Conserving our Collections

13 Dec 2017

Hello, my name is Bob and I am the Conservation Officer for Colchester + Ipswich Museums.

I look after the objects and make sure they don’t suffer from being displayed or stored in the wrong humidities, temperatures or light levels. I look out for insects that think our costume and mounted specimens are food, and ensure that correct materials are used when objects are being displayed or wrapped for storage.

I also clean the objects, conserve and restore them if necessary. When cleaning or taking things apart I find out what they were made of and how they were made – this is important for understanding the object and how it could react.

The picture above is of me cleaning and consolidating the Blue Coat Boy. This wooden figure dates from the late 18th or early 19th Century and stood outside the Christ’s Hospital Charity School in Ipswich. The wood had degraded from being outside for so long and the last layer of paint, of which there were quite a few, was flaking off. The Blue Coat Boy was cleaned and here I am introducing a resin beneath the flakes and relaying any that had fallen off. Afterwards the degraded wood was also consolidated. The figure will be on display in January 2018 in the You Are Here exhibition in Ipswich.

I am lucky to have a number of volunteers who have worked with me for a long time. Here is one cleaning a Thar, which is a sort of Himalayan goat. This particular object came into the museum in 1896 and was needed last month for a taxidermy tutorial. The Thar was very dirty and dusty. It was vacuumed on a low power, and brushed with a soft brush. The hair was then washed with a non-ionic detergent and patted dry. Next, a hair drier and brush was used to tease the hair back into place. The horns and hooves were similarly treated. As the stand was cracked and broken, it was consolidated, repaired and retouched to match the original.

Here we have a Trainee cleaning a very rare North American hat. The object came into the museum in 1851 and was already old then. It is made of woven cane material with a pigment decoration and is very fragile and brittle. We vacuumed the hat and then tested the pigment to see if it could be wet cleaned. It turned out to be fugitive, which means it’s soluble in water, so the hat had to be cleaned very carefully with deionised water and a special detergent. As a result, we were able to better see the design.

Another volunteer cleaned a collection of shells. They ranged from LARGE to extremely small, with some less than a millimetre in length. All had to be brushed and washed. The old wooden box was inappropriate and the shells were inaccessible, so a new box was adapted and pull out trays made to store them on different layers. The collection is now safe and can be better viewed and used.

To finish here is a bracelet from Colchester, found in the ruins of a house burnt by Queen Boudicca’s rebels in 61AD. The person who buried the bracelet never came back for it, so we can conclude that he or she was killed.

The bracelet was discovered in a number of pieces. The metal was so thin that I was unable to join the pieces, even though they fitted together. I had to build a ‘former’ to hold the bracelet together whilst they were stuck. The adhesive I used is a special one that’s easily removable. It’s important that everything we do is safe and reversible, should a conservator in the future wish to re-do our work.



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