Natural life vs Useful life – Basketry and Upholstery – Week 2 Museum of London – Collection Cleaning Course

Distinguishing historical fluff from everyday fluff
Distinguishing historical fluff from everyday fluff

How can you not enjoy a day that positively brims with conversations that begin with –

“Shall we make a decision on which bits of fluff we are going to keep?” and “You collect the insect poo from that side with the tweezers and I will put it in the bag.”

Today is Week 2 of our 10 week Collection Cleaning Course at the Museum of London. We are going to learn how to clean basketry and upholstery. After our first week of theory, today we get practical and hands on, I have never been so nervous about using a hoover before. The signs are not good when I struggle to find the ‘on’ button and when I do I realise the extension cable is not plugged in but hey, these are the kind of things us ‘newbies’ are going to get wrong (I think).

There is a certain excitement in the room about getting ‘hands-on’ with objects, getting down to the nitty gritty (even if the nitty gritty is actually insect poo that really is gritty). It is very amusing how we stand to attention beside our chosen objects, plastic gloves on, hoovers in one hand and brushes in the other like some vigilante cleaning brigade. We nervously glance at each other, who wants to be the first to crank up the hoover? Who wants to be the first to potentially make a mistake? There is technique to be learnt here and questions to be asked, but our kind and patient tutors are with us every step of the way.

The rush to be ‘hands-on’, that is perhaps the biggest threat to these objects, so often it is hands and handling that cause damage and disrepair. We have plenty of time in the morning session to contemplate deterioration of objects and how their material construct makes them vulnerable. The threats and hasteners that cause cracked wood work, tarnished metal and crazed plastic.

Once again it is the theory that makes me think about objects in a new way, our morning talk leads me to contemplate how an object can have a natural life and a useful life. There is the natural life span of the material that an object is made of, the shorter existence of paper and organic materials, wood and basketry and the more robust inorganic items, the iron and ceramics. If we did nothing to these objects they would have a natural life span, just as we do, a beginning, a middle, and an end. But then there is the useful life of an object, the reason an object was created, to be used to drink out of, to be eaten off, to be played or worn. It is this useful life that can hasten an objects demise and interferes with its natural life. But sometimes the cause of deterioration may not be as obvious as bad handling or a busy ‘useful’ life. Environmental conditions, the bane of conservators, are the often unseen causes of a rapid end to natural life, the heat, the cold, humidity, and light.

I find it fascinating to think how an object is created, its useful life begins, and that is its most important feature. How it is used with not much care given to condition and protection. Then when an object enters a museum the conservators become the custodians of that natural life, the useful life becomes less important except in a historical context and the object may not need to be handled any more, perhaps the useful life is limited to being ‘seen’. Suddenly all focus is on prolonging the natural life, understanding how the material construct can be protected.

It is that protection that stems from monitoring objects closely and using the monitoring data effectively that gives me some really interesting points to take away and consider. If you are going to monitor items make sure you use the data you collect otherwise what is the point. You may not have the money to put in state of the art environments, but data on temperature fluctuations can be used to provide a persuasive case for investment when funds do become available. Data monitoring can guide you to the more stable sections of your store or museum, a useful indication of where to place your more fragile items. If you want to request items on loan from other museums it may be the environmental data that helps you win the loan. If you have the equipment, do you even know how to use it? Was it inherited from a pervious incumbent and you have never quite got round to understanding how to use it?

Where the theory leaves me serious and contemplative, it is the hands on the leaves me looking faintly ridiculous and yet gelling all the more with my colleagues. I love hands on work, it breaks down the barriers and leads to a shared camaraderie. Sometimes you take a step back and realise how odd it all seems to be poised over an old Tube seat, torch on your head, plastic gloves, hoovers with tights over the end, tweezers in hand scanning in minute detail every hair, fibre and potential dead moth wing. Like some kind of bizarre ‘CSI Collection Cleaning Team’ –

“I suspect this moth to be dead – but did it die of natural causes?”

“Let me bag it and tag it and we can send it for analysis”.

It is fantastic to finally begin hands on work, it is as absorbing, enjoyable and satisfying as you could hope for and a perfect companion to the thought provoking contemplative work involved with theory and lectures on this course.

CSI Collection Cleaning - Evidence of pest damage
CSI Collection Cleaning – Evidence of pest damage

I finish the day hoovering an old Tube seat, I love every minute. The questions as to who decided to collect this seat and why it has ended up at the Museum of London are put to one side for a moment while we debate the difference in human hair, dog hair and chewing gum stains. I am reluctant to leave at the end of the day, compelled to finish up and leave a job well done. I am not the only one. As I journey home on the Tube I find myself contemplating Tube seats in a surprising way, I can’t help but surmise we are can’t possibly be facing a obesity crises when Tube seats have shrunk so much and the evidence clearly points to smaller bottoms. I may garner a few strange looks when I snap a shot but I just can’t help myself. After a day spent with a torch on my head a few strange glances from my fellow travellers hold no fear for me.

I can’t wait to get my gear on next week when the natural life and the useful life of wood will be my new challenge. This conservators garb will, I know, become my second skin, I hope it helps me hit the right thought processes and the right actions at the right time. It is only Week 2 of my course and I am already looking at objects in a new way, a fascination with Tube seats is perhaps a sign of how cleaning an object gives you the time to really see what you have in front of you.

I have suddenly take an interest in Tube seats
I have suddenly take an interest in Tube seats


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 –

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