Amgueddfa Blog: Preventive Conservation

Last week saw the 50th anniversary and the 18th conference of ICOM-CC (Committee on Conservation), the largest of the committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums). ICOM-CC has almost 3,000 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. In addition to their day job of preserving the world's history and culture, these members also promote the conservation of cultural and historic works. I was able to attend thanks to generous support by the Anna Plowden Trust.

The conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was enormous: more than one thousand conservators headed the call to report and debate. While Copenhagen is an amazing city there was not much time to explore it, what with 5 parallel sessions and hundreds of talks to listen to during a packed conference programme. I would like to pick out and share just a few of my personal highlights.

The data generated during collections monitoring in museums can be explored sometimes beyond their original intention. Cristina Daron and Matija Strlic from University College London explained how unexpected patterns can be discovered by analysis of existing data sets. For example, they discovered a clear link between damage to archival objects and use of these objects in a reading room. This sort of data mining produces results that cannot be captured by experimental studies, but which can be used to improve decision making.

On the theme of data, I co-presented a talk with my colleague Jane Henderson from Cardiff University on new ways of presenting conservation data; you can find a copy of the paper here. Our suggestion is to present results not simply in the all too ubiquitous bar charts and line graphs, but to use more meaningful visualisations that are easier to interpret and send the correct message to the receiver. This will help make quicker and better decisions and ultimately improve the care of collections.

Conservation of cultural heritage involves a lot of risk assessments – there is so much to do that we try to figure out as objectively as possible where the most urgent need for resources is. Alice Cannon from Museum Victoria, Australia, explained how the deterioration of an object does not always mean a loss. Hence, when attempting to judge value loss, judgments must be made by experts from different fields. The potential value loss of an object needs to be considered when undertaking a risk assessment that might want to predict the estimated deterioration of that object in, say, 100 years.

Every museum has a store (or several), hence storage is a subject close to the heart for most people in the sector. Lise Raeder Knudsen from Conservation Centre Vejle, Denmark, summarised almost 30 years of experience of building low energy collection stores in Denmark. The main principle of such stores is high thermal and hydric inertia. The Danish cultural sector has proven that such stores can have both lower construction and running costs, while at the same time producing a stable environment suitable for the long-term storage of cultural collections. One issue currently still undergoing research is the potential problem of indoor pollutants which may accumulate if there is insufficient fresh air supply.

Likewise, training is an issue that keeps resurfacing in conservation as in other disciplines. Alice Boccia Paterakis introduced the Interdisciplinary Training of Archaeologists and Archaeological Conservators Initiative (ITAACI) programme from the USA, where archaeologists and conservators are being brought together to work jointly and raise awareness of each other’s needs. The training theme also carried through to the poster sessions, where Monika Harter from London informed us how the British Museum, with some clever planning, had used succession planning to train two conservators for the price of one. This included the passing on of hard-to-come-by expert knowledge from one generation to the next.

My final highlight is Jonathan Ashley-Smith’s analogy of coffee shops to explain why, in his opinion, conservation needs a new approach to ethics. He explained that a new, bespoke, code of ethics would use a variety of ingredients to design something that suits each of the various and diverse disciplines that make up cultural heritage conservation. The internet would provide the ideal tool to publish a bespoke code of ethics, as well as conservation intentions, proposals and records all in one place and, ideally, in Wikis. Jonathan’s talk created more debate and Twitter traffic than any other talk and I suspect his idea will keep being discussed.

The conference programme was rounded off by various specialist working group meetings, technical visits, opportunities to see Copenhagen’s museums and social events. A packed week with countless inspiring conversations with colleagues from all over the world. Not always without controversy of course – some ideas out there are interesting but perhaps require further scrutiny. Perhaps a topic for a future blog or paper.

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

There are times in life when a problem and its solution come together seamlessly.

The problem – one which every museum faces: cryptic causes of deterioration of stored objects.

The solution: investigation using the latest chemical analyses.

One step better: to combine this analysis with the mission of museums – inspiring people – and undertake the investigative work with full public engagement.

Like most museums, National Museum Cardiff has the task of slowing down corrosion to preserve collections. Think of your family silver tarnishing and you know what I am talking about. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of metal objects in our collection and you understand the herculean task we face when we come to work every day.

Like most museums, we do not have much equipment to undertake complex chemical analyses. So when we want to investigate the magnitude of potential sources of corrosive airborne substances in our collection stores, we often work in partnership with academic institutions.

SEAHA is an initiative between three universities with industry and heritage partners to improve our understanding of heritage science. Heritage science is multi disciplinary and includes experts with chemistry, imaging, IT, engineering, architecture and other backgrounds. One of SEAHA’s amazing facilities is a fully equipped mobile laboratory. We submitted an application last year for the mobile lab to come to Cardiff which, amazingly (there is much demand for this vehicle), was approved. Last week, staff and postgraduate students from University College London, one of SEAHA’s academic partners, visited National Museum Cardiff.

The Mobile Heritage Lab was at the museum for two days. During this time, we assessed environments and pollutants in collection stores and in public galleries. We undertook this work with full involvement of our museum visitors. The mobile lab was parked next to the museum entrance where we encouraged our visitors to explore the on-board analytical equipment. UCL staff and students were at hand to explain how science helps us preserve heritage collections, for example how UV fluorescence is used to explore paintings.

We received a visit by A-level students from Fitzalan High School in Cardiff in the morning. The students were especially interested in chemistry. After a quick introduction, we gave the students an ultra-fine particle counter to produce a pollutant map of the public galleries at the museum. The students used this equipment to measure ultra-fine dust inside and outside the museum. We are still analysing these data, but the early results indicate that the museum’s air filtration system is doing a good job at keeping dust out of the building. This is important because the gases associated with ultra-fine particles (for example, SO2) can damage paper and other organic materials.

We also measured concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in collection stores and found that levels were higher inside drawers in the Entomology collection than in the store itself; this is important in the context of entomological pin corrosion. We managed to confirm that work we undertook recently to reduce the levels of VOC in the museum’s Mineralogy store had been effective and successful. In addition, we used a thermal imaging camera to check whether relatively high temperatures in a display case are caused by heating pipes in the wall behind the case, or by in-case lighting.

The Mobile Heritage Lab’s visit provided us with an opportunity to answer some important questions about the way we care for the museum’s collections. At the same time, we managed to teach students the practical applications of investigative science and analytical chemistry. Lastly, we spoke to many museum visitors about the role played by science in the preservation of heritage collections. We are extremely grateful for the fruitful partnership with SEAHA and hope to collaborate on additional projects in the near future. For example, there are some interesting questions surrounding the deposition of different types of dust which we discussed over a beer on Thursday evening. Watch this space as multi-disciplinary heritage science is becoming ever more important for answering questions of collection care and preservation. Museums are best placed to working in partnerships on important scientific questions while achieving public impact by explaining to a wider audience how science works.

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

 The numbers of specimens in geological collections in the UK alone reach into the tens of millions. These collections are important for research, education and also commercially. Museums hold collections, but so do individuals and companies; exploration companies keep rock core samples which can be as valuable as £1,000 per meter.

There is now sufficient evidence to dispel the myth that geological collections are inherently stable and require fewer resources to preserve them than other areas of museum collections. In fact, a proportion of geological collections demand a level of attention and maintenance comparable with archaeological metal collections. This includes similar environmental and pollution-related considerations.

About 10% of known mineral species are sensitive to changes in temperature or humidity, or may react with air pollutants. One such mineral is pyrite – common in geological collections and one that is particularly troublesome. However, despite centuries of research on pyrite decay there is a dearth of knowledge in subjects that would help museums improve the effectiveness of their care of geological collections. This includes the categorisation of damage to specimens, methodologies for objective routine condition assessment, the definition of an adequate storage environment, and successful conservation treatments.

Currently available methodologies are not suitable for routine collection monitoring, results are not necessarily replicable, and, in the absence of guidance on suitable storage conditions, triggers and the suitability of conservation actions are difficult to determine. We need a more robust approach to the delivery of preventive conservation of geological collections.

We have now teamed up with the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at University College London, University of Oxford and University of Brighton to investigate these aspects of preservation of geological collections. A four-year studentship has been advertised which will be based at Oxford University but spend a considerable amount of time working at National Museum Cardiff. If you are interested in this subject, and have a background in, ideally, geology, chemistry or engineering, please do get in touch.

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

 

Museum displays get dusty, inevitably, but this dust won’t be there for long. Armed with a paintbrush and a portable vacuum cleaner the Preventive Conservation team is ready to move through the museum galleries, cleaning as we go.

Once upon a time, gallery maintenance was an activity hidden behind closed doors, only undertaken when there were no visitors in the building. But things are changing, and what we once did behind closed doors now happens whilst the museum is open. Everyone can see what happens behind the scenes and Preventative Conservation becomes a temporary display itself. By working in front of an audience we can explain what we do and why we do it, after all it may look strange carefully dusting a painting. If it looks as if we smudge the paint on a painting: we don't - we are actually cleaning finger prints off the protective glass.

So why do we have to do this in the first place? Firstly dust doesn’t look very good, especially when you notice the frame and even the protective glass has dust on it – things like that would give a museum an air of neglect. But this is not the only reason; dust also has the potential to damage our museum’s collections. Dust can become sticky and attracts water (hygroscopic), which can cause mould. Dust can also attract pests, leaving museum collections vulnerable to damage from insects. By cleaning museum collections we can prevent dust build up, reducing risks to collections.

Museum collections will always need to be looked after, and removing dust is one simple way we can prevent multiple forms of damage to our heritage. Keep a look out for us in the museum galleries brushing a sculpture, we are always happy to talk about what we are doing!

P.S. Look out for the other activities we are doing in the galleries, we may be repackaging museum collections to reduce the risk of pest damage, checking pest traps, or cleaning the Natural History and Geology displays. There is always Preventative Conservation to do in the museum!

This guest blog was written by our volunteer Will Tregaskes who is giving a talk on this subject at the 'Conservation Matters in Wales' conference on Thursday 8th June 2017 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.

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

Our collaborations with Cardiff University in the area of heritage science continue to grow. Just before Easter, Daniel Griffiths from the School of Engineering contributed towards our goal of developing monitoring tools for use by museum conservators.

One of the routine tasks of conservators is to keep an eye on the condition of items stored in museums. Being responsible for looking after Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales’ five million objects, the team of less than 20 the conservators have their work cut out. In addition to the sheer number of objects in need of monitoring, for some categories of items there are currently issues with keeping adequate records for comparison with future condition assessments. We also want to objectivise the entire process to enable easier comparison between assessments undertaken at different times or by different people.

Presently, changes to collection items (if any) are detected by visual assessments and recording these in a text form, often supplemented with photographs. If such items are small and prone to chemical reactions, the results of which are difficult to describe, condition assessments are very difficult to undertake.

How do we make things easier, quicker and more objective? Daniel, a student in engineering, undertook a pilot study to create an overview of our options for non-invasive damage testing in geological specimens (specifically, in minerals). Some testing methods – such as acoustic emission, ultrasound, and X-ray and micro magnetic resonance imaging – were discounted early on in the project for various reasons. Any further techniques Daniel considered are based on imaging or scanning, grounded in the assumption that most damage to minerals is visible as changes in shape, integrity or colour.

Initial thoughts on using artificially aged pyrite were replaced in favour of CAD-designed and 3D-printed models of ‘crystals’: one set ‘undamaged’ and a second ‘damaged’ set with deliberately introduced yet precisely known ‘decay features’, such as holes and cuts. Daniel then scanned or imaged these models and compared the results for speed, ease of use, cost effectiveness and accuracy of recording of ‘decay’.

The best results were obtained with the Artec Space Spider, a handheld high-resolution 3D scanner based on blue light technology with easy-to-use software. The downside of this technique is the high purchasing cost of this instrument and software. Mobile phone technology, which was one of the comparative techniques, is not yet evolved enough to provide useful (i.e., good image quality, faithful recording of defects smaller than 5mm diameter) results.

The results of this study are encouraging because they provide us with a good foundation for future development work. There are questions about the faithful recording of colour, especially of reflective crystal surfaces, and combining features of storage, processing and analysis of images through one single computer program.

Daniel was supervised by Prof Rhys Pullin and Dr John McCrory from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering. We thank both of them for their support and cooperation in this project.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.