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.