Week 8 on my Collection Cleaning Course at the Museum of London and I am going to be working on ‘The Street’. Apparently it gets very cold on ‘The Street’ I have brought my husband’s hoodie and a spare pair of socks, I panic slightly when a fellow student has brought a hat along. I didn’t think about a hat, I am not sure how fingerless gloves work over blue plastic museum gloves either. This week we are not learning any new collection cleaning skills, we are beginning to put those skills into practice. We are tackling the hardest part of any collection care, the decision making process. Not only – should an object be cleaned, and can we clean it safely? but now we can add to that – what methods shall we use?
‘The Street’ is not actually outside the Museum of London archive, it is inside, in the heart of the store. Perhaps I should add it is a cold heart as there is no heating, it is a long thin expanse of storage space, filled with old vehicles – hansom cabs, an old taxi, and coaches. If you want to get an idea of what ‘The Street’ is like please check out this YouTube video –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwtMwW7IB00 We will be working in this space as today we are tackling large objects, up to this point pretty much everything we have worked on has fitted onto the table in front of us, but now we will be bending, stretching, reaching and contorting to clean a variety of large objects.
Bearing this in mind, it is probably a good thing that first up on today’s agenda is ‘risk assessments’. It is important when working with larger objects to consider the risks, getting crushed or squished by falling objects which haven’t been supported properly, bashing your head on a protruding metal arm or dropping a hoover on your foot. In fact it soon becomes apparent that it is not just large objects that can pose a problem, risk assessments can be task specific or cover more generalised activities in the museum.
I had never written a risk assessment before, I actually found it really hard to do, which is quite amusing considering how accident prone I am. My particular speciality is dropping or breaking things late at night and making a really loud noise when we are just about to go to bed, normally waking all three kids up. I am notorious for this, my best effort was falling into the piano at 11 o’clock at night (I hadn’t been drinking) and managing to hit nearly all the keys in one go, pretty spectacular really. So you would think risk assessments should be second nature for me, I can see hazards in making a cup of tea that would really put the frighteners on you.
Luckily we are led by the Health and Safety Executive 5 steps to effective risk assessment. I guess you can’t write down every hazard or negate every risk but you need to look at the likelihood of it happening. If you can’t reduce the dangers in high risk jobs then maybe you shouldn’t be doing them in the first place. As a volunteer it is not enough to rely on a manager to look out for your safety, if you are not comfortable lifting heavy boxes from the top shelf you need to say. As a manager it is not enough to write a risk assessment and file it away, it needs to be a conversation with the person doing the job, a walk through and talk through so the practicalities of a task can be realised.
I like the idea of looking through the accident book, getting a feel for where the problems might be or writing down ‘near misses’ – a kind of working backwards mentality that can help you make a start if you are not sure where to begin. I have a new-found respect for these documents and will look a lot closer next time one is waved under my nose.
When I say we are not learning any new skills this week that is not strictly true, we have learnt how to write a risk assessment, but there is another skill we are focussing on. We are learning that often overlooked ‘soft’ skill, communication. We are going to be working in pairs on large objects, we have to decide on how to write our condition report, agree on a treatment plan and work out the ‘nitty-gritty’ of cleaning a large object, namely where to start and how to stop falling over each other. Communication is obviously vital in any job, but when you are spending all this time looking at objects and learning physical skills you can forget that communication is the glue that holds all this together.
At the end of 10 weeks, most of us will be returning to our places of work, none of us are returning exclusively to collection care roles. As volunteers we may need to convince museum management to allow us to use these newly acquired skills on museum objects. As paid staff with varied roles we may need to make a case for finding valuable time in our schedules to practice and use wet cleaning or polishing. We may be expected to return to our museums and share our experience with other staff and volunteers. We may need to explain why some stains should stay or why an object is too fragile to be cleaned and must be referred to a professional conservator. Sometimes we may just need to explain why it can take 8 hours to clean a cup. When you look at it like this, you can see communication is a key skill along with the right technique to make a swab or how much polish to put on your cloth.
When we move out into ‘The Street’ where we get to choose our object, there are 6 set out in front of us: bicycles, washing mangles and sewing machines. All this talk of communication and I ride rough shod over my companion by instantly declaring we are going to clean a sewing machine. I apologise to her but I have an instant connection with this object. My Mum has one at home, it is a permanent part of who she is, now she is retired it is a strong memory for me of her working away, making curtains, hats, all manner of items that I seem not to have inherited the ability to do. I have to clean this, I want to clean it, I find treadle sewing machines wonderful things, wood, metal, quite beautifully crafted for such a utilitarian object.
Our machine has a wooden cover and I am desperate to take it off and have a look underneath, sometimes you want to dive straight in, but that is why I am beginning to enjoy condition reports. They give you the time to really consider what you have in front of you. This is the first time we get to choose the cleaning methods we are going to use. From beginning to end it is a fascinating process. We begin by thinking we are going to use every process we have learnt, brush under suction to remove dust, smoke sponge the metal, polish the wood, all guns blazing. But it doesn’t take long to realise we are not going to polish the wood, this wood on a sewing machine shouldn’t look polished it should looked used, a useful object reflecting its role.
When we brush the metal we realise it is oily and using the brush just seems to smear the oil around, it is not removing it. We change tack and try a little bit of smoke sponge, this seems to have the same effect, the area we have spot tested has smeary circles, we decide to leave the metal as it is. Instead we focus on removing the museum dust that has accumulated on the wooden surfaces. There is never enough time to finish an object, another learning curve we have come to appreciate. I have really enjoyed today, it is about giving us the confidence to make our own decisions and to realise a treatment plan is not set in stone, it can be manipulated during the process, it needs to respond to the object and your actions. It is not always easy to know for sure how things will work out, that is why I can see now that caution should be our watch word.
In a previous blog I mentioned how a connection to an object can make the cleaning process more interesting (tube seat) or sometimes less interesting (spoons). As I clean this week, in my mind’s eye I see my Mum using this machine, hers is a Singer, this is a Jones. I have the advantage of having a real sense and feeling for this object, I know how it works, what parts move. At the weekend I am off to my Mum’s, I go up and have a close look at her machine, perhaps for the first time. It really hits me how this process has affected me. I have no gloves on, I hesitate. Then I go a bit crazy, I could kick this, hit it, scratch it or gouge it (as long as my Mum was not looking). I could round downstairs grab a can of spray polish and give it the once over. Instead I take my time to look it over, take pictures, touch the wood and metal.
My reaction and relationship to objects has changed. I have a new appreciation for social history objects in museums, they may not always be rare, made of expensive material or high value. But this spark of recognition I have been experiencing is very powerful. Sometimes these objects will lose a generation of connection. I don’t think my girls would know what a treadle sewing machine is with the cover on, put them together with this object and with my Mum and the stories flow.
So often we are trying to understand objects, we are trying to uncover the story. With social history we can have our own story and connection already with in us, we just need the visual prompt to bring it out. I smile to myself, if my Mum could see me cleaning a sewing machine with gloves and a small paint brush she would think me quite mad. That is still the real challenge, treating these every day objects with the respect they deserve.
I feel a change in me though, now rather than treating objects as I would at home, picking them up and bashing them down carelessly, I am treating objects at home as I would in a museum. Not completely, obviously, but I look at materials, how things are made, put together, any damage they have or a weakness in their structure. This course is a learning process that doesn’t stop at the museum door, collection care has invaded my home too. I am pleased to say I haven’t broken a cup or a mug or even fallen into a piano all week and long may it continue that way.
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 –