Those blog readers who’ve been to Kew recently will have noticed we’ve carried out a few changes to our museum.
You may not know this, but The National Archives and its predecessor, the Public Record Office, have had some form of museum to display our fantastic collection since the early 1900s and it is a really great resource to have.
The face the old museum presented to those arriving at The National Archives
The museum was completely redesigned in 2008 and, while people really loved the content and displays, the space never really worked the way it was supposed to. So, after carrying out an internal review of the museum this year, we started a project to address the main issues identified: that the space was cold, dark, uninviting and often looked closed and there wasn’t any space or facilities for a large group, limiting our education department’s use of the space. All of these problems resulted in there being relatively little use of the museum, it was often empty and those who did pop in to take a look didn’t stay very long.
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I’m going to start this post off by saying I really don’t like bugs! Little creepy crawlies give me the shivers and at home I have to have my husband take responsibility for evicting any spiders that might have strayed into the house. However, at work I have to resist the urge to freak out at the sight of insects as monitoring them is regularly part of the job. From my point of view I’m thankful it’s not something I’m directly involved in and my thanks go out to my colleague Hannah Clare for the text below.
Collection care team identifying insects
The Collection Care Department manages an insect pest monitoring scheme that uses over 120 insect blunder traps. These have no attractant pheromone lure and simply collect insects as they walk across the trap’s sticky surface; they are the most commonly used insect traps in museums, libraries and archives as they provide a reflection of the number of insects to be found in a particular area.
The traps are laid out in a grid-like fashion in all document storage areas at The National Archives and once every quarter a team collect all the traps and exchange them for fresh ones. Then the process of examination of the traps, identification of the insects, counting and recording all the data begins. To help us identify what type of insects we have on the traps, we use a set of images of the most common pests found in heritage collections and compare them to what we see under the microscope. We have to research any we don’t recognise to make sure we identify all our finds correctly.
Every morning when I turn on my computer, one of the first things I fire up is our environmental monitoring software so I can have a look at the temperature and relative humidity (RH) across our storage areas.
Screenshot of environmental monitoring data
Every institution caring for any kind of cultural heritage collections makes it a priority to monitor environmental conditions such as temperature and RH (an expression of the amount of moisture in the air) where their collection is stored or displayed. This is because incorrect temperature or RH (too high or too low) can cause or accelerate the breakdown of materials, not only the paper and parchment support of documents but also other materials important to the portrayal of information, such as inks and the dyes used in colour photographic prints.
Monitoring environmental conditions has got to be, on the surface, one of the least interesting or celebrated parts of a conservator’s job, since it requires looking through and assessing long lists of numbers (we have over 180 different sensors in our storage areas), however, this kind of in-depth monitoring has proven truly invaluable to us here at The National Archives. We not only keep track of existing environmental conditions, but also collect data that will enable retrospective analysis. This data allows us to develop a better understanding of our building here at Kew so we can provide the best preservation environment possible for our records while at the same time ensuring that our solutions are sustainable. I’ve highlighted a couple of the projects that we’ve been busy with over the last few years below, including links to papers we’ve written that go into greater detail about the specifics of what we’ve done. Continue reading »
Collection Care is often about finding solutions to difficult problems and I addressed this theme in my last post when I talked about a project currently underway treating a particular series of photographs. Well, this problem-solving approach applies not only to our conservation treatments of the collection, but also to how we deal with things on a large scale – how we manage our collection.
What is in all the boxes?
One of the big questions we’ve grappled with as part of this project has been: what do we have? Oh, we know we have 11 million entries on Discovery, 13,000 series of records, etc. But to effectively manage the risks to our physical collection we need to know what types of materials we’re dealing with and how many of each we have. Tackling this question required extensive data gathering and some visual ingenuity.
As a conservator, my favourite archival material has always been photographs. There’s just something magical about photography’s mixture of chemistry and artistry that particularly captures my imagination. Therefore, I’d like to share one of the photographic projects we’re tackling in the Collection Care studio.
Recently, as one of our large, ongoing projects, we’ve been conserving and re-housing part of the COPY series. The COPY series comes from the Copyright Office at Stationer’s Hall and contains the forms of application for registration of proprietorship from 1837-1912 of different artistic, commercial or literary categories, one of which is photographs. Attached to most of the forms submitted are one or more photographic prints, providing a representation of what was being registered.
Example box from COPY 1 series before re-housing
So here’s our challenge: We have 250 boxes each containing up to 600 forms and there is both physical and chemical deterioration to the forms and photographs.
The forms are housed in over-stuffed boxes, large photographs are folded to fit in the standard size boxes and handling has meant that the photograph was often bent to read the text on the form. The chemical damage includes colour change to the photographs or the forms due to adhesives used to secure the photographs to the forms, or due to transfer of the image of a photograph on to a paper form it has been in contact with. Continue reading »
Did you know there are beakers and high-tech equipment for scientific analysis here at The National Archives?
I know that the image of a scientific laboratory is quite at odds with the images that normally pop into your head when you hear the word ‘archive’, but all the same they are vital to the work that conservators undertake here every day.
Our conservation lab provides the facilities for us to evaluate materials for use in conservation, to prepare materials for use in conservation treatments and to carry out those conservation treatments that require the use of chemicals in a safe environment. To give you a little taste of the many things we do in the lab, here are a couple of examples of some of the material testing we’ve been up to lately:
Should we replace those old map folders?
Beakers of paper samples for pH testing
As part of making a case for a re-housing project, one of our conservators is pH testing both the existing map folder materials and the new material she suggests it is replaced with. This will enable her to quantify the benefits of the project. If the current material is significantly acidic, and the new material shows an alkaline buffer, it can help give a justification for her choices in the project.
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On your visit to The National Archives, you get your reader’s ticket to order up the documents you are interested in seeing but, after entering the document references into Discovery, a document comes up as ‘unfit for production’. So, you wonder, what does that mean?
Unfit document - Detail of damage to an unfit document
Items designated ‘unfit for production’ are in such vulnerable physical condition that producing them would present a risk to the document – unfit documents could be extremely fragile, they could be blocked (all the pages stuck together in a volume or a roll), or perhaps they could be damaged by mould. These are the documents that, when you open the box, you immediately jump to put the top back on and quickly hide it at the bottom of the pile, hoping that it will miraculously disappear!
Think for a minute about your last visit to a museum.
Now, can you picture what one of the display cases looked like?
I’m guessing you probably can’t. I imagine most people never even consider the box displaying their favourite piece of the past. And that’s good, because it means someone’s done a good job. The idea is for the objects displayed to be the centre of attention and for the display case to fade into the background; to not be memorable.
I have to admit to spending a fair amount of time actually looking at display cases when I visit museums these days. I’m always interested to see how others are displaying objects, and the technology and materials they are using. It’s just like back in the days when I used to sell window blinds; whenever I walked into a room the blinds were always the first thing I noticed!
The Collection Care Department manages many aspects of The National Archives’ on site museum including the display cases. It’s not as simple as just setting up the document, locking the case, walking away and forgetting about it for a few months. We spend a good amount of time behind the scenes maintaining our cases. For some display cases, this means we have to do regular maintenance work on machines that control the relative humidity, an important agent of deterioration. Other display cases use a passive means to buffer changes in relative humidity. These contain materials like silica gel that require regular changing and recharging to be effective. Then we need to monitor the microenvironment we’ve created to ensure the cases continue to provide suitable environmental conditions for the different types of records we’ve got on display. We also test the cases to make sure they are airtight to protect the documents on display from pollutants such as dust.
Perhaps, like me, you are enjoying the return of light to your life as Spring arrives and brings with it more hours of daylight. Every year, it always takes me by surprise how much I miss arriving and leaving work during daylight hours during the winter months.
Thinking about light and lighting is one of the aspects of my role here at The National Archives. As one of the 10 agents of deterioration, light is something that anyone concerned with conservation and preservation needs to keep an eye on. To keep the explanation simple, light causes damage by instigating chemical changes in materials. You only have to think of the faded colours of something that has been left out in the sun to get an idea of what I am talking about.
As the blog has been pointing out, we have a wonderful assortment of treasures here at The National Archives. I thought I’d offer the chance to look at one through the eyes of those of us who work to preserve the collection.
A beautifully illuminated parchment diploma, SP 9/63 is one of 25 items receiving conservation treatment as part of the ‘Illuminated Safe Room Items’ project currently underway in the Collections Care Department. The project aims to stabilise and re-house these vulnerable and valuable records.