I never thought I would be excited about cleaning. I do a lot of cleaning – I have 3 small children and a cat, cleaning is what I do, every day, I don’t really think about it too much. I have just come out the other side of 10 months of building work on my house, you can show me an artefact that has sat in the Museum store for 10 years thickly layered with dust and I can show you my house with an even thicker layer of dust. Really, having just got rid of the builders and most of the dust, the last thing I should be excited about is more cleaning.
Cleaning museum objects, that sounds really interesting though: ancient brooches; Roman pots; and rare jewels. I can’t wait, but I get ahead of myself, museums aren’t all about rare jewels and collection cleaning isn’t either. We are faced with an old packet of Daz washing powder, a 1950s milk bottle and a plastic sugar canister.
We are not training to be Conservators, this course is all about the basics, the object handling, ethics and condition reporting that underpins everything Conservators do. We are going to learn how to clean different materials, basketry, ceramic, wood and paper. Most importantly we are learning a process of decision making, understanding when something should be cleaned, if it should be cleaned at all and how to undertake that process and document every step. We are not going to come out the other side of this 10 week course expert Conservators but we will be able to undertake basic collections care in our museums and workplaces. Perhaps more importantly it is about knowing when to call in an expert. I know at home when to tackle a carpet stain myself or when to call my Mother for her expert opinion on the crayon up the wall paper and chocolate in the upholstery. You just can’t fake years of experience.
I begin the day with 7 other colleagues, the first thing our tutor tells us is not to worry about breaking objects. It hadn’t even crossed my mind, but now she has said that I have a little panic and remember how clumsy and accident prone I am. I don’t think I will mention it on the first day, best to keep that one to myself. Thankfully we are given a master class in object handling, which allays some of my fears. It is often common sense advice, but how often have you tried to tackle a closed door carrying a tray or picked up an object one handed that has slipped through your fingers. If you are moving museum objects, plan your route, sounds simple doesn’t it? But do you check for trip hazards, closed doors, uneven slopes?
In the middle of writing this post I got up to make a cup of tea and dropped the mug on the floor. That kind of tells you all you need to know about my object handling skills.
Half of the work of a conservator is often repairing the damage done by museum professionals, we are all human, a job title doesn’t make you an expert, we all have accidents and drop things, chip things, break things, but there is so much we can do to minimise the risks. We are beginning to understand there is a complex decision making process that happens for every object we are going to deal with, it doesn’t feel natural to hold all these questions in our head on looking at a packet of Daz but with practice we hope it will become second nature.
We build up a bit of confidence in object handling and we move on to tissue puffs, I am disappointed to find myself struggling with simple instructions but I persevere and make a decent attempt at what an inexperienced eye would call a ball of tissue paper. But it is a well crafted ball of tissue paper that will support and protect our object when we are moving them around.
The afternoon focuses on the ethics of conservation cleaning. I find this really challenges my understanding and perception of objects, it is perhaps the most difficult part of the day. It does feel unnatural to treat every object the same without regard to value or aesthetic properties. Put a milk bottle and a Roman vase in front of me and it is a challenge to treat both with equal respect. We automatically make judgements as to worth and importance that are hard to leave behind, they affect the way we treat and handle objects.
For a non-professional it is difficult to understand that conservation is not about cleaning objects so they are shiny and new, restoring them back to their original condition. It is about stabilising an object, limiting treatment to what is necessary and knowing when to stop. But this is such a subjective thing, we all looked at one object placed before us on the table and we all have a different idea of how it should be treated. Even within a museum, a Curator and Conservator may have completely different views on how an object should be cleaned, you realise it is a role that demands much more skill than simply knowing how to treat an object, but being diplomatic and able to debate and explain why a stain should be left or a sign not repainted.
We look at a tray of ink wells and discuss the dust that may be removed but the ink stains that should remain, they tell the history of how an objects was used and why it was used. Sometimes you may not know what the residue is in an object, you can’t clean it without researching how the object was used, when did it come to the museum, why was it kept. So many questions I had never considered before.
We round the day of with condition reports, a Countdown-esque challenge to write down a description and the condition of an object in 10 minutes. Apparently the time constrains are to get us to focus our minds on the salient points, it is harder then your think to give a written synopsis of an item and condition. Look at your coffee mug in front of you, does it have a hairline crack in it? Is it on the left side or the right side, what is the left side and the right side? We have a confusing conversation on proper right, your right and when viewed from the right. Documentation is vital, it is the key to understanding an objects condition and the launchpad for any treatment required.
By the end of the day I am exhausted, I haven’t actually done any cleaning but all this talking and thinking about cleaning has worn me out. I am certainly not going to go home and do any cleaning at home, a day of theory is enough for me. But I love being at the Museum of London, they always challenge the way I think about objects. I know I am never going to look at an object in the same way again. In previous posts I admired the skill of Museum of London staff to really look at objects and see what they have in front of them, it is something I have struggled with. But I think I have found the pathway that will enable me to see objects for the first time, I just hope I don’t break any in the process.
When I return home I find myself thinking about a Dickens Ware coffee pot we inherited, I have never cleaned the inside of this pot, you can still see the coffee stains from where it was used. I have left them there because I love them. I wouldn’t dream of using this beautiful thing as coffee pot today, I would be too worried about breaking it. To me it is an item in a glass cabinet to be admired, but a generation ago it was used everyday for all I know. Those stains provide a connection to my ancestors, they show me this was something used and useful, not hidden away in a cupboard. This dirty coffee pot shows more than my lazy attitude to cleaning, perhaps it shows I have more of a conservator in me than I ever imagined.
Please note any inaccuracies are purely my own and not the fault of Museum of London staff.
You can find out more about the courses offered by the Museum of London and funded by the Arts Council here –
You can also find more blogs on the Collection Cleaning Course by other students on the Museum of London Blog here –