Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting the Word Out

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

Visible light is  a small part of the radiation 
received from the sun.

Although our job is to preserve the museum’s collections, RBCM conservators actually want to preserve everything.   To that end we speak frequently to local groups who have an interest in history and are happy to answer enquiries about caring for the things they collect. 
But too much talking (and writing) cuts into the time we spend actually conserving.  So this summer, in addition to the Discover talks in the gallery by members of the department, there will be eight in-gallery presentations weekly by docents who have had a crash course in Basic Conservation Issues.
These dedicated volunteers will be found in the Old Town, probably in or near the Chinatown streetscape.   They will be recognizable by their out-going and captivating personalities (and possibly their second-hand lab coats); they will be prepared to share information about “Light, Dust and Insects.”

Light (Radiation)
Visitors frequently comment on the low light levels in the exhibits.  Placing our treasures on display means that people can enjoy and learn from them, but the risk of loss from light damage is great.  Light damage is irreparable (once faded a colour is gone) and cumulative (more exposure means more damage); we frequently have to choose between exposure and preservation.
Part of a quilt that was 
protected from 
overexposure to light
The same fabric 
from an area  that 
was in direct sunlight.

Conservator Kjerstin Mackie 
dusts John Lennon's 
Rolls Royce weekly.
Dust presents two problems in the Museum:  it makes the exhibits look … dusty.   And removing it is time-consuming, expensive and hard on the objects.  Although open exhibits are much more engaging, they are much more likely to get dusty – the forest and seashore dioramas look quite a bit less convincing when covered with lint and fluff.  But removing the dust has to be done extremely carefully, particularly in the artifact-rich settings of the Old Town.  Cleaning can be risky for materials that were not designed to be wash-and-wear, and it is essential that only dust that has fallen in the museum be removed; soil that is part of the artifact can contain valuable information.

In our temperate climate, insects are an ever-present threat.   Some arrive with potential donations, some come in with floral décor, some hitch-hike in on visitors fresh from the garden.  Once inside the Museum they seek out their preferred food groups, but they can gain sustenance from food scraps along the way.  Part of our Integrated Pest Management strategy are weekly patrols of the windowsills to remove dead flies (that could provide a strengthening meal for protein eaters); detailed examination of all flowers and props that are used in the galleries; and a ban on casual food and drink above the ground floor.
Moth larvae have dined on the wool cover of this 
WW1 water bottle.

The volunteer presenters will have examples to share, equipment to test and explanations for much that is not apparent to the average visitor.   They will have suggestions for things to look for in the galleries, and recommendations on how to care for treasures at home.  Best of all, their enthusiasm is sure to inspire visitors with a greater understanding of the complexities of preserving our cultural heritage.   

1 comment:

  1. How interesting! As an employee of a museum myself, I'm ashamed to say how little I know of the methods of a conservator. Thank you for writing this!


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