Conversations with Conservators: To conserve or not to conserve? (Part 5)

In this article, part 5 in our series of conversations, our conservators will answer questions about what they do, talk about what conservation is and share some of the collections that Hampshire Cultural Trust (HCT) cares for. Continuing our questions from colleagues at HCT, this time we’re looking at how our conservators make decisions on conserving objects and the strange tools they’ve used to do this…

ALEX: This first question has come from Jinette Lily at Milestones. She asks: Have you ever had an object that is beyond conservation? How would you decide that something can’t be conserved anymore?

RUTH: Yes! In another life, a pile of biodegradable shopping bags was left on my desk, these had been accessioned but the top one had already begun to degrade. By the time I got to them the top one was tiny pieces of plastic. The remaining bags were put into cold, dark storage.

CLAIRE: I have had bags of iron fragments which unbelievably could still be made to fit together, so it can be worth a try. But perhaps if there was no added value (interpretive, research, display) in conserving it, you would just preserve it as it was, in bits.

NIGEL: I’ve worked on many projects that have endured changes in conservation trends. I’ve also inherited projects where objects have been taken apart and over time parts have been lost. Treatment records do not exist, an example of this being the Tasker threshing drum at Chilcomb. All I can do now is to document its current condition and stabilise the object the best I can with the resources available.

Claire’s toolkit including berberis thorns. You can see one in the pin vice in the centre of the image.

CLAIRE: Conservation is really about managing and slowing down change. We have to be realistic and accept that we can’t save everything.

RUTH: I believe the shopping bags are still in cold storage, 10 years on.

CLAIRE: And sometimes, “saving” something in one way might mean losing another part, like if we had to do an irreversible treatment to keep what was left of something that would then preclude other types of research.

ALEX: Thinking about what you can do, this next question comes from Head of Culture Hubs, Beck Waite: What’s the most unconventional tool or material you’ve used to get the job done?

RUTH: They’re not particularly unconventional but I have used dental tools.

CLAIRE: Dental tools are great. I’ve used nylon tights as supports when I’m working on pottery.

RUTH: Claire and I have used thorns.

CLAIRE: Pyracantha and Berberis are best. I picked up that tip doing some work on the Staffordshire Hoard years ago.

Close up of a pyracantha thorn – you can see how this would work well as a tool!

ALEX: How does that work?

CLAIRE: We put thorns in a pin vice, super pointy but not too scratchy. Nature does it better than a sharpened cocktail stick sometimes.

See the video of Claire using a berberis thorn in action to clean a Roman Fibula brooch from the Silchester bathhouse excavation here:

RUTH: Bags of lavender under wedding dresses.

CLAIRE: Recently I used unfired clay as a fill in a really low-fired pot.

RUTH: In another life I have used herbs to put off pests in re-erected buildings.

CLAIRE: I use a needle felting kit to replace fur patches in taxidermy. Nigel, I bet you have to make some of your tools.

Claire’s needle felting experiment for a taxidermy object …
And the needle felting attached to the fore leg of a mouse – spot the join (if you can).

NIGEL: I’ve had to make certain pieces of tooling to undertake a certain task, normally for things that are too big to bring to the machines. Line borers, journal grinding machines for use on a water wheel, object support structures to aid transportation or to assist work being carried out. Very often in a machine shop environment you produce jigs/fixtures so parts can be produced.

ALEX: That’s amazing to think you’ve had to create a specialist piece of kit to work on an object.

NIGEL: Some get really complicated and are quite involved. Others can be very simple. It’s often the only way to do the task.

ALEX: So you all have to be quite innovative at times to solve a problem?

NIGEL: For sure.

CLAIRE: I think it’s because conservation is quite niche, there’s not much money in developing things for it, so we just use things that are useful from other professions. Dentistry, chemistry, medicine, crafting.

RUTH: So true, [we’re] always looking for a useful bit of kit.

ALEX: Do you include these tools in your documentation?

CLAIRE: We note what materials and techniques were used but personally I don’t add the tool unless it’s significant. Although I do say whether I used a scalpel or a thorn!

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This article was written by:
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Alex Walker

Alex is General Manager at Hampshire Wardrobe, Hampshire Cultural Trust's costume hire service consisting of over 10,000 costumes from ancient times to 1980s!
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