin and can snag on paper. So the advice now is to use either vinyl gloves or none at all – providing your hands are clean and free from grease.

Looking after the nation’s heritage takes more than locking objects in a store and hoping for the best. The proper care of collections requires much knowledge and experience; constant training to keep up to date with the latest research forms part of that.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

In the last blog I outlined (very briefly!) what museum conservators do. Recently we (that is, the conservation team at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) had an opportunity to present ourselves and our work directly to the community during an Open Day. And the day gave us as many interesting insights as it did the public.

This was the first ever Conservators Open Day held at National Museum Cardiff. First up, the day was not a flop: almost 4,000 people came to the museum that day; for comparison, the daily average over the year is approximately 1,200 visitors, so the turnout was good. In fact, it exceeded all expectations. You could say we were happy with that.

The offer on the day had included an insight into every branch of the museum’s conservation. The furniture conservator brought a real harpsichord and explained how it had been repaired recently. The paintings conservator demonstrated how she restores paintings. The natural history conservators asked our visitors how a damaged stuffed peacock should be conserved – and they are now working on applying these suggestions so that the peacock will soon be presentable again. Here is a little summary with many photos giving an impression of the day.

So we know that people are interested in our work and how we go about preserving heritage. But what exactly does that mean? Are conservators really being confused with conservationists, and did people go home having learned what the difference really is? Museums are about learning – so we would like to know if this works. Some big questions – we wanted to know the answers and undertook some research in the form of event evaluation.

The results of the evaluation indicated that many people had come specifically to see this event (the marketing is working), and almost all enjoyed it (our offer was good). This is good to know and gives us some direction for the organisation of future events. What surprised us was to find that most people knew who museum conservators are and what they do – apparently we do not get confused with the people who look after pandas (who also do incredibly valuable work). Not only that, but 100% of our respondents said that the care of collections is one of the most important roles of museums.

An important answer in many ways. It makes conservators – who spend most of their time hidden behind the scenes, working on their own in a laboratory or windowless store, where it is easy to get a sense of isolation – feel valued for the many hours of painstaking work. More importantly, it suggests that the community cares deeply about its heritage, and appreciates that there is somebody who looks after it on their behalf.

We all need our heritage. It defines who we are. It is a reference point for our values. It anchors us in our roots. But it’s not as easy as handing your grandfather’s watch to the museum and putting it on a shelf. Things fall apart without proper care, and once an object is lost we cannot simply buy a new one from a supermarket/antiques shop/ebay. Together with the object the story is lost, and a piece of history gone.

Conservators are key in the museum sector’s work of maintaining the link between objects and history, values and identity. Our visiting public are aware of this and know to value it. Does that mean we can stop holding Open Days? Absolutely not: according to the evaluation, no visitor went away not having learned anything, and now that curiosity has been awakened the majority want to find out more. In fact, two thirds of visitors want conservators to be more visible in public spaces. This is what we are now working on – so watch out in our galleries and you might just see more of us soon.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories.

Last year staff from Amgueddfa Cymru held an Explore Your Archive event for the first time. It was held in the Oakdale Institute at St. Fagans: National History Museum. We showcased a selection of documents and photographs relating to Wales and the First World War to coincide with the launch of our First World War online catalogue. You can search the catalogue here.

It was a popular event with adults and a number of school parties excited to see original historic archive material, and discuss their history with the staff who look after these collections. The success of last year’s event means that we are organising another one this year. ‘Discovering Wales: History on Your Doorstep’ will be held over two days on 20-21 November in the main hall of National Museum Cardiff, Cathays Park. This year the theme will be travel and tourism and we will have a selection of archive material from our collections including photographs, film, postcards, letters and notebooks for you to look at and discuss with members of the team who curate, manage and conserve the archive collections. This year we will also have a series of events for children. Children will be able create their own postcard for display in the Main Hall, or can put on their Sherlock hats and help us to identify unknown names and places from the photographic collections! There will also be an Explore Your Archive trail around the museum.

We hope to see you there. You can find out more about the event here.

The Bishop’s Palace at Hereford was once a very grand hall, and as it was built in 1180, offers a rare glimpse at the constructional techniques of the period. Last week, my colleagues and I visited the Palace to see the one giant arched-brace that survives, hidden in the attic.

One of St. Fagans’ latest building projects is the reconstruction of a medieval Royal hall from Rhosyr, near Newborough in Anglesey. This hall was significant because it was one of 22 in Gwynedd owned by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn ‘the Great’) during the beginning of the 13th century. At the time Princes were peripatetic and would visit each hall in turn, in order to attend to the administrative needs of that region. As this hall now only stands as a ruin, very little evidence survived of its timber-framed roof, and a considerable amount of research has been undertaken in order to provide a representative design for the reconstruction. One potential ‘post-pad’, and areas of differential stone paving was enough evidence to suggest the existence of two rows of timber posts within the great hall at Rhosyr. These divided the space along its length, forming a central ‘knave’ and an ‘aisle’ on either side. Rows of tall timber posts like these need to be braced together to ensure their rigidity, and hence the reason for our visit to Hereford. The curved arch is almost as impressive today as it must have been when it was built. We plan on replicating this framing technique by joining our posts with similar, if smaller, arched-braces. Together they will form strong ‘arcades’ on which our roof rafters can rest.

The 1168 work was finished to a very high standard, as you can see from the ornately carved capitals and the studding along the upper edge of the brace. The timber is also of some note, as today such large diameters are only to be found in the dreams of woodworkers. For instance, each half of the brace is made from a single long curving trunk, which would be an exceptionally rare find these days. Also, the circular column near the base of the arch has been carved from, and is still attached to, the same trunk as the square post it backs on to - which called for a very wide tree.  A point of note, however, is that although the standard of workmanship is high, its design is somewhat frowned upon. In his book ‘English Historic Carpentry’ (1980) Cecil A. Hewett wrote ‘This is poor carpentry’… ‘The Hereford example is wrought to a high standard, but this quality is expressed only in the skilled cutting of the timber and the degree of ‘fit’ achieved. As illustrated, the jointing is weak and hardly deserves to be called such..’

Although described as ‘bad carpentry’ The Bishop’s Palace has stood for 835 years. Having returned from Hereford, my challenge is to replicate this design for use in our own hall, where 17 of these semi-circular arched braces are required to support Llys Rhosyr’s thatched roof, albeit at a reduced scale. The inclusion of a pair of hidden tennons at the top of the arch will successfully raise the standard of the jointing while crucially, maintaining the look of the original brace.

Conservators are a misunderstood race. When we start talking about what we do (conservation, of course), many people see us cuddling pandas and elephant babies. Some of us do indeed work with elephants – but generally only long after their demise. Because we protect not the living from dying, but the dead from decaying.

Natural and cultural heritage (for a definition, please see here) does not last forever. In fact, heritage can be incredibly ephemeral. In the museum context, just think of all the materials we hold in store: paper, wood, bone, feathers, leaves, glass, ceramics – all things that can break or decompose easily. But this just happens to be what your heritage is made of. All those objects making up our cultural treasure chest are in constant danger of breaking, getting mouldy, being eaten by insects, falling apart.

It is the job of your friendly museum conservator to make sure your children and your children’s children will still have that cultural reference point in many years to come. This requires a lot of work, all of the time – the rot never sleeps. Usually, only when things go wrong do conservators end up in the news. Most of the time, these highly skilled and experienced people go about their jobs unseen, in laboratories and studios deep in the bowels of museums, or in the galleries long after closing time.

To be a conservator today requires years of training, and rightly so – our heritage is too precious to risk gluing a beard back on wonky and with the wrong type of glue. The National Museum’s team of 20 conservators cares for approximately three million objects. These collections are hugely varied: the museum collects helicopters, microfossils, skeletons, oil paintings, mobile phones, harps and 18th century ball gowns. Conservation is therefore definitely for the specialist.

Restoring a painting, cleaning a Viking sword or preparing a fossil dinosaur skull, let me tell you, is really not easy. If you want to do it well it takes knowledge of materials, history and analytical sciences, experience and skill. Is it any easier to store things? Well, no, actually, to store objects correctly – that is, without inviting decay – the store must be dry (but not too dry!), cool, clean, free from pests, well organised, and have the right type of shelving for whatever we are storing.

Do you now want a chance to find out what a conservator is and what they really do? If you have a coin bring it along to our first Museum Conservators Open Day – we’ll show you what it’s made from during half term week: 27th October 2015 at National Museum Cardiff. You can play the X-ray game (perfectly safe, promise!), find out what creepy-crawlies are eating our collections and your wardrobe at home, and try your hands at conservation skills. All for free from 10am to 5pm!