Amgueddfa Blog: Collections Services

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.

 

 

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.

Recently, we’ve been privileged to accept a fabulous new accession into our collection.  It is a set of three silk garments which belonged to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet, who lived between 1749 and 1789.  He owned vast areas of land in Wales, was active in politics and was a great patron of the arts.  You can find out more about him here:

Image of painting of Watkin Williams-Wynn from our 'Collections Online'
Small pastel portrait from the museum's collections

As part of Sir Watkin’s lavish lifestyle came an opulent wardrobe.  The garments we have acquired are a matching set of waistcoat and breeches made from grey silk, woven with silver metal thread, silk embroidery and metal thread trim,

F2019.21.1 waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.1 waistcoat, detail of buttons, embroidery and metal thread weave

F2019.21.2 breeches Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.2 breeches, metal trim

F2019.21.2 breeches, button

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as well as an embroidered waistcoat of flamboyantly pink satin. 

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

 All three items have passed through the Textile Conservation Studio over the last few weeks to record the garments’ construction, materials, and condition, before packing them up to go into storage.  The grey set of waistcoat and breeches were in remarkably good condition, but I was worried about the embroidery on the pink waistcoat.  The embroidery consists of undulating bands of white net which covers small florets made of paper.  The bands run down both sides of the centre front and across the lower edge as well as across the pocket flaps.  Other embroidery features are foliage and blossoms made from chenille thread and mauve ribbon-worked rosette flower heads. 


The white net is made from silk which has been coated with a stiffening agent.  This stiffening agent has made the net brittle and the yarns have cracked in many places resulting in areas of loss and loose areas.  Those loose remains of the net were vulnerable to snagging and abrasion and I was afraid that further pieces would break off and become lost.  Equally, the paper flowers that lay underneath and were formerly protected by the net were now exposed and also at risk of damage or loss through accidentally brushing against them.  As it was, a number of petals had pulled away from the stitches that held them in place and had curled up and become creased and distorted, with several petals and some entire flowers becoming lost. 


To protect the fragile areas I decided to apply an overlay of very fine white Nylon net.  This net does not disturb the aesthetics of the embroidery while at the same time providing protection to the vulnerable net and paper underneath.  Before I could start, however, I had to humidify the paper petals to re-shape them and arrange them in their correct position. For this, I dampened the paper with deionised water applied with a fine paint brush.  Once it was wet, the paper was pliable and creases could be removed.  To apply the net overlay I stitched it in place with small running stitches using a thin white silk organzine thread.  I used a curved needle as the garment had to remain flat on the table (to avoid unnecessary movement).  It’s only now that it has been conserved that the waistcoat is strong enough to go into storage.

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat vulnerable areas before conservation

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat, detail of applying net overlay using silk thread

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat after application of net overlay - now protected and safe for storage

There was something else that was interesting about the waistcoat: The rear panel is made from tabby woven cotton fabric and the lower section is made of cream silk.  As it is now, the seam allowances are facing outwards and raw edges are visible.  It is not unusual that areas of the garment that aren’t on view are made from less expensive materials and that the stitching might not be as carefully executed as on the visible areas, however, the current configuration and some indication of previous stitch holes suggests that the waistcoat would have had an outer back panel and what is visible currently, is simply the back section of the lining.  There is therefore a strong indication that the waistcoat may have been altered and the original back getting lost in the process.

F2019.21.3  pink waistcoat, back panel

 

 

Hope that you have been following our Natural Science #MuseumAdvent Calendar

Our curators and scientists in the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff have been choosing their favourite objects from the collections, to place behind the doors of our very own museum advent calendar. As it is Christmas Eve, all of the doors are now open and we wanted to share with you all of the wonderful 24 objects chosen, and the staff who have helped created it. 

Why not have a look back through all of the doors and find out about these amazing objects and specimens within Amgueddfa Cymru collections.

Nadolig Llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda oddi wrth @CardiffCurator
 
Merry Christmas and a happy new year from @CardiffCurator

Cultural heritage collections need a friendly home. 'Friendly' means: a building that protects the collection from the elements – wind, sun and rain. Conservators worry a lot - and rightly so - about pigments fading when they are exposed to light, about stuffed animals being eaten by insect pests, about wartime medals corroding because of the presence of air pollutants. But it’s no good having a fantastic pest management system if the roof leaks. Getting the basics right makes the job of the conservator an awful lot easier and is better for the collection.

Like many museums up and down the country, National Museum Cardiff is housed in a historic building. The museum contains 30 public galleries and 50 collection stores which accommodate almost 3 million objects. This is only part of the national heritage collection of Wales and arguably something we want to protect for the benefit of current and future generations.

But being in a historic building, as beautiful as it is, has its challenges. Much of the building infrastructure is aging and needs modernising. Our roof needs some tlc. Our air conditioning systems are so old, there is nobody left in the museum who was around when they were first installed. And the electrics in parts of the building are not far from receiving a birthday telegram from Her Majesty the Queen.

All of those issues are a problem not just for visitors and staff, but also for the collections. Therefore, we have started modernising our museum building. In the past few years we already had parts of our roof replaced. Less publicly visible was the recent replacement of the electrical infrastructure in the west wing. We are now in the process of undertaking much more work to improve the building.

Some of this work will happen behind closed doors: replacement of our chillers and humidifiers with new, modern and efficient technology, making the museum leaner and greener. Other work will be more obvious to our visitors, including works to the roof of our south wing. Various works will require the temporary closure of some of our public galleries – please bear with us during this time, we are keeping the rest of the museum open and, once the works are completed, all galleries will be accessible again.

One difficulty remains: once all the works are completed the museum will look like nothing ever happened – we do not have a brand new building to show off for all our efforts. BUT the building will feel and operate differently. It will form a more reliable envelope around our collections. It will require less maintenance, saving us money and staff time. It will be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, reducing our energy bills and forming a substantial contribution towards lowering our greenhouse gas emissions.

During this time of potential disruptions please bear in mind the end product, which will include a better museum experience for visitors today (well, next year) and in the future. And a building that continues to help us look after Wales’ national collection.

Should you have any questions at all about our refurbishment programme in relation to the collections, please do get in touch. We will be happy to assist in any way we can.

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