Amgueddfa Blog: Collections Services

Perhaps not the most stupid in the world, but I must be a contender for most ridiculous job title in the museum!

When friends ask “So how’s the new job?” telling them that I’m a Collections Online Metadata Assistant doesn’t really help explain what I do (neither does mentioning that it could be abbreviated to COMA!).

This is a brand new role for the museum funded by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery. 

“Er…it’s glorified data entry” doesn’t really help either. It’s true that I sit at a computer looking at spreadsheets and databases most of the time, I move data from one field to another and some days my eyes feel like they’re turning square from staring at the screen. But every now and then I’m reminded what this is all about.

What, to me are lists of numbers that don’t behave themselves and don’t fit in the correct column of a spreadsheet actually represent objects and images of our amazing and diverse collections.

So every now and then up pops an image of a world famous painting such as Rain, Auvers by Van Gough.

Rain, Auvers by Van Gough

Rain, Auvers by Van Gough

Or it could be an old photo of people who used to live in the terrace of iron workers’ houses now at St Fagans National Museum of History. Looking closely you can see a few of the children couldn’t sit still for the camera!

Photograph of group portrait

All of Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales’s objects are catalogued on a database so that we can keep track of what we’ve got and where it is.

My job is to match up objects on the database with images and information about them (that’s the Metadata bit), so that they can be viewed by yourselves on Collections Online (which will be up and running in the near future).

This will be the first time ever that you will be able to search the database for yourself. You will see exactly what the curators see when looking up information about our objects. So if you want to know exactly how many motorbikes we have in the collections, you’ll soon be able to see for yourself.

We have a lot of work to do to tidy up our records, to make them presentable, but we’re working on that…back to the data entry then!

People's Postcode Lottery Logo

 

 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.

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!