The Conservation Team Visit Salisbury Museums
Conservators from the Conservation and Museum Advisory Service at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre have been out and about visiting museums in Salisbury. Our time visiting local museums is used primarily to provide advice and guidance on specialist aspects of caring for a museum collection. Often this involves walking a fine line, balancing the need for conservation and long term preservation of a collection with the very important need for a museum to display and allow access to its collection. For the conservation of many objects the ideal storage location would be a cold, dark, sealed box. However this is obviously impractical, not only for any museum to achieve, but is contradictory to the reason for preserving collections: allowing people to see and access items for a long time to come. Collection care is therefore a balance of risks, between what is best for the collection item and how the item can best serve the needs of the museum.
Arundells, the former home of Sir Edward Heath KG MBE, Prime Minister and Statesman, houses a diverse collection. The museum maintains Sir Heath’s home as it was at the time of his death and so collection items such as a grand piano, fabulous art works and gifts from his state visits sit side by side with yachting photographs, satirical cartoons and even a very 70’s disco shirt!
The collection item most memorable from our visit was the hand-painted silk wallpaper which lines the visitors’ route up the staircase to the first floor. The wallpaper, a gift to Sir Heath from his staff, was installed in the house in the 1980’s.
Keeping the location of the wallpaper at Arundells is crucial as it was purposefully created for the location chosen by Sir Heath himself. To remove the wallpaper and hide it away in dark, cold storage would irretrievably reduce its historical value. So the question is how best to preserve the wallpaper on permanent and open display in the museum?
Historic houses often have collection items (otherwise known as fixtures and fittings), such as wallpapers, curtains, carpets and furniture which are required to be maintained in their normal settings. Curtains can best be understood as curtains if they continue to frame a window and wallpaper is best understood if it remains lining a wall. Contrary to our conservation ‘dark box’ a controlled environment is particularly difficult to maintain for fixtures and fittings on permanent display in their original locations. Particular threats to these collections are high light levels from windows and internal lighting, warm conditions from internal heating and pests.
Light is essential for visitors to be able to view the beautiful details of wallpaper and archive collections, but levels can be controlled and reduced with blinds, UV filters and dimmable light bulbs to ensure the colours and details don’t fade and become lost. Moderating temperature changes is also possible by ensuring background heating throughout the winter and blinds across windows help to reduce solar gain during the summer.
Pests are a constant threat to most museum collections, but for many items their storage boxes or display cases provide an additional barrier between them and the potentially damaging pests. For items on open display this additional barrier is not present and so their protection from creepy crawlies rely on a well organised and thorough housekeeping routine and staff keeping an eager eye out for signs of possible infestation.
The Rifles of Wiltshire and Berkshire Museum has a very different collection, documenting the history of the Infantry regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire throughout conflicts since 1748. With examples of uniforms and weaponry used throughout this history the military details on display at the museum are fascinating. What remains with me from our visit however are the stories which are told through some of the more personal objects on display. These stories help to understand what life as an infantry soldier in the regiment was like and providing insight into the person behind the uniform.
As a keen foodie, the item in the collection which most connected with me most were the tins of food rationing which remain un-opened and therefore original contents still inside! Imagining the hungry solider after a long and hard day in the battle field, opening a tin of food rationing, but dreaming for home cooked food is a stark and relatable image.
Containers with original contents can pose a multitude of issues for museum collections, whether tins filled with food, as in the case at the rifles museum, or ceramic and glass jars with pharmaceutical or cosmetic mixtures to cleaning products in spray bottles made from early plastics.
The main concern with containers is the effect of long term preservation on the contents they hold. Tins and jars are well known for extending the lifetime of food products but were rarely designed to last for fifty years or more. The seal of the containers itself may also cause a problem, pharmaceutical products may contain dilutions of harsh and dangerous chemicals, over time these solutions may dry out, becoming more concentrated and therefore more hazardous as time goes on.
The seal of the container may also be compromised by the contents. Tins and other materials used in containers (such as cork stoppers) can be affected and weakened by the contents inside the container. Tin may rust due to moisture contents in food and cork can shrink or harden and become brittle. As the integrity of the container is compromised this increases the risk of exposure to the contents.
Secret recipes and damaged labels can also be a problem as the contents of many social history containers may contain hazardous materials. Old medicines or cure all’s for example often contained substances which we now know to be poisonous such as mercury, lead or even arsenic. Even if the labels are readable today, the possibility for leaking contents which may stain and damage the label on the outside, means there is always the risk that the contents may become unknown at a future date.
Museums that have containers filled with their original contents within their collections face a difficult decision: keep the contents which may be an increased risk to the staff, visitors and volunteers, even to the items own long term preservation? Or empty the contents and potentially compromise the items authenticity?
Leaving the office behind and visiting our local museums is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job as a conservator as it gives me with the opportunity to satiate my ever wandering curiosity and delve into the unique collections the museums contain. Please leave a comment to tell us about the most interesting collection items you’ve seen in our local museums.
Gabby Flexer, Object Conservator