Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade

From the desk of Colleen Wilson,
Conservator at the Royal BC Museum.

One of the glamorous aspects of preserving our heritage is the use of expensive and esoteric scientific equipment. In novels and movies conservators are often seen in white lab coats beside mass spectrometers, operating scanning electron microscopes in settings reminiscent of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Samuel L Jackson and Don McKellar in The Red Violin
examining the artifact in well-equipped laboratory.

In reality conservation is a blend of science and practicality – the tools of the trade range from those too specialized for our budget (when necessary we contact the University of Victoria, Victoria General Hospital or Pacific Forestry Centre) to the mundanely familiar.

Removing soil from a document can be a delicate operation; sometimes a humble eraser is the best tool for the job. Crumbs of eraser can be employed very gently, but commercially available “eraser bags” may contain contaminants, so the prudent paper conservator produces her own.

Betty Walsh producing document cleaning crumbs
with a state-of-the-art grater.
Not surprisingly textile conservators use pins and needles. The pins are also used by entomologists to skewer insect specimens; the needles by eye surgeons. Thread, especially “hair silk” frequently has to be dyed in the lab to blend with the (stained, faded) artifact.

Needles and thread – sometimes it’s like trying to sew with an eyelash.

At the other end of the scale, how do conservators protect totem poles? Currently the poles in the Anthropology galleries are being assessed and cleaned. The tools? A fine sable paint brush (used as a sweep), HEPA vacuum (with nozzle screened to prevent the loss of loose material) and a mobile scissor lift (conservators will go to any height!).

George Field examining protective zinc cap on a pole in Thunderbird Park.

XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analysis identifies the presence of potentially harmful elements. In the past both arsenic and mercury were used in the preparation of natural history specimens; they were so effective at repelling insects that many artifacts were similarly treated. These furs, feathers and skins have remained unchewed, but the metals pose a health threat for handlers.

Lisa Bengston with hand-held XRF analyzer.

Documentation is an important part of the Conservation Ethic. In order to assess the impact of treatment or environment, it is necessary to describe and record artifacts in detail. Although a wide range of analytical tools are employed, the most frequently used are the tape measure, camera and pencil. Has a crack enlarged? Was that chip missing before? Has that adhesive yellowed? Did the coating prevent tarnish? Although the computer is an indispensible tool, a quick paper-and-pencil drawing can sometimes record information more succinctly.

Kasey Lee condition reporting artifacts for Helmcken House.

Of course we do employ the Recording Thermohydrograph, UV Radiation Meter, Suction Table and Distillation Unit that we dreamed of as aspiring conservators. But we also use the chest freezer, vacuum cleaner and glue gun – whatever tool will do the job. (The still is used for producing distilled water only!)

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The Royal BC Museum is located in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada's west coast. We preserve BC's human and natural history and share it with the world. How do we do that? That's what this blog is about.

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