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Conserving the Collections: An Internship at the Pitt Rivers Museum

3 May 13 -- jsuess
Guest post from Alison Foster, MSc student at UCL and current conservation intern at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
As a student at UCL, on the snappily titled ‘MSc for Conservation in Archaeology and Museums’, we undertake a ten-month internship within a conservation organisation, making up most of our second and final year of study. I feel extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to spend 5 months of this time at the Pitt Rivers Museum. With a background in archaeology, anthropology and collections management, this is somewhere I’ve been yearning to work for a long, long time!

Alison working on a Welsh coracle, doing some inpainting on polyester patches that are reinforcing torn areas of the canvas.
There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ day in the conservation department. Generally we reserve any potentially disruptive work within the gallery spaces for a Monday morning, when we open a little later to the public. Although it might look to the casual visitor as though the collections have remained in the same spot since time immemorial, believe me this is not the case! In fact, as part of the current VERVE project, which aims to conserve, interpret and re-display 1,800 objects, many of which have never been exhibited, re-shuffling of objects in the galleries takes place on a weekly basis. So far I have assisted with lowering a number of coracles from the top of display cases within the Court, as well as a large (and heavy!) model of a Chinese junk, requiring pulley blocks, straps and many hands. We have also begun work within several display cases, starting with Melanesian carvings and Japanese figures. These have all been taken to the lab for a conservation assessment, and treatment where necessary. We work closely with the collections management and technician teams, who are responsible for the documentation and mount-making to make sure the objects are accounted for and secure in their new locations.  It has been a logistical challenge to ensure there is enough table space within the lab to safely accommodate and assess such large objects, and to work efficiently so that they can be returned to the galleries as soon as possible, also making room for new items, but the conservation team have clearly done this before as it is all going so smoothly!

Read the VERVE Project blog.
Monday morning is also ‘pest management’ time, when I sometimes assist with inspecting the moth pheromone traps installed around the museum, both inside and outside the cases. This weekly routine ensures any abnormal activity is quickly detected, potential sources located and action taken. The museum has a quarantine and freezer room where infected objects can be taken to be bagged and frozen, which effectively kills the moth, their larvae and eggs. As far as possible (as some material can be damaged by freezing) all new items to the museum, even those for sale in the shop, are treated in this way to prevent any visits from these unwanted guests.

For much of the week I work on objects in the lab. At the moment these are predominantly objects for the VERVE project, which so far have been many and varied, including: a model of a pile dwelling from New Guinea, two coracles from India and Wales, two figures from Papua New Guinea, two Roman house posts from London and a model outrigger canoe from India. All require a conservation assessment to identify any current or potential future issues, and some have also needed conservation treatment. The approach to treatment at the Pitt Rivers Museum is to intervene as little as possible, whilst also ensuring adequate stability of the object for the amount of ‘strain’ it will need to endure, whether in store or on display. Methods and materials are kept as simple as possible, and the department has also made an effort to cut down on the number of toxic substances used, for reasons of health, the environment and sustainability of practices. The Welsh coracle required a comparatively large amount of work as it was in poor condition, with elements of the wooden frame broken, loose or missing and the canvas punctured and torn.  A simple method of tying individual loose elements of the frame to more secure elements, using cotton and linen thread, assisted in both stabilising individual components and the boat as a whole. The torn areas of canvas required a slightly more interventive approach to prevent further loss, and were reinforced with strong non-woven polyester patches applied with a heat-activated adhesive film, ensuring a thin, even application. My colour-matching skills were then put to the test by integrating the patches to more closely match the colour of the painted canvas. We document all condition surveys and treatments on the museum database to keep an ongoing record of the methods and materials used, which will be vital information for conservators when deciding on suitable treatments in the future.  

Alongside the VERVE project, the department also needs to fit in many other responsibilities, such as preparing objects for loan to museums, undertaking condition checking in museum stores or stabilising an object that a researcher has requested to look at, to make sure it can be safely handled. From time to time we also assist Jeremy Uden, who is currently on secondment from his Deputy Head of Conservation post, undertaking a Clothworker’s Foundation Fellowship to study the artefacts collected during the first and second voyages of Captain Cook to the Pacific. Last week we were taking swabs from several items chosen by Jeremy which are suspected of containing potentially harmful pesticides. These will be analysed by the Food and Environment Research Agency, the results of which will add to the wealth of information Jeremy is collecting about these rare objects, and may assist in identifying if and how pesticide treatments used in the past are now affecting the condition of the collections.

Read the Conserving Curiosities blog: Investigating the Cook Voyage Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Alison swabbing an item from the Cook Collection to check for pesticide residue.
Every Thursday I work in one of the off-site stores, helping with an ongoing project between the conservation and collections departments to improve the documentation and packing of the arrow collection. It is incredible to see the effort and skill that has gone into making each and every one, from beautifully-carved bone fore-shafts and heads to tails colourfully fletched with feathers. Some of these are known to be ‘poisoned’ arrows, and we are therefore careful to follow health and safety protocol, wearing suitable protective clothing and preparing ‘safety-approved’ packaging methods. I am just beginning to see some geographical and cultural similarities between the arrows, and it is gratifying to be adding to my knowledge of world history and material culture alongside conservation.

Internships have been given a bad press of late, and those offered by museums have not been immune to criticism.  Concerns have been raised about exploitation and budget-cutting at the expense of entry-level posts, as well as favouring those who can afford to work for free.  However, the internship offered to students by the conservation department at the Pitt Rivers is an example of how they can be really positive opportunities, benefiting both the host organisation (I hope!) and the intern (definitely!), based on a well-organised, planned programme that not only fulfills part of my degree requirement but goes way beyond that to enable me to take part in the daily life of the museum, offering a whole host of benefits that will stand me in good stead for my future career.  My confidence with regards to conservation treatment has increased tremendously, and now I feel prepared to tackle the real world!

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