Having reached the milestone of 10 years in my current place of work, I have been reflecting on the development of my career. I think my greatest fear as a conservator is stagnation: for my work to have lost its vibrancy and draw, for my relationship with my career to have become stale.
Thankfully, even after a decade I still find daily challenges and opportunities to develop and thrive within the sector. The importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is emphasised within the conservation arena; viewed as integral to the maintenance of professional standards by organisations such as ICON, the Institute of Conservation.
Being an accredited conservator (ACR), maintaining CPD is essential to retaining my accredited status.
The CPD format encouraged by ICON allows conservators to reflect on where they have come from, focusing their aims for the future. Through a candid analysis of the strengths and weaknesses within both my team and my own armoury I was able to identify a need to improve specialist knowledge of the care of natural history specimens.
The generous award of a True Vue professional development grant allowed me to secure a place on an intensive 3 day course focusing on the care and conservation of vertebrate taxidermy specimens with Simon Moore, a subject specialist with 50 years experience.
The 3 day course kindly hosted by Reading Museum allowed experience of a broad range of materials and techniques. From the art of opening historic glazed cases, without which you’d never access the specimens; to the cleaning of feathers, repair and replication of birds toes and the creation of hair plugs for a balding otter!
The course created a relaxed welcoming environment in which I felt able to voice my previous anxieties about tackling such materials from the risk of shattering historic glass to fears of using the wrong materials and my work ending in a terrible taxidermy publication!
The natural history collection at Reading Museum is extensive and allowed course attendees the irreplaceable opportunity to put theory into practice.
During my ongoing survey of uncatalogued items from the collection I keep coming across unexpected and fascinating finds. This week was no exception. I opened up a paper document to find unusually dense lettering and was particularly interested as it had the signs of being iron gall ink.
Iron gall ink was extremely common from the Middle Ages through to 20th century. Unfortunately because of the chemical makeup of its ingredients it can be prone to deterioration known as ink corrosion. In its most extreme stages it can literally burn away the lettering leaving a text shape hole where it would originally have been. Because of this it is extremely important to keep an eye out for typical signs of early deterioration such as haloing around the text so that documents can be monitored for further deterioration.
However, in this case when I looked closely I found large crystals tightly packed on the surface of thicker areas of text.
Initially I thought this might have been a phenomenon of the ink itself which can reportedly create crystals on its surface, but with further investigation it became clear that these crystals are quite different in size and shape.
It turns out that these are most likely remnants of blotting sand. This was used until approx. the mid 1800s as an alternative to blotting paper. The writer would most likely have had a small shaker pot or box of sand or dust which they would sprinkle over the wet ink to speed up the drying process, the excess sand would then be shaken off. Although this is just a small detail, it offers an intriguing insight into the everyday life of a past age.
In 2017 I graduated from the Conservation MA at Camberwell College of Arts and having volunteered for several years in the Archives Conservation department I began work as Assistant Archive Conservator at the WSHC. My role involves being part of the Conservation Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) who support heritage organisations in Wiltshire and beyond. Primarily I work with the archive material held at the WSHC to help maintain and preserve it for current and future generations.
Since beginning at the WSHC in August 2017 it has certainly not been quiet. So far amongst other things: I have begun to master map repair, mounted and tensioned parchment, attended several conservation surgeries, found some exciting things whilst surveying archive boxes, spent seven hours hoovering the strongrooms and made several gluten free cakes for the staffroom! Here are some of the highlights:
One of the parchment maps from our collection was extremely distorted so I used a conservation tensioning method to gradually reduce the cockling. Because parchment is animal skin it behaves very differently to paper and requires specific methods of treatment. It was left tensioning for two weeks before being put in a polyester enclosure and returned to the archive.
Overseers of the Poor Account Book
A project I am currently working on is the Overseers of the Poor Account Book
This is a large project this time involving a very fragile set of pages from 1732. These would once have been bound but now just remnants of thread remain in some pages. The paper is so damaged in areas that it is crumbling away.
One leaf had a pile of severely degraded papers attached with a pin. I carefully removed the loose pieces and pieced them back together where possible.
To make it accessible to the public again each page is being lined with a Japanese tissue. This is translucent enough that the writing on the side of the lining tissue is still visible whilst making the page strong enough to be handled.
Above: applying the lining tissue to a leaf from the volume
The above photograph shows the main leaf and one of the attachments that I was able to piece back together, after both have been lined. The remaining pieces were grouped together by ink and writing type and enclosed in bespoke polyester pockets in the hope that they may be of use to future researchers.
The conservation team have been very busy over the last year as part of the collection consultant team, led by Tim Burge Museum Services (www.timburge.org), helping Bridport Museum with their big redevelopment. We saw the fruits of the Bridport staff, many volunteers, contractors and specialist’s labour at the grand opening on the 26th of May.
The project, mostly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, brought the collection consultant team on board at an early stage to help and provide advice at every part of the process. Our work at the museum started just under a year ago, when we were on-site to assist with the safe removal and return to storage of all the objects on-display, before the builders moved in to improve and develop the building.
In the background work continued in many areas, with the collection consultant team advising on environmental controls required within the museum, to the materials which are safe to use in the display cases and mounts, many of which were bespoke made to fit individual objects.
Some of the objects from the collection required conservation treatment to look their best before they were ready to take the lime light on display in the new museum. We provided training so the large and dedicated group of Bridport Museum volunteers could undertake the majority of the cleaning required.
Some objects, though, required a more practised hand or treatments such as stabilisation for which we undertook conservation treatment both at the lab in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and on site at Bridport Museum. This included a wide variety of objects, from a taxidermy tiger, to prehistoric fossils and copper alloy buckles from a set of Lorica (Roman armour).
In late August this year CMAS conservators were privileged to work on an exciting project to conserve a 19th century fire engine prior to display at Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. The fire engine is constructed mainly from wood, which has been brightly painted in blue and red. A large trough houses a central pump in a wooden box the whole engine sits on four chunky wooden wheels reinforced with iron tyres. Folding handles extend from the body of the engine which would be used to pump the water from its source through the machine and onto the fire. Measuring 2 metres long x 1.4 metres high the fire engine is of an imposing size. Although it is still relatively easy to manoeuvre the engine with a small team of people the response times would still have been much longer than we are now used to!
I have been a volunteer with the Wiltshire Buildings Record for around twelve years. Volunteering for me is a privilege and a pleasure. I can choose to do it when it suits and it fits around my family. The benefits have been many. Life-long learning is very important to me. Here, I am immersed in buildings archaeology, which is my passion. My more experienced colleagues are generous with their time and knowledge. They have given me the confidence to explore my interests more deeply.
There is no such thing as a typical week. My work is varied. Recently I have been busy letting people know about our annual Study Day “Dating Clues in Period Houses” which is on 8th November. Yesterday morning I helped with the filing. Afterwards we met with a paint conservator who is doing a PhD in 16-17th C painting schemes. She came all the way from Suffolk to research what the WBR has found in Wiltshire, and to share her research findings with us. It was fascinating and we will put our latest understanding into practice when recording buildings. In the afternoon I went to Malmesbury where we made a record of the historic fabric in a small 19th C house. This included what may be the remains of a lost bastion from the medieval town wall!