Hello! I have just joined the team at CMAS as an object conservator, having spent the last four years working on the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.
In my first three weeks I have had some lovely objects to get stuck into; one of which is a cream painted plaster model horse with a leather and textile collar from the Mere Museum.
We think this was a display model for a saddlery, although the records are a bit thin on the ground. It was brought in for conservation with fractures across all four lower legs and pieces of plaster had come away from the hind right leg exposing the iron armature inside. On top of this, the paint surface was flaking in places and is rather uneven, having been touched up and repainted several times.
Both the body of the horse and the base show signs of previous damage and repair, and indeed there are records of the horse having already been conserved twice by CMAS in the last 20 years.
Hiya! I’m Sejal and I’m a trainee conservator doing my placement with the Wiltshire Conservation and Museum Advisory Service. I’m excited to start my professional work here and I am looking forward to some amazing projects.
My placement is part of my master’s degree in object conservation at Durham University. My background is primarily based in archaeology and I’ve been on several excavations, but I’ve always gravitated more towards lab work than field work. For my undergraduate dissertation, I spent a month in Portugal, helping sort through discarded ceramics from a seventeenth century kiln. It was like trying to put 100 jigsaw puzzles together at once, but you only have about 75% of the pieces.
I’m originally from the United States and have spent the last four years up north for my studies, so I haven’t spent much time in the southwest of the UK. So, I’m very excited to explore the region and the rich prehistory and history it holds. I also hope to visit a lot of local museums and work with a variety of institutions whilst I’m here.
Just behind the Lydiard house in Swindon, you will find the small parish church of St. Mary's, Lydiard Tregoze, which dates back to the 12th century. In the 1840s a model of the church was commissioned perfectly depicting the architecture, interior and grounds.
In the 1970s a large amount of restoration was carried out on the model, predominately on the graveyard area, removing a lot of original details.
Having been in storage for a long time, the model came to the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) to have conservation treatment undertaken before going back on display. Large cracks had appeared in the base of the model and some of the 1970s additions had deteriorated badly. Some of the architectural details were also missing with a general layer of dust on the surface.
The main challenges carrying out treatment on this object were:
Mix of different materials used: This included the plaster base, wood structure of the building, painted interior features and paper and card railings and details.
Ethical considerations: The client was keen to remove the 1970s trees that had badly deteriorated in the graveyard area and replace missing wood features on the building. Generally in conservation, we try to preserve as much historical information on an object as we can. We justified the removal of the trees as these were not original to the 1840s model and were so badly deteriorated they were unsalvageable. The addition of the wooden components was to improve the aesthetic appearance of the model and detailed records will help distinguish between what is old and new.
Condition: The model was very delicate so extreme patience and dexterity would be needed.
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) is based at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. We preserve the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and provide support to museums, heritage organisations and individuals to care for and conserve historic collections and meet professional standards.
According to the UK’s professional conservation body the Institute of Conservation:
‘The purpose of all conservation is to facilitate the public’s access to and enjoyment of our cultural heritage. It helps us understand ourselves and our future by preserving our past.’
So, when a marching band drum from Radstock Museum recently came into the object conservation studio at CMAS, we had to think about how to preserve the history of the object in the best way.
The drum was from the Radstock Jubilee and much of the original paint had cracked and lifted from the surface. There were already large areas of loss, but the main text on the drum remained. It was not the intention for the drum to be used again, instead the Museum planned to place it on display. In discuss with the Museum it was decided that it would be most ethically appropriate to preserve the remaining paint to show the history and use of the object.
We’ve recently reviewed the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme that we have in place at the history centre so that we can effectively protect the archives from the possibility of any damaging insect pests.
IPM is a multi-faceted approach to pest management and our program is used alongside a number of other preventative measures such as good cleaning and housekeeping routines, thoroughly checking new accessions for any hitchhiking pests before they are put into the strong rooms and maintaining a stable environment within the strong rooms so that pests do not feel at home. This way we can continue to protect our archives into the future.
Insects can cause a real problem for historic collections, which can be tasty treats for them to feast on, causing irreversible damage and loss of information.
It is really important to protect the archives against possible pest infestations. A small number can quickly increase to become a big problem if left unchecked and cause substantial damage to a collection.
During the pandemic some collections such as The National Trust have reported increased pest activity due to the reduction in footfall and reduced monitoring and cleaning of spaces, leaving areas undisturbed for pests to thrive. With such large numbers of documents held in repositories such as WSHC it is impossible to frequently check all items individually, so programmes to monitor and reduce numbers are put in place.
We have set up ‘blunder traps’ in the History Centre, strategically located around the strong rooms and other areas of the building, and by frequently monitoring them we are able to get a picture of any pests present and which areas they are visiting.
The traps we use do not control pest infestations they simply allow us to monitor levels of pests. If we find a pattern of large numbers of any particular archive pest, we can then look into dealing with any problems and target them specifically.
It’s that time of year when the first emails land in my inbox requesting placements on the History Centre’s popular work experience (WEX) programme.
This year it is a little different – those early requests are arriving, but students are now looking for Virtual WEX!
In my blog from March 2020 – Celebrating Archives – I was eagerly anticipating a year of anniversaries, the highlights of which were to be Salisbury’s 800th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Events were planned, projects finalised, and we had an excuse, though none is ever really needed, to dig out some of our archival treasures that show just how connected Wiltshire is to key moments of national commemoration. And letters from Florence Nightingale would have featured in the work experience programme.
And then… the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. All certainty about future events rapidly disappeared as History Centre staff joined colleagues from across Wiltshire Council in responding to the crisis. While statutory services at the History Centre had to be maintained our usual talks and courses were cancelled; we had to close during lockdowns; our regular jaunts around the county to speak to community groups and history societies ended; and as education officer there were no school visits to plan or deliver, and no work placements to organise.
It was clear we needed to transfer what we could online, and I found myself working with colleagues from Libraries and Leisure to create resources that gave Wiltshire residents virtual opportunities to enjoy heritage, arts, literature and physical activities. The result was the Active Communities page on the Wiltshire Council website – a great resource which will hopefully have a legacy post-pandemic.
I also found myself co-ordinating the History Centre’s online presence. Colleagues, missing out on the daily rhythm of dealing with enquiries and customers, turned their energies to our website and social media platforms. They kept regular users updated and entertained, and engaged with new followers. And the hard work has paid off as we see more users, followers, likes and engagements with our various social media accounts.
Necessity drove us online in 2020 providing many challenges, but now there are opportunities in 2021, opportunities the History Centre wants to exploit. Virtual Work Experience is one of those. There will always be a need for real world, physical engagement with archives and books, photographs, painting and sculpture, artefacts and objects, not to mention being in the audience for a live theatre or musical performance. But while we wait for the time when we can return to in-person talks, courses and classroom sessions we need to make the most of the technology available.
I am working on developing a virtual work experience programme for GCSE and A-level students. Our work placements are always popular and each year we are fully booked, but we are limited in how many students we can take – normally two GCSE students in any given week and a couple of Year 12 A-level students. Geography and public transport also play a part and, while I provide a county-wide heritage education service, WEX students tend to come from Chippenham and the surrounding area.
The plan is to use an online classroom platform to deliver Virtual WEX. This has the potential to significantly increase the number of students the History Centre can reach, extending coverage to the whole of Wiltshire and Swindon, and beyond. I will always champion in-person placements and visits to the History Centre to really get hands-on with historical documents – there is a thrill to seeing and touching a document signed by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell or, having learned about Henry VIII in school, holding the marriage contract between Henry and Jane Seymour. But as an advocate for cultural education, online sessions are a valuable tool in reaching and inspiring young minds. And while students will not be able to handle the documents in a virtual session they will still be able to see them and work with them.
A key aspect of our work placement programme is the breadth of experience students enjoy, not only working with archives and local studies collections, but also learning about the work of the conservators and archaeologists based at the History Centre. It is also satisfying to see the students grow in confidence over the course of their week with us and to hear back from schools about the positive impact the placement has had on the youngsters.
We hope that those who see what we do via an online taster day will be in-person users of our services in the months and years to come. This opening up of access also supports the History Centre’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, not only as part of Wiltshire Council but also within the Archives sector.
WEX 2021 won’t be the same as previous years but we hope a virtual experience will give young people an opportunity to see what enjoyable and rewarding careers can be had in the heritage sector.