Following the launch of The National Archives’ new online exhibition ‘To Her Most Excellent Majesty’ showcasing congratulatory addresses from Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, I’d like to share my experience of working on this project.
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?
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.
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?
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!
There are few topics likely to induce an eyes-glazed-over response more quickly than the words ‘environmental standards’ for heritage collections. I am pleased to report that the just published ‘Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections (BSI: PAS: 198)’ marks a significant departure from the usual, and is well worth a read.
The National Archives has taken a lead in developing a new environmental standard for the cultural sector, in part-response to a statement issued by the UK National Museum Directors’ Conference that, ‘museums need to approach long-term collection care in a way that does not require excessive use of energy, while recognising the duty of care to collections.’ There was general agreement that it is time to utilise the research undertaken in the last ten years, and to shift policies for environmental control, loan conditions and guidance given to architects and engineers from the prescriptive advice to something based on the sensitivity of the objects, the expected life of the collection, and local priorities. This isn’t about relaxing environmental standards, its about making informed decisions for a collection.
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.
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