Week 9, the end is in sight. It is not easy to write this blog, but then it hasn’t always been easy to write these blogs. There has been a few occasions when I wished I hadn’t offered to blog each week of this 10 week course. I could have stopped at any time, but I am stubborn and I like to finish things. It is really useful to go back and look at Week 1, my thoughts on the ethics of cleaning, chart my progression and see how my attitude has changed. I find writing blogs is a good way to remember the information we are presented with each week. It helps me crystallise my thoughts, it leads me to new connections that haven’t always occurred to me when I have been pre-occupied with the practicalities of making a swab or hoovering a silk scarf.
The last two weeks of the course are linked, we get to choose a final object, then it is down to us to write a condition report and treatment plan. We present this to the group and start work utilising all the skills we have learnt or perhaps I should say more importantly selecting the skills that are appropriate for our object.
I am very excited but apprehensive, there are 8 of us on the course and we will be choosing from 9 objects. Last week when we worked in ‘The Street’ I had an instant connection to a sewing machine that luckily no-one else wanted. So far, for me, it has all been about connecting to an object. What if I see an object and want to clean it but someone else does too? What will happen if I end up with an object I don’t like?
One of the team has already had a sneaky look at the objects. I don’t want to know, I want to have a fresh reaction. Maybe that should be the test, let everyone else choose and take what is left. After all you can’t always choose objects in your job or clean something you are attached to. As a group we talk about these as yet unknown objects, they will probably be large-ish, mixed media; wood, metal, glass, ceramics and fabric. Should we choose something because we know how to clean it? Pick an object because the cleaning method needed is a particular favourite? Or pick an object because we know what it is. What if we don’t know what it is? Does that make a difference?
Luckily we begin the day with a re-cap of the previous weeks, our concentration is broken by the fire alarm. It is fascinating to see how many people are squirrelled away lost in time in the archive and store. I wonder if anyone is ever tempted to rescue a few boxes when they hear the alarm, I look round but no-one seems to be carrying the familiar brown cardboard archive boxes.
Finally we return and get back to work on our revision, we go round the table, calling out answers, ways to clean wood, metal and glass. We work as a team, there is laughter and camaraderie, we quite often share stories of how we have been putting our new found skills into use in our own museums, we also talk of the weeks pressures at work. We can talk freely of our work places, what we say is confidential, it is not a freedom to criticise and complain but to compare practices and share knowledge. Alongside the skills we are learning on this course we are learning about other institutions too; Kingston Museum, Islington Museum, Fulham Palace Museum, Royal Artillery Museum, Crafts Council, Enfield Museum, Museum of the Order of St John, and my own Bromley Museum.
Spending 10 weeks together is cementing an informal network, we are paid and unpaid, in a range of positions facing similar issues. It didn’t take long to see we share an unfailing passions for our roles in museums, there is also unsurprising a sprinkling of frustration with the financial constraints we work under. We are all in agreement that this course is an amazing opportunity, one which we have enjoyed immensely. The previous group who completed this course still meet up and are arranging trips to each other’s work places, it is a surprising, unpredicted by-product of the course, we will be leaving here not only with skills but a support network too.
These 10 weeks have been funded by the Arts Council, I am very grateful that funding has been available, as a volunteer I would not have had the money to pay for a course. There is a lot of talk in museums circles about the London bias of ACE funding, working for a local council museum in greater London, I know we are certainly not awash with money. I am no expert on the intricacies of funding streams, but being in London has given me access to great resources and excellent tutors at the Museum of London. I have not mentioned that every week further support has been offered at every step of the way. They are just an email or phone call away, we have been invited to send in pictures of pest damage, even pests themselves to aid with identification. If they can’t help they will point us in the direction of someone who can. There will be opportunities for further training on cleaning leather and marking museum objects. This support network is strong and vibrant.
We are being sent back to our places of work with a large box of cleaning materials, this is not just about giving individuals skills, it is about sewing the seeds of collection care within a wide range of different institutions, we are being encouraged to share those skills within our workplaces. If and when we move on, the network is widened, the training and support is carried on. So ACE funding may be coming to London but if this is how it is being used then I for one am glad, because what I see is something important, something very different to any other training I have been on and something to be very proud of.
But the time has come to showcase those newly acquired skills. I have to choose an object. Deep breath, a hush falls over us as we file in one by one into the room. Five objects are on the floor, 4 laid out on the table. A cursory glance at them all and relief floods me, nothing speaks to me, I feel no electric connection. We are asked for our choices, my co-workers call out and stake a claim. I think I will take what is left over, then I have another look at an object. It starts to call to me. My first glance at it and my first thought is that it would be a nightmare to clean, another reason not to choose an object. I am not sure how to tackle it or where to start, but I put that to one side and the connection starts to build, my anxiety grows. I want this one.
Half the objects are gone, and I can’t hold back any longer. I make a move, no-one else wants it, it is mine. I am elated and excited and I haven’t even had a really close look. I know what it is, it is obvious from first glance. Gloves on I inspect my object, the condition is worse than I thought. The damage has been done before the object came to the Museum of London. It will not be easy, I am not going to end up with something that looks shiny and new at the end of this process. I have learnt over the weeks that shiny and new shouldn’t be the aim of this process, so in some respects the pressure is off.
I have half an hour to write a condition report and treatment proposal. Now my newly learnt skills come into play – torch, magnet, tape measure, camera. I sit on the floor, up on my knees, bend and crouch, I look at every nook and cranny. One of the course helpers comes to have a look and points out a couple of things I still hadn’t seen after 20 minutes of looking. It seems that I still have a lot to learn.
First the materials; there is wood, metal, paint and textile, there is another mystery material not original to the object but concurrent with its usage. The condition- there is previous now in-active pest damage on the fabric, dirt, stains and dust. What to leave and what to take? I am really enjoying this, it is a challenge, my challenge. I am becoming more attached to this object the more I look at it. I am slightly apart from my colleagues, after weeks side by side I can’t really see the others. I am enjoying my solitude, just me and the object. I think about all the people who used it, the history seeps out, it is speaking to me and the more I look the more it reveals its story. I have hit the jackpot when I look at the museum accession label. I have a birth place for my object, I can see myself doing a bit of research as soon as I am at home.
Finally I begin work, I am desperately trying to remember to start at the top and work my way down but it is harder than you think, choosing where to start the process. I begin with tweezer and a head-torch to remove the worst of the pest damage. The first hour goes by and I am completely absorbed, when tea break comes I am stiff from crouching over my object in fixed concentration. You can’t always see the changes you are making when you are up close to an object. When I return from my break I take a step back and can already see a significant difference.
The last part of the day flies by, I struggle to gentle vacuum dust from the awkward parts of my object, wary of not dragging the hoover nozzle across the fabric and causing more damage. When it is time to leave for the day I am reluctant knowing I have a whole week before I get to see and work on my object again. I walk round to my fellow workers and see their objects, discuss their problems and successes. There is a large padded upholstered chair, a wooden loom, a dog cart(?)/wooden pushchair, a dolls buggy, two old fashioned tills, one from the Woolworths on Marylebone Road and a chemists sign. I ask them if they have noticed much change to their object since they started cleaning. It seems we are always trying to effect a change in an object, but do this without changing the object itself, what it is, how it has been used, its story and life.
For me, more than the physical skills we have learnt, the greatest and most important skill is the act of really looking at an object and seeing what you have in front of you. It has nothing to do with instant recognition and everything to do with taking time and looking at every angle, surface, indentation, scratch, material and surface. It is much harder than I ever thought it would be. I see now that conservators are blessed, they get to spend more time close up with an object than anyone else in the museum, they see every part, they can find the hidden history, the clues and signs that point you to discoveries.
I will reveal my object in my next blog along with my final thoughts on my final week. My object is blazing brightly in my thoughts and sneaking into my heart, I am counting the hours till I see it again and I can’t wait to share it with you. I have included a little teaser picture for you below. I hope you can stay with me for one last blog on museum cleaning.
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 –