Amgueddfa Blog: Conservation

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.

 

 

Back in 1998, long before I started my current job as Senior Textile Conservator at St Fagans National Museum of History, I spent two work experience placements at the museum, helping my predecessor Clare Stoughton-Harris.  I had just started on my 3-year post-grad course in Textile Conservation the previous year.  The course was based in apartments within Hampton Court Palace.  I saw an ad for a placement at St Fagans on the Centre’s noticeboard and decided to apply. A few weeks later, I found myself driving over to Cardiff to start my placement.

My first stint was for 3 weeks, over the Easter Holidays.  The work mainly consisted of preparing St Fagans castle for re-opening after refurbishment, so it involved a lot of surface cleaning, but we also got around to wet cleaning a carpet.  The image shows Clare sponging the carpet in the detergent bath in the studio. 

When I came back in the summer, my project was to improve the storage conditions of the shoe collection.  Most shoes were stored on open shelving, with several pairs stacked on top of each other.  Some were not wrapped at all and were gathering dust, and others were wrapped in yellowed newspaper as you can see in the 2 pictures below.  That’s me, unwrapping and examining some children’s shoes!

As they were, the shoes were also very inaccessible as it was impossible to know which pair was wrapped in each bundle of tissue paper.  So I remember assembling endless flat pack boxes and re-packing the shoes… so here they were in their lovely new storage boxes:

Once the contents of the Old Costume Store moved into the Collection Centre at St Fagans in 2008, the project was improved upon by adding thumbnail images of each pair, clearly attached to the outside of the box, so here they are in their current configuration!

From 1998, it took another 7 years, and jobs with the National Trust, in Norfolk, a private studio in Dublin and 2 years at the British Museum before I was became the Senior Textile Conservator at Amgueddfa Cymru. Now I have the occasional pleasure of overseeing students myself and can return the favour of giving them the chance to expand their experience and help them along their career path!

 

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Replacing the preserving fluid in the jars

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

Topping up the preserving fluid for a grass snake

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

Injecting the Boa with preserving fluid

Rhodri Viney from our Digital media team filmed the whole process of preserving the Boa

Aeron the Boa looking magnificent in the gallery

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Cleaning the rattlesnake model

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

The finished snakes in their jars ready to go up to the gallery

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Dr Rhys Jones at our opening launch event.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

Some of the fantastic snake collections at the museum.

Our Conservation intern, Caitlin Jenkins, hard at work rehousing the snakes.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

Snake evolution case featuring casts of snake fossils.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

Getting out the Snakestones from the collections.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

Perseus with the severed head of the serpent haired Medusa.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

The largest of our live snakes, Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python.

Dr Rhys Jones with some of our staff at the live snake care team meeting.

Guy Tansley from Bugs N Stuff with Mela, the Boa constrictor.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.