Behind the scenes at the ANMM – a conservation perspective
In late May, the Conservation Department at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) welcomed me for three weeks as an intern to learn about the role of conservation within the museum, as well as further my understanding of the role a conservator has in caring for a collection. I spent my time at the ANMM constantly shadowing the various members of the conservation team.
What I found opened a new world for me.
One of my primary goals during my time at the ANMM was to further understand the greater role of conservation within a museum and how conservators’ skills and expertise in collection care are utilised.
During the first couple of weeks of my internship I had numerous meetings with various members of the museum staff from different departments including curators, registrars and maritime archaeologists. Throughout the range of meetings I attended I saw how the knowledge of the conservation department was utilised to best protect collection items.
Sometimes, compromises had to be made between conservation ideals and the real world possibilities. The conservation department could be described as the caretakers of the museum, who establish protocols and procedures to protect the collection in their care so that the maritime history of Australia is still around for generations to come.
However, as was pointed out to me by many people in the museum, should this desire to preserve and protect cultural items come at the cost of the education of the current generation?
Exhibitions are one of the many ways the museum makes their collection available to the public.
However, many steps need to be taken to ensure that collection items are not irreparably damaged while on display. One of the tasks I was involved with was helping with exhibition installs, namely the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition and the small exhibit ‘Out of Hawaii’ (both currently still running).
It was very interesting to see what safety measures were taken by the museum to ensure the protection of its collection while items are on display. For example, plinths, barriers and showcases were used to protect the delicate objects on display, most notably Indigenous artworks. These artworks included a beautiful shark mask that is very delicate both structurally and across its surface.
During these installations, we, as conservators, oversaw the safe handling of, and helped install, the objects. In particular, I was able to install the heavy Bagu in the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition – and measured the light levels in the gallery space. Light exposure can cause damage to items and so we measured and controlled the light levels to protect them.
Conservators ensure the preservation of collections on display, as well as off, through managing the environment in which these objects are kept.
The museum has a duty to provide the best care possible to objects which have been loaned from other institutions. Simple things such as temperature and the humidity levels in a room can have the biggest effects on an item, especially over a long period of time if the environment is erratic or not monitored appropriately.
Conservator Jeff Fox gave me invaluable insight into the way the conservation department at ANMM has tackled the job of pest management, as well as monitoring the indoor environment of the museum buildings so that the collection is in an ideal environment. We did multiple surveys of pest traps. All of them were clear of pests, meaning that the protocols in place are effective!
I was given the opportunity to have hands-on experience with the objects, undertaking some small treatments in the conservation lab, under supervision.
My main project was de-concreting maritime archaeological timber, which was a slow and time consuming process. During this project I had to break down the natural deposits which built up on the surface of the object, creating a concrete-like material. The concretion needed to be drilled into to remove it and expose the original surface of the timber. I had plenty of time to develop the skills involved and use equipment I had never had the opportunity to use before.
I also helped clean the brass vents from The Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse (part of a larger conservation project), and was shown various steps that can be taken to remove corrosion products while leaving the historical patina intact.
Over the course of my three weeks at ANMM, I took part in the project to survey the entire museum collection and assess the condition of the objects which are in storage.
As much of the collection lives in storage, and are only viewed occasionally, this project allows the conservation team to have a quick reference of what needs to be treated immediately.
It was great having an overall look at the collection and seeing how certain materials naturally degrade over time, even if they are kept in a dark, temperature-controlled store room.
Although my specialisation is objects conservation, I was given the opportunity to also learn some skills in paper conservation. This included mounting, framing and preparing paper objects for exhibition, which will no doubt come in handy throughout my professional career.
The three weeks I had at the ANMM was an invaluable experience for my education and training to be a conservator. It provided me with an insight into what I may expect once I finish my degree and go out into the professional world. Some of the things I have learnt have better prepared me and mean I will not be caught off guard when dealing with various materials – and the individuals who are in charge of the care and use of cultural collections.
Fiona is a student at the University of Melbourne, soon to complete her Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation specialising in objects conservation.