Amgueddfa Blog: Collections Services

We wrote of dust before, for example here and here. The museum is like your home, dust gathers everywhere. Unlike my own house though, the museum is very, very big. The museum's dust problems are correspondingly large.

Last year a student from Cardiff University, Stefan Jarvis, undertook a dust monitoring project in the museum. Stefan was studying for an MSc in Care of Collections, which is a subject very close to my heart. Stefan is also the author of one of our guest blogs. Stefan placed a large number of dust traps around the museum building: in stores and exhibition galleries. You may be familiar with some of the galleries he investigated: our Geology gallery with the dinosaurs, the current “Wriggle” exhibition on worms, the Whale gallery and the Organ gallery where we display some of the largest paintings in the museum.

Collecting dust is really easy: prepare a sampler. Leave it out in a suitable location. Wait. For. Four. Weeks.

Once Stefan had gathered some dust he analysed the samples: he identified each particle under the microscope and determined where they all came from. This is where things started getting really interesting. For while undertaking scientific investigations are often laborious and involves much routine work, the results are often extremely illuminating.

This is what Stefan found:

  • More dust accumulates in areas of high traffic (i.e., many people walking past).
  • More dust accumulates at low levels (the closer you get to floor level the more dust you will find).
  • Dust composition differs between spaces. For example, most dust fibres in a library store are paper fibres, while most fibres in public galleries are textile fibres, hair and skin.
  • We found biscuit crumbs on the dust samplers in two galleries. This indicates that food was being consumed in these galleries.

Now, we love having people in the museum. In fact we undertake some of our collection care work during museum opening hours so that you can see what we are up to a lot of the time. Therefore, we are happy to accept that visitors always leave us a little reminder that they have been, in the form of a few dust particles. You can feel a ‘but’ coming on: but we do not encourage the eating of biscuits (or any other foodstuffs) in our galleries. Eating food in our galleries bears the risk of small amounts of food ending up on the floor, in displays, behind cupboards - or, as part of dust. Food encourages the spread of pest insects which, once they have eaten all the available biscuit crumbs, then start munching our collections. This is not something we endorse, because we try to preserve our collections for you to enjoy.

This means you can actually help us preserve the collections - by not eating in the galleries. We will be doing more work on this in the near future, by encouraging visitors to consume food in our fabulous restaurant or cosy cafe, not in galleries. In the meantime, we really do appreciate your cooperation and understanding for our no-food-in-galleries policy.

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

 

 

 

Our conservation volunteers are helping to get Christmas underway at St Fagans. The first historic building to get the festive treatment was Cilewent Farmhouse originally from Rhaeadr Powys. The display reflects life as it was in the 18th century with most of the furniture dating to 1750. Preparations for Christmas would involve decorating the home with evergreen foliage gathered from the surrounding countryside, such as laurel, ivy, holly and yew. A tradition that has its origins firmly rooted back in our pagan past and continues to this day with the Christmas tree.

The evergreens stand out among the dormant trees in the museum grounds so it didn't take long to gather up enough to prepare the garlands for Cilewent.  We also created a bracket out of 4 sticks of even length (80cm) and to this attached more evergreen foliage and red ribbons. Red berries were very popular, but these dry out and fall off quickly. A recommended technique to help preserve their colour was to store the berries in salt water after picking, we haven't tried this yet, but we'll probably give it a go next year as a flash of red would definitely enhance the overall effect.

The garlands were much bigger than we anticipated and they soon turned into rather unwieldy evergreen snakes, but between us we managed to walk them across the site and secure them to the beams of Cilewent.

If you would like to try this out at home be careful with the holly, it can scratch, not just yourself but furniture and wallpaper as well, so remember to place a barrier of card or fabric between holly and any vulnerable surfaces.

Well, one house done, 11 more to do and only 20 days to Christmas!

This week is Chemistry Week and our Preventive Conservation team got involved. Two local high schools (St Teilo’s Church in Wales High School and Cardiff High School) were invited to participate in a workshop with live demonstrations and hands-on activities.

We organized the workshop in a collection store and one of our analytical laboratories at National Museum Cardiff. Neither space is laid out for large numbers of people and it’s always a bit of a squash. But once we had squeezed the last of the year 12 and 13 students into each room and closed the doors, there was no escaping the exciting world of analytical chemistry.

The students learned about Wales’s largest and most important mineral collection, the challenges of caring for it, and some of the analytical tools that help us: X-Ray diffraction (XRD), gas detection tubes, infrared spectroscopy (IR) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). The XRD is part of the National Museum's own analytical facilities, operated by Tom Cotterell and Amanda Valentine-Baars in the Mineralogy/Petrology section. The other two technologies are covered by the curriculum and the students enjoyed the opportunity to prepare real samples, analyse them and interpret the results. To them, this made the subject a lot more real than just learning about them from books. It was also important that the analyses were undertaken not simply as a method per se, but in the context of answering genuine research questions at the museum.

What does chemistry have to do with the care of collections? We undertake our own research on objects and specimens in the collections, and we collaborate with researchers at universities. In addition, the act of preserving our common heritage often throws up problems, as objects degrade and conservators need to work out why, and how to stop the degradation.

Often we cannot do this on our own, in which case we work with partners to investigate, for example, the corrosivity potential of indoor pollutants and their effect on mineral specimens in storage at National Museum Cardiff. These partners include Cardiff University’s Schools of ChemistryEngineering and History, Archaeology and Religion (Conservation Department).

One of these collaborations sparked yesterday’s schools engagement project, run in conjunction with the museum's Conservation and Natural Sciences departments and kindly supported and funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry (South East Wales Section). The Royal Society of Chemistry provided an entire bench full of portable analytical equipment for the day, which the society's Education Coordinator, Liam Thomas, set up in the Mineral Store. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the project, additional support came from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

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

 

‘The Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay’ is the first Community Archaeology project funded by the HLF project Saving Treasures, Telling Stories. Run by Swansea Museum, the project is inspired by a collection of finds made by a local metal detectorist on Swansea Bay, which has also been acquired for the museum by Saving Treasures.

Blades and Badges

It includes some mysterious items, such as a Bronze Age tool with a curved blade which has had archaeologists scratching their heads. Ideas about its purpose range from opening shellfish to scraping seaweed off nets or rocks or carving bowls.

Among the other items found on the Bay are a number of medieval pilgrim badges, including one brought back from the important shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Pilgrim badges are usually made of lead or pewter and were often bought at shrines as a souvenir and worn on the pilgrim’s hat or cloak.

It is thought that those found in Swansea Bay were probably thrown into the sea by pilgrims returning to south Wales by boat as a thanks offering for their safe return. It seems like a curiously pagan thing for a medieval Christian to do, but it’s similar to the modern practice of throwing coins in wells, which is itself a survival of an ancient religious ritual.

The Archaeology of the Bay

The new collection is just a tiny fraction of the objects discovered on the Bay, which has a rich and varied – as well as sensitive – archaeology. This includes fragments of Bronze Age trackways and prehistoric forests, Roman brooches, ceramics, shipwrecks and the remains of World War Two bombs.

Community Involvement

Each one has a tale to tell and together they are helping archaeologists build the story of human activity in the Bay over thousands of years. Helping to interpret the finds, their significance for the history of Swansea Bay and for the people of modern Swansea are representatives from Swansea community groups, including the Red Café youth group, the Dylan Thomas Centre’s Young Writers Squad, Community First families and the Young Archaeologists Club.

The project’s first activity, a Big Beachcomb, took place on the Bay itself on Saturday 17 September, but to find out about that you will have to wait for the next blog in this series…

 

Nothing lasts forever, not even in your favourite museum. The job of the conservator is to preserve the national collection but decay is all around us. Sometimes it feels like being a surgeon on an intensive care unit. Fortunately we do have a lot of science and technology to help us.

I have recently written about how we refurbished a collection store because corrosive gases being emitted from wooden cupboards caused some metal objects to show early signs of decay. In this blog I want to walk you through the science and analysis behind this project.

Iron rusts, every kid knows that. Leave a nail out in the garden and within weeks, days perhaps, you will notice it develops a lovely orange colour; given enough time, some moisture and oxygen it will eventually become flaky, friable and disintegrate. What happens when iron rusts? Iron atoms react with oxygen and water molecules, leading to oxidation of iron. The result are hydrated iron oxides, a small family of minerals commonly called rust.

Rusting iron has long been a bane of humanity. The Forth Bridge has to be repainted over and over again because it didn’t it would rust and collapse into the Firth below. The same is true of our own Menai Suspension Bridge here in Wales. Wales was the place for the invention of a rust-proofing process for household products made of iron. In the late 17th Century, Thomas Allgood of Pontypool developed a coating for iron involving the use of an oil varnish and heat. This process was called ‘japanning’, as a European imitation of Asian lacquerwork. Pontypool Museum has lots of information about these old local industries on its website so please visit there if you would like to know more.

National Museum in Cardiff has a collection of Welsh japanned ware which was largely acquired during the early years of the National Museum. Many of these objects do not consist of iron alone: lead, tin, copper and zinc all feature in varying proportions in different parts of some of the objects. Complicated parts, such as handles and bases, were parts made from softer metals or alloys. We can find out what materials an object is made of using a completely non-invasive technology called X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). XRF directs X-rays towards an object and analyses the X-rays that bounce back. As different elements have their own, unique X-ray fluorescence which the instrument can identify and even use to quantify the elemental composition of objects without having to take a physical sample.

The problem for the museum conservator is that many of these metals, too, corrode under certain circumstances. In the case of the objects which were subject to the previous blog the corrosion of parts with a high lead component was accelerated by the high organic acid concentration within the old storage cupboards. A number of analytical tests exist for identifying and quantifying organic acids in air; we used small discs with an absorbent material that were exposed to the air in the store (both inside and outside of the cabinets) and later analysed in the lab. The results of this test showed that the concentration of acetic acid was 623µg/m3 (250ppb) inside the cabinets and 19µg/m3 (8ppb) in the store, and the concentration of formic acid 304µg/m3 (159ppb) inside the cabinets and 10µg/m3 (5ppb) in the store.

We know that both acetic and formic acids are emitted by wood, and both acids can react with various metals to produce, in some cases, some impressive corrosion products. Clearly, the concentrations of both acids were higher inside the storage furniture than in the store itself, giving us a massive clue that the problem was caused by the cabinets and not air pollution entering the store through the air conditioning system. The fresh air supply into the store, on the other hand, kept the concentration of pollutants low in the store itself.

Corrosion and decay comes in many forms, and we also use other technologies to help us identify corrosion products. Of these more in a future blog. In the meantime we are continuing to eliminate the sources of corrosive substances from the museum to help preserve the national collection.

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