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.