Conservation

Thinking of doing a work placement? My experience with CMAS

on Wednesday, 29 August 2018. Posted in Conservation, History Centre

I can’t believe that the first year of university is over! It goes so fast and with so much information it can be a bit overwhelming, but trust me, all that hard work and studying will pay off. The Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology undergraduate course at Cardiff introduced me to a whole new world of practical science, as well as in-depth theory, of conservation materials and specialised equipment, such as x-ray and air abrasion machines. By the end of the year I felt pretty confident with the concept of conservation but was still nervous on how to actually apply the theory with real, archaeological objects; in a true work environment.  This is where a work placement comes in. My first-year placement was at the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre, as part of the Conservation & Museum Advisory Service (CMAS), a commercial business which deals with issues both in museums and in public collections.

Although it can seem daunting at first, this experience is essential for developing those practical skills and applying the theory with real, archaeological objects, as well as understanding the treatment of different materials and the ethical choices conservators must make; focusing on what’s best for the object and adjusting treatment plans with the client’s wishes accordingly. Keep in mind that work experience is for your benefit, so don’t panic when you have millions of doubts and questions because the people you work with are there to help you (even if you ask questions every 5 mins).

So anyway, onto the actual conservation, hooray!

First things first, you will need to assess the object just by looking at it and writing up a condition report, which simply states any observable issues with the object. The majority of my time was spent working with a Roman ceramic oil lamp in the shape of a foot! Quite a fun object from Chippenham Museum, but as you can see there is a bit of a messy application of adhesive around the centre of the lamp where it has broken in two and was re-joined.  There were also scratches, dust and cobwebs on the inside, layers of red dirt/soil on the surface as well as white flaking corrosion (see figures 1-4).

Before treatment:

Figures 1-4

Ok, so the lamp required a good clean and that adhesive definitely needed to come off. Ultimately, the decision was to completely remove the adhesive and undo the join so that I could re-attach the two pieces with a better, cleaner join.  In order to remove the adhesive, I needed to work out what solvent it was soluble in. For this, I took small samples of the adhesive from the lamp by slicing off some of the softer areas with a scalpel, under a microscope.  I then put the samples into a petri dish and tested them with different solvents (see figures 5 & 6).

Testing solvents on the adhesive:

Figures 5-6

After about 30 minutes, I could see which solvent made the adhesive go soft and rubbery. The process of removing the adhesive required quite a lot of patience as the it didn’t want to budge; a scalpel was used to remove larger chunks of the adhesive and a poultice was placed around the join. A poultice was a way of creating a solvent environment to help loosen the adhesive and separate the two pieces. 
 *Just to give you an idea of the tools used in this process, I’ve taken a couple of photos for reference.

Figure 7 From left to right – pin vice, plastic tweezers, scalpel, wooden stick and cotton wool

Figure 8

In conservation, we usually make or own cotton swabs by using a bamboo stick or cocktail sticks (depending on what you’re working on) instead of regular, pre-made cotton swabs.  Making your own means that when the cotton gets dirty it can be easily replaced and the size of the swab can be varied so you can get into the small nooks and crannies that need a good clean. It also means that we aren’t throwing away millions of cotton swabs and being more environmentally friendly.

After many tries, the poultice wasn’t loosening the adhesive, so I went in with the scalpel and pin vice to try and dig out some adhesive in the join. Another poultice was then left on for a couple of hours. When it was removed I was able to gently pry apart the two pieces (finally!) and clean the new surfaces (see figure 9).

The Conservation Team Visit Salisbury Museums

on Friday, 08 June 2018. Posted in Conservation, Museums

Conservators from the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre have been out and about visiting museums in Salisbury. Our time visiting local museums is used primarily to provide advice and guidance on specialist aspects of caring for a museum collection. Often this involves walking a fine line, balancing the need for conservation and long term preservation of a collection with the very important need for a museum to display and allow access to its collection. For the conservation of many objects the ideal storage location would be a cold, dark, sealed box. However this is obviously impractical, not only for any museum to achieve, but is contradictory to the reason for preserving collections: allowing people to see and access items for a long time to come. Collection care is therefore a balance of risks, between what is best for the collection item and how the item can best serve the needs of the museum.

Arundells, the former home of Sir Edward Heath KG MBE, Prime Minister and Statesman, houses a diverse collection. The museum maintains Sir Edward’s home as it was at the time of his death and so collection items such as a grand piano, fabulous art works and gifts from his state visits sit side by side with yachting photographs, satirical cartoons and even a very 70’s disco shirt!

The collection item most memorable from our visit was the hand-painted silk wallpaper which lines the visitors’ route up the staircase to the first floor. The wallpaper, a gift to Sir Edward from his staff, was installed in the house in the 1980’s.

Wallpaper at Arundell 01

Keeping the location of the wallpaper at Arundells is crucial as it was purposefully created for the location chosen by Sir Heath himself. To remove the wallpaper and hide it away in dark, cold storage would irretrievably reduce its historical value. So the question is how best to preserve the wallpaper on permanent and open display in the museum?

wallpaper at Arundells 02

Historic houses often have collection items (otherwise known as fixtures and fittings), such as wallpapers, curtains, carpets and furniture which are required to be maintained in their normal settings. Curtains can best be understood as curtains if they continue to frame a window and wallpaper is best understood if it remains lining a wall. Contrary to our conservation ‘dark box’ a controlled environment is particularly difficult to maintain for fixtures and fittings on permanent display in their original locations. Particular threats to these collections are high light levels from windows and internal lighting, warm conditions from internal heating and pests.

A Fascinating Find

on Tuesday, 27 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

During my ongoing survey of uncatalogued items from the collection I keep coming across unexpected and fascinating finds. This week was no exception. I opened up a paper document to find unusually dense lettering and was particularly interested as it had the signs of being iron gall ink.

Iron gall ink was extremely common from the Middle Ages through to 20th century. Unfortunately because of the chemical makeup of its ingredients it can be prone to deterioration known as ink corrosion. In its most extreme stages it can literally burn away the lettering leaving a text shape hole where it would originally have been. Because of this it is extremely important to keep an eye out for typical signs of early deterioration such as haloing around the text so that documents can be monitored for further deterioration.

Above: an example of haloing around text

However, in this case when I looked closely I found large crystals tightly packed on the surface of thicker areas of text.

Above: crystals visible on area of text (without magnification)
Above: document from a distance, text looks denser in places

Initially I thought this might have been a phenomenon of the ink itself which can reportedly create crystals on its surface, but with further investigation it became clear that these crystals are quite different in size and shape.

Above: close up of crystals

It turns out that these are most likely remnants of blotting sand. This was used until approx. the mid 1800s as an alternative to blotting paper. The writer would most likely have had a small shaker pot or box of sand or dust which they would sprinkle over the wet ink to speed up the drying process, the excess sand would then be shaken off. Although this is just a small detail, it offers an intriguing insight into the everyday life of a past age.

Sophie Coles, Assistant Conservator (Archives)

A New Start: Working as an Archive Conservator

on Monday, 05 March 2018. Posted in Archives, Conservation

In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.

Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:

Parchment Tensioning

One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.

Parchment before tensioning
Parchment under tension
Parchment after tensioning in its enclosure

Overseers of the Poor Account Book

A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book

This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.

Severely degraded leaf from the Overseers of the Poor account book
Loose attachment pieces from the Overseers of the Poor account book

One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.

To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.

   
Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume

Degraded leaf and attachments after conservation work

The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.

Copper Conserved: Cholsey Excavations Unearth Unusual Finds in Agricultural Setting

on Tuesday, 28 November 2017. Posted in Conservation

CMAS are excited to be working on the conservation of two Roman copper alloy items recently excavated by Foundations Archaeology.

The site at Cholsey, South Oxfordshire is thought to be an Iron Age settlement which evolved into a Roman Villa site. The villa buildings have been preserved in situ, but excavations were carried out on almost 2 hectares of land surrounding them.

The excavations revealed numerous burials and enclosures including a number of impressive corn driers.

Interestingly the archaeologists propose that the site was a prosperous farm that evolved to a villa, unusual as villas were more commonly set up by representatives of the empire.

CMAS are conserving a copper alloy necklace with a circular pendant, possibly made from bone, and a large copper alloy bowl.

The bowl was found upturned within the base of a corn drier, on top of charcoal deposits.

The backfill from the demolition of the corn drier was deposited on top of the bowl. This shows that the bowl was deposited at the time that use of the drier ceased, possibly as a closing offering and that this was done at the same time as closure of the site, not at a later date.

Celebrating 70... and a boy called Heritage

on Tuesday, 07 November 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Archives and archivists, artists, archers and archaeologists – all were on hand to make our annual open day an event to remember.
In fact it was a triple celebration when we welcomed the public to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
Celebrating a decade in the “new” building would have been excuse enough for us to organise a special birthday open day, but 2017 is also the 70th anniversary of the county-wide archive being established, so we were really keen to pull out all the stops. The icing on the cake – there’s always cake at the History Centre – was the official presentation of our Archive Service Accreditation from The National Archives (TNA).

Heritage Cake - you can never have too much cake!

So at 10am on 28th October we opened our doors to the Family Fun Day and a host of activities designed to show off the wide-ranging work we do at the History Centre.
The stars of the show were a selection from the 70 favourite archives that have been featured on our website this year. It was difficult for staff and volunteers to choose their favourite archives – especially as it takes almost eight miles of shelving to house the archive collection – but all had a certain wow-factor. The display featured Kings, Queens and Presidents; artists and architects; nurses, soldiers and engineers; magnificent illuminated manuscripts and simpler texts. All had a story to tell and visitors on the day were fascinated to discover some of the gems of the collection.

A selection from the 70 favourite archives - and a wandering highwayman.

There were displays and activities showcasing all the work that takes place in the History Centre and this year for the first time our colleagues from the Copy Certificates team put on a display explaining their job. The team provides certified copies of birth, marriage and death certificates but it’s not always modern day certificates that they handle. They were able to show some of the more unusual girls and boys names from more than a hundred years ago – Lemon Maud and a boy called Heritage!

Behind the scenes with the conservators
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