Today is all about hazards, I am not actually talking about our first topic of the day – hazards in the museum, but the hazards I have faced just getting to the Museum of London archive in Hackney. My first hazard is the Tube strike and although I am organised with bus to train and walking route I have not anticipated a signalling failure which sees my train journey take twice as long as it should. I hit Cannon Street with a vengeance and power walk up past the lovely Museum of London Archaeology hoardings on the Wallbrook building site. I try not to be distracted, head down past the Bank of England, on to Moorgate and the City Road. I arrive late and flustered, unready to dive straight into contemplating when to call the bomb squad and the weird world of radioactive material in face creams and chocolate.
I feel like I have faced enough hazards today, but after an hour I feel completely overwhelmed by the range of items that can be a health hazard hidden away in the museum store. There is a maze of legal requirements that need to be met if storing firearms and explosives, radioactive material and asbestos; these requirements extend to an item even if it is coming to your museum of loan. This is highlighted to me when I attend a workshop on ‘Confronting the Collection’ at Bethlem Hospital archive and museum. They have a piece of artwork containing prescription drugs, this item would be subject to the same legal requirements as a packet of prescription drugs. Before this course I would have never have thought about this aspect of storage and display.
Sometimes it is not always easy to know where the hazards are, particularly with asbestos which can be found in all kinds of innocent looking household items from irons to kettles and even some bakelite objects. Later in the week I come across an asbestos purse in the Natural History Museum which was pretty surprising, not to mention lethal.
Finally we get to look at a Preliminary Asbestos Risk Assessment Checklist (PARAC ) which highlights (and frightens) you into seeing the different items that can be a source of asbestos. It really opens your eyes and once again this collection cleaning course is giving me a new way of looking at objects. Interestingly we don’t just talk about the sheer range of items that can cause a problem but also the importance of thinking about hazards when accepting donations into your museum. Once accepted you may be responsible for disposal of the item, if it, for example, contains asbestos the costs involved can be prohibitive. We are given a tour of the store to get simple visual insight into the asbestos items on the shelves, they are labelled clearly and the scale of the problem is quickly apparent. The importance of labelling and documentation is crucial to protecting staff, volunteers and visitors, it is not enough to add information to a collections database but also mark items on shelves as well.
I used to be a massive advocate of allowing visitors to be ‘hands on’ in the museum and really getting to ‘meet’ the collections. Now I am becoming very hands off! Worried about arsenic in top hats and asbestos in gas masks. My paranoia is limited by focusing on the practical pathways to mitigating exposure. Risk assessments, getting the right advice and preparing for all eventualities with a ‘Hazards File’ that can explain what to do and who to contact in the light of any accidents, exposure or breakages of hazardous material.
This is very appropriate as I can be a hazard around delicate easy to break objects, I think today might be a challenge as we are wet cleaning glass and ceramics. We begin with object and material recognition. It is crucial to understand what you have in front of you before you start. Two questions that become a mantra and I suspect maybe tattooed on the conservators brain (if not body). Does it need cleaning? Can I clean it safely?
Condition reports are beginning to become second nature and they are great for putting the brakes on and really looking at an object. Thinking and finding the words to describe it, this is what gives you the time to prevent mistakes. I grab a torch, I find the bright light invaluable when checking for problems before you start, examining glazes, unfired decoration and gilding. Checking to see if there are any previous repairs.
All this before we get to clean! No dishwashers or bowls of soapy washing up water here. We are given the tools for wet cleaning; cotton wool, satay sticks, yoghurt pot with clean water and water with the merest hint of detergent. All I can say is conservators must eat a lot of yoghurt as all 7 of us have replica kits laid out in front of us.
I begin with a green glass candle holder, it is moulded glass and has a criss-cross waffle pattern on the exterior. It is thick with dust in each little indentation and I fight my initial urge to say – “Where is the dishwasher?”. We make up our own swabs, with a few wisps of cotton wool wrapped around the satay stick. One dip in the detergent then gently cleaning a (very) small section until the swab is dirty. We then have to re-clean the same area with three (yes, three) swabs of clean water. To be honest it feels like over-kill, surely one clean swab is enough?!
This is slow, steady, methodical, painstaking work. I am working away for 20 minutes before realising I don’t have my trusty head torch on. When I use the light I suddenly see all the dust I have left behind and have to go back over my work. I have a new found respect for conservators, this is really hard work and it takes ages! However much I take my time, when you are staring intently at a section of glass it can be hard to see the improvement. I think immediately of the Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the main Museum of London site, how hard it must have been to clean those jewels! The delicate metal work and faceted surfaces, how much work must have gone into making them gleam and sparkle. How many visitors have walked past with not a thought to the hours and hours spent cleaning!
When I return from lunch I have the most adorable ornamental ceramic deer waiting for me. She is a little dusty, black glaze with painted on eyes, ears, tail and hooves. I spot test these areas to make sure I won’t do any damage as the decoration is painted onto the glaze. I gently clean her till she gleams and sparkles, I feel like I am wiping away Bambi’s tears. I think of the nick-nacks my daughters have on their bedroom shelves, how they would laugh if I started attacking them with some cotton wool and a satay stick.
As we finish up for the day, I walk round to inspect my colleagues work, glass lamp shades, ceramic bowls and china birds. Some have been dramatically transformed, with others it is harder to see any change. There is no doubt a bit of frustration creeping through when you spend hours cleaning the area half the size of a mobile phone and then still have to point it out to your colleagues.
My fellow student opposite has been working on a glass lampshade, I go across to examine his work. It is obvious where he has worked, the glass glimmers and sparkles with an iridescent sheen compared to where the ingrained dirt and dust sit and dull the glass. A before and after shot a cosmetic company would be proud of. I congratulate him, I say it looks new. I stop and think about what I have said. Looks new – straight from a shop, no owner, no time spent in a front room, parlour or lounge. Admired when first bought, height of fashion, then dulled by the progression of time and neglect.
I am sad the dirt is gone, it is wiping away that useful life and history. Something on a shop shelf loses its personality and vibrance. I see now once you decide to clean there is no going back, you can’t leave it half done and you can’t put life (dirt) back into it. That is the conservators dilemma. Not just object recognition, material make-up, technique and process but an instinctive feeling for an object. What should remain, what should be removed. I thought this course was all about the cleaning, but I am wrong, it is not, it is all about the dirt.
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 –