Museum Victoria conservation department tour

Melbourne museum exterior

I’ve been wanting to go on this tour ever since I heard about it: a one-hour behind the scenes look at the conservation department of the museum. In the course of my medieval research I’ve read a number of interesting articles on materials conservation projects and as a painter with a background knowledge of chemistry and materials science, I can understand enough of the technical details in the articles to make it quite fascinating and to leave me wanting to know more.

The tour is run several times per year and is only open to museum members. Museum membership is incredibly good value, with one membership covering Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, and Scienceworks. Membership gives you free or discounted access to the museums and visiting exhibitions and a number of member-only activities. Follow this link to find out more about becoming a member.

The museum has 8 full time conservators (plus graduate and post-doctoral students) responsible for a collection of over 17 million items, so they are kept very busy. Our tour took us down to the basement lab, where two conservators showed us a number of items from the collection which were in the process of conservation and preparation for storage. The particular problems with each item were discussed, along with the reasons for storing in particular ways and general issues associated with conservation.

The first point of the tour was a large chart detailing the different types of hazard to which material items might be subjected, and how these could be overcome. We then went into the lab proper, and started by looking at a 1960’s hat which was going into the “Melbourne city” exhibition. This had netting which required minor repairs – the principles of reversible conservation procedures being used was discussed – and needed to be displayed in such a way that it was properly supported. There was also a second hat, so that the first one could be swapped out to minimise light damage from being in a long term exhibit.

Next was a collection of indigenous Australian shell necklaces which were being examined and re-housed. Some of the originals had been stored in cardboard boxes prior to conservation. Paper, cardboard and timber can off-gas acetic and formic acid vapours which dissolve the calcium carbonate of the shells. The necklaces were being examined for tell-tale traces of powdery calcium formate/acetate salts before being mounted for flat storage on sheets of acid free card topped with polyethylene foam (ethafoam), supported by blocks of foam covered in parsilk (a synthetic silk-like fabric). Flat mounting obviously requires a great deal more space than being folded into a box, and the problem of finding sufficient storage space was discussed. This particular storage was a specifically budgeted item, which led on to the issue of the costs of conserving and storing items. We were shown a bag of disintegrated powder which used to be a urethane shoe sole – some items are beyond saving. There is currently a long term review of all the plastic artefacts in storage.

A large tapa cloth from Nue painted with designs in squid ink pigments had recently been taken down from an exhibit. It had been mounted vertically using temporary mounts of Japanese tissue (a very long-fibre acid free tissue paper) attached with starch paste. The plan was to store the cloth by rolling it around a hollow padded tube which would be suspended so that no weight was resting on the cloth itself.

We passed by a 17th century piece of Samurai armour from the “Bushido” exhibition which closed last week at the NGV, however as this wasn’t part of the tour it was mentioned only briefly.

A boomerang that was going on loan to the British Museum was being examined and its condition documented prior to travel. This led on to discussion about the lead time for preparing items for exhibition. Six months is typical for any single item. This time period includes time for examination and any necessary conservation treatment, which may need external conservators (the museum currently has no specialised textile or paint conservators), and the construction of any special display supports. In-house exhibitions may take many years’ preparation.

A collection of woven fibre bags from the indigenous collection raised several issues – firstly the need for consultation with tradition owners about what treatment and handling were appropriate. The bags had been stored flat and several had creases from this. The conservator had improvised a humidifying chamber to gently soften the creased areas so that the bags could be returned to the original shape and padded with foam inside to support them.

Next was a collection of items which had previously been donated by CSL, which were being prepared for return to CSL to display in the foyer of their new offices. These items included a couple of very early vials of tiger snake venom (the first tiger snake milked for its venom also forms part of the museum’s collection), and a bottle of Spanish influenza vaccine from 1918.

A recently acquired early 1900’s travel bag was laid out on a workbench. It had been stored in a garage and had a a lot of insects on it. The museum has a large walk-in freezer  which is used to kill off all stages of insect infestation (two weeks in the freezer kills live insects, larvae and eggs). After freezing the bag had been carefully vacuumed clean and any damage documented. The process of acquisition was discussed – conservators usually accompany the curator when a potential acquisition is examined, to assess the extent of conservation work which will be required. Whether or not an artefact is acquired depends on weighing the relative rarity and cultural value against the cost of conservation work required.

We then moved on to some of the natural history specimens. A sea spider from the Antarctic ocean was being repaired. The legs had wires threaded through them for additional support, and several cracked leg joints were supported by tiny strips of Japanese tissue. A regent bower bird under conservation raised issues of the toxic chemicals previously used in taxidermy – skins were liberally dusted inside with arsenic salts, and painted outside with mercuric chloride. In an interesting aside, the fact that bird feathers utilise structural colouration (as opposed to pigment) was mentioned.

Then on to the wet specimens. First was a very cute sea cucumber preserved in 96% ethanol. These little guys have body projections which they puff up with water to form tiny leg-like structures which they use to walk along the sea bed.  Even in sealed jars, wet specimens require a fair amount of maintenance. Formaldehyde is more commonly used for storing wet specimens as it preserves the structure better, but it destroys DNA, so parallel specimens are kept in alcohol in case the genetic material needs to be preserved. The alcohol tends to evaporate, and so must be topped up or replaced from time to time (as the alcohol evaporates the liquid becomes progressively more watery, so the specific gravity must be checked each time the jars are topped up). The alcohol also tends to dissolve fats within the specimen, leading to yellowish discolouration of the liquid; and may dissolve foreign materials associated with the specimen. One jar containing a number of little mice of some sort was slowly turning green, because the reinforcements of some tags in the jar were made of copper. A possum specimen had been stored in a preserving jar with a red rubber seal which had dissolved and then coated the possum fur, requiring laborious work to clean it off. The solvent in one jar with a mantis shrimp had evaporated completely, leaving only a dried out husk. Fortunately it was able to be carefully rehydrated before being placed back into wet storage.

Finally, the conservators talked briefly about their career pathway. There is an undergraduate course in Canberra, although long term funding is not guaranteed for this, and a Masters degree at the University of Melbourne. It is a small field and employment within Australia is by no means assured. There are a limited number of positions with public institutions such as museums, a small pool of private conservators, and some work in related fields.

I asked whether they published information online about any interesting conservation projects they were doing, as the V&A and Getty Museums do. The museum has a blog, but the workload of the conservators is such that they do not often have time to contribute (which gets me to thinking … but that can be for another time).

The take home message from the tour is that there is far more to museums than just the items on display. The museum’s collection is a huge resource for the preservation and study of cultural and natural history artefacts. It requires substantial infrastructure and investment to acquire, conserve, store, curate and exhibit these artefacts. Join the museum! Donate to the museum! And if you have any interesting stuff of your own tucked away, make sure it’s stored well and not left to the moths in your attic.

A different way of looking: the importance of understanding cultural context

One of the great difficulties with historic research is being able to put archeological material, especially written material, into the correct cultural context – to understand what it meant at the time. Too often we draw inferences based on our own contemporary cultural perspectives and use of language. Particularly if we have grown up immersed in a single culture, it may not even occur to us that there is another way of looking at things.

Yet this is an area where historical research can have a profound impact on modern society and its ability to handle cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts – simply by acknowledging that there is  a different way of looking at things, that there are concepts and words that cannot be easily or precisely translated between languages and cultures.

Anyone who becomes fluent in a second language has probably had the experience of thinking or dreaming in that language, and not being able to exactly translate these back into their first language. Umberto Eco, probably best known to medievalists as the author of novels The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, discusses this phenomenon in detail in his book Experiences in Translation (University of Toronto Press, 2008). He has an arduous writing style, and the book is extremely hard going if you are not at least minimally fluent in French, Italian and German, because he uses examples from these languages to illustrate his points, but you can get the gist of what he is saying nonetheless.

Another, more easily understood discussion is contained in this ABC Radio National article Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind? in which Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, talks about the writings of the ancient Greek Homer. He asserts that many of the descriptive words or phrases that have previously been interpreted as referring only to colour – in the modern, chromatic sense – are more accurately interpreted as synaesthetic descriptions intended to capture other qualities in addition to colour alone. This can be compared to the way in which modern poets use metaphor to capture the essence of a situation, rather than using concrete, literal descriptions.

By contrast, descriptions which were thought to be merely poetic can sometimes be shown to be more literal, based on new scientific evidence, as in the case of the ancient blue dye tekhelet which is described in the Torah as being used to dye the fringes and tassels on specific Hebrew prayer garments. This article and this one talk about recent archaeological finds and their interpretation.

In addition to the purely written word, pronunciation can have a have a profound effect on meaning, bringing into play rhymes, puns and other word play which expand on the single-word interpretation. This short video clip: Shakespeare: original pronunciation gives a number of examples.

In the case of material objects which may have been shifted or partly destroyed by burial or storage conditions over hundreds of years, filling in the missing pieces based on  assumptions of context and usage can lead to wildly differing and highly disputed interpretations of the whole. One example is this highly contentious interpretation of women’s Norse clothing. A less disputed example of re-interpretation of evidence in context is the reconstruction of the cutting layout for the pourpoint of Charles du Blois, which is explained on the basis of the garment having been cut and pieced from a small and narrow length of fabric for which the author was then able to give dimensions.

The underlying message is that in historical and archeological research and re-enactment, it is important to be aware of the cultural context of objects and practices, and also to be aware that our understanding of this context may change over time based on new evidence. Reading widely around your chosen field of research is important, even if the information does not apply directly to your own area of interest; as is keeping abreast of new discoveries and new interpretations. There are a number of useful archaeology news sites that can help keep you up to date. Below are just a few of the ones I follow. The short articles on the sites are usually linked to an original report or scientific research paper.

Past Horizons
Popular Archeology
British Library medieval manuscripts blog

Happy researching!

Tips for research: the fun of getting sidetracked

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 8.36.11 AMToday I came across an interesting post by a US college student who has transcribed and recorded the musical notation which appears on the buttocks of a figure in the right hand panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. The original post can be seen on her tumblr blog.

I went on to watch the episode of the BBC documentary Renaissance Revolution devoted to this painting, narrated by British art critic Matthew Collings. I became interested in finding out more about one particular image in the right hand panel, that of the bird-headed figure sitting on a chair eating people then excreting them. The bird is identified as a nightjar in the documentary, and although the symbolism of owls in the painting was discussed, that of the nightjar was not. I was also intrigued by the whiskery appearance, and given the accuracy of the portrayal of other birds, wanted to see if that was what they really looked like.

So off to wikipedia I went to find out about nightjars. First question answered – yes, they do look like the painting. They are nocturnal, which is relevant to their being one of the “hell” birds, but probably more important is the myth that they suckle on goats, (described at least as early as Aristotle’s History of Animals, c350 BCE; and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 77-79 CE), which gives the nightjar its Latin name Caprimulgus (capra nanny goat + mulgere to milk), and its common name in several other languages (German zeigenmelker and Italian succiacapri). Given the nightjar’s alleged ability to cause blindness in the goats it suckles (a witch-like or demon-like power), and the medieval symbolism of goats as Satan or agents of Satan, I thought that the nightjar in the painting could more accurately be interpreted as a demon, rather than as Satan himself (which was the BBC interpretation and also that on several other information sites about the painting).

I googled “academic discussion of the Garden of Earthy Delights” to see if there was any further information on the interpretation of the nightjar-headed figure in the painting, and found this discussion. The author of the blog article describes the figure as the Prince of Hell, and refers to it being inspired by the 12th century Middle English poem The Vision of Tundale. So off to find a modern translation of the poem to see if this was correct. The extract below describes a creature which certainly could be the inspiration for the one in the Bosch painting:

“The beast sat in the middle of a frozen lake swallowing terrified souls which burned inside its body until they were nearly wasted away, but then they were expelled from this horror in the creature’s excrement and left until they had recovered and become whole once again.”

So, not Satan/the Prince of Hell/the devil, but  simply a “beast”. A Google image search to look at a few other medieval depictions of Hell and Last Judgements shows that there are usually multiple demons rather than a single Satan/devil. I feel fairly sure my interpretation has merit. But far more satisfying was the knowledge that in a very short period of time I had been able to combine my own limited knowledge of art history and art symbolism and some easily located internet information to answer – by myself – the sort of question which I once thought was the province of professional academics.

My approach to research is rather stream-of-consciousness at the start of the process, just rambling through information that interests me and following links. ALWAYS bookmark your links, you’ll probably want to look at them again later. Then start asking questions and search more until you’ve answered them. Write up notes as you go, noting the links to any reference material you’ve used. When you think you’ve finished writing, read over it, and for each statement you’ve made, ask yourself: “how do I know that?”. If you’ve made an unsupported statement, search for information to confirm it. The more primary sources you have (eg actual items or original writings) the better you will be able to support your argument. As you become more and more expert on a topic, you will find that you already have the information and references to support your underlying assumptions, so you can ask more difficult and complicated questions.

The key to finding reference material is in learning where to look and how to phrase your questions. There is nothing wrong with using google searches, wikipedia, blogs and videos as part of your process, as long as you realise their limitations – don’t accept any information at face value. An insatiable curiosity and a tendency to get sidetracked are also a big help – you never know what gems you’ll find.