Conservation, restoration, and preservation of art, culture, and archaeological objects.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Conserving Death

Hello! We have been busy moving to different cities/countries, job-hunting, and oh yeah—completing our MSc in Conservation Practice! So now that we are Masters of Science, we are returning to the blog world to share our experience from last summer. We assisted in the conservation of objects for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibit titled ‘death: the human experience.’ It was not as grave as it sounds!

This exhibit allows people to observe how different cultures view and deal with death. This varied representation allowed us to work with diverse objects as beautiful and intriguing as the cultures represented. We worked with several objects used during funerary or death rituals and have chosen a few memorable pieces to write about.

An Oceanic, and very heavy, funerary statue of a woman was one of the objects we conserved for display. Although robust, the wooden statue was covered in delicate loose pigments. A separate paintbrush had to be used for each colour as we dusted off residual dirt from the statue’s surface so as not to brush one colour pigment onto another.
The statue's necklaces pre-conservation and the statue on display.

The statue also wore necklaces made of seashells and nutshells. The seashells were cleaned similarly to the bone conservation described in Tanya’s previous placement blogpost Instead of Triton-X, swabs of our spit were used to break down the dirt followed by swabs of 50/50 deionised water and IMS to remove residue cleaned up the seashells nicely. We then used vulcanized rubber to dry clean the dirt off the nutshells.

Vulcanized rubber: No, this is not a rubber created by any Star Trek characters. Vulcanized rubber is a natural rubber that can be used as a dry sponge and can be cut for easy control to pull dirt away from a surface.

Another object we conserved was an Oceanic funerary wig. It was incredible to see how this object was created, imagine a plant-based woven basket with hair attached. We gently brushed off excess dust from the wig with paintbrushes but we had to be as careful as possible because of the lice. You read that correctly—lice! Historical lice that could not be removed as it was a part of the object’s past.
Funerary wig with historical lice.

Next up we conserved a wooden funerary mask. A soft brush was used to brush away the loose dust and dirt in the same way as we did with the statue. A museum vac was used to take the dirt away from the object as we brushed the surface. The mask’s ruffled feathers were gently re-positioned. The loose feathers were re-adhered using Paraloid-B72 (another adhesive used and discussed in previous blogposts), applied with a cocktail stick so as not to use too much.
The mask on display.

A few different taxidermy animals were selected to portray predators and scavengers in the exhibit. A vulture, an owl, a jackal and a crow were chosen, but needed some cleaning before being ready for display. Their feathers and fur were cleaned using microfibre cloths, which we used to pet the animals clean. Probably the most pleasant conservation experience so far! These cloths are able to effectively pick up dust and dirt while being very gentle on the fur and feathers. The eyes and claws were cleaned using spit cleaning, followed by 50/50 deionised water and IMS.
The vulture on display.

The death exhibition had dim, but appropriate lighting for the objects and general atmosphere of the display. It was thrilling to see objects we worked on shown so creatively while also being informative and respectful in opening dialogue about ethics and attitudes regarding death.
Our animal friends watching us in the lab.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Getting the Mary Rose into ship-shape

As you have seen from Tanya, our course requires us to complete a placement in the summer between our two years. So in June I put on my steel toe cap boots and made my way down to Portsmouth to embark on eight weeks working at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Built in 1510, the Mary Rose was King Henry VIII’s flagship. Despite the popular myth that she sank on her maiden voyage, she was in service for 34 years before she sank in 1545. The final recorded crew list contained 425 people, of whom only 25 – 30 survived. Discovered in 1971 and raised in 1982, some 19,000 artefacts have been recovered so far, all of which required conservation! You can learn more about the Mary Rose here

I knew that this was going to be a completely different experience from what I was used to in the lab, but I was not prepared for the variety of things I would be involved in.

My first week or so centred around collection care in the museum itself; learning how to check that the environmental controls are doing their job, integrated pest management (there were none, pretty impressive!), condition reporting and labelling objects in the stores. The museum only opened in 2013, so it was interesting to see how such a modern museum building runs.

Much of the conservation left is of wooden objects, and my object work here centred on barrel staves and arrows. All wooden artefacts (obviously) came up waterlogged; all of the pore spaces in the wood are full of water, which is now supporting its structure. Barrel staves and arrows are batch treated in Polyethlene Glycol (PEG) and freeze dried – this treatment is described in more detail here

After PEG impregnation and before freeze drying, the arrows are very squishy and bendy so you have to be very careful. Thousands of arrows were retrieved from the Mary Rose – this is me putting the very last ones to be treated into the freeze drier – very exciting!

Putting in the very last of the Mary Rose arrows to be treated into the freeze drier

Once out of the freeze drier, the objects are covered in dried white PEG residues which need removing. I used a paintbrush to brush off the loose PEG, and a damp tissue to wipe off the white colour it had left on the surface.

Barrel Staves

A lot of the staves are in a bad way – the Dockyard has its very own species of insect which likes to nibble at the wood, making them very difficult to clean! Some of the staves were broken. If I could see where pieces could be adhered back together, I used 5% Butvar B98 in IMS on the edges first as a barrier, and adhered the pieces together using 20% Butvar B98 in IMS.

Butvar: A resin which can be dissolved in a solvent and used as an adhesive. Once applied, the solvent will evaporate, leaving the adhesive in place. Once dry, the addition of the same solvent will dissolve the adhesive, allowing the pieces to be pulled apart - meaning that it is reversible.

A barrel stave after PEG treatment but before cleaning and repair

The same barrel stave after conservation


The fletching on the arrows once held feathers tied on with silk, and is very fragile and important. Previous conservation had wrapped bandages around it to protect it during treatment. This was successful, but it was difficult to remove post treatment without causing damage to the fletching underneath. I carefully removed it using a tiny amount of water to gradually loosen the bandages, and 5% Butvar B98 in IMS to adhere loose pieces and ensure that the fletching did not come off with it. I used a stiff brush to remove the PEG from the surface of the rest of the arrows.

Arrow after PEG treatment with the protective bandage

A set of arrows after conservation

Rope cleaning

One of the most satisfying jobs – cleaning the rope from tar and dirt. This involved a scalpel and a toothbrush to pick away at the tar and give the rope a general clean. Not the favoured job in the conservation department, but I enjoyed it!

Cleaning the rope wearing my mask and safety goggles to protect me from the dust and dirt

Large object conservation

Working in large object conservation was very interesting in contrast to what I am now used to. One of the most exciting things we did was to begin treatment on the stem post and the pump from the ship. This involved a lot of water and a lot of PEG.

The treatment went as follows:
-       Pumped out all of the water from the tank
-       Cleaned the tank
-       Cleaned the objects using water and brushes
-      Filled the tank with water and added 5% PEG 400
-       By the end of treatment, should be 15% PEG 400 and 45% PEG 4000

Cleaning the pump and stem post before beginning treatment

Amongst the practical conservation, we conducted tours and took part in outreach activities with local schools. The most unexpected thing I was involved in was filming with Dan Snow for a documentary he was making for BBC4. The programme is called The Mary Rose: A Timewatch Guide, and I made the cut (albeit in the background!)

So that was a little taster of my summer at the Mary Rose – I hope you enjoyed it! It was hard work, but it is important to be willing to get stuck into anything – that’s what makes conservation so fun!

And if you have never been to the museum, I definitely recommend it.

With Dan Snow during filming

Monday, 23 March 2015

No Money, No Problems: Conservation Course and Placement Funding Tips

Hello fans of Sam and Tanya’s blog, I’m Jenna! I am a 1st year on the Conservation Practice Masters programme at Cardiff. Last year, in preparation for my studies, I looked in to applying for funding from various organisations to help with my living costs and/or fees. Sam and Tanya are allowing me to guest blog on here to share some funding based tips that I picked up along the way. I definitely don’t have all the answers but hopefully this may help you on where to start. After all, with little to no financial governmental help, finance plays a huge part on whether people are able to carry out a Master’s degree.

1)      Start looking early.  Possible sources of funding are ‘charitable trusts’. Many of these have applications with deadlines in the first quart of the year. If you are looking to receive funding in September, January is a good time to begin looking for possible benefactors. Some charities have more than one deadline during the year. If you are not fortunate during the first round, make sure you reapply for the second deadline!

Depending on the type of funding, donors may want to see evidence of an Unconditional University offer…… it’s a good idea to get that university application done as soon as you have decided that you want to go.

On a two year Masters programme? There’s nothing stopping you from applying to receive funding in your second year.

The ICON website is a great starting point when looking for funding in Conservation from Charitable Trusts. Read the fine print. Are you eligible?  I said Are You Eligible? Don’t waste your time completing forms only to find out that the Trusts criteria doesn’t fit you needs (for example, does it allow for International students?).

2)      When writing an application, be specific with how you will use the money. Some forms may ask for this but if they don’t, stick it in anyway.



Also, consider how this money will help you to give something back to the conservation profession and heritage industry. Make sure you dazzle them with all that volunteer work that you have been doing (Note: if you haven’t thought about it before….it always benefits to do volunteer work!)

3)      Did you know that you can also apply for money towards travel costs, workshops and entry to conferences? Again, you will need to apply far in advance but have a think about anything you would like to do, perhaps next year. I know of someone who received funding to cover an 8 week placement in New Zealand….dream big!! Also something to note is that most of these charities are not just applicable for students. When you are out in the professional big wide world and want to attend ‘that interesting but pricey upcoming conference’....apply for funding!

4)      Don’t just shop around for conservation related Charitable Trusts. There are various ways to receive funding – it just takes a little bit of research and allowing yourself to stand out. For example, have you ever looked into Crowdfunding? This is a way of asking a large amount of people to provide a small amount of money towards your cause or venture. Donations can be given with nothing expected in return or loans may be provided (with or without interest). All you need to do is create a profile showing why you deserve their donations and start networking!

I hope this has given you some ‘food for thought’ for applying for funding, especially if you had never looked in to it before. Good luck with your ventures and happy conserving to you all!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Part 1: The Door by the Dodo: My placement at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Hello conservation blog fans! I (Tanya) will begin our glorious return to the blogosphere by telling all of you about my educational and inspirational 4 weeks at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and St. Fagan’s National History Museum.

Bristol is an amazing city with a diverse set of museums and historic houses. In the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, past the dodo display, is a door that hides several stairs to the conservation lab. My daily exercise to the museum and up all the steps to the lab was often countered with the delicious biscuits and cakes that were always present in the tearoom. Although I learned a lot about conservation and worked with materials I had never worked with before, perhaps the most important lesson I learned while at Bristol was that taking a tea break is crucial! By taking a break you can come back to your work with a fresh set of eyes and you also get to know the rest of the friendly conservation team: Amélie and Jenny (objects conservators), Pavlos, Harry, Alicia (paper conservators), Helen (paintings conservator), and any other special guests that may be visiting that day from other parts of the many Bristol galleries.

Izzy (another Cardiff Conservation Student) and I having tea with a lot of biscuits.

Bristol Museum was preparing for a commemorative exhibit for the anniversary of World War I, so I began my placement by removing the tarnish from a WWI pin and medal. I used the solvent IMS (Industrial Methylated Spirit) on a cotton swab to take off the black tarnish on the pin and medal that was obstructing details on both. The thread that held the ribbon to the clasp on the medal was very degraded and came undone on one side while I was observing it. Amélie noted that we do not have a textile specialist and did not want me to attempt to sew the ribbon back on, so I used Japanese tissue paper which I coated in Lascaux adhesive to create a secure yet easily reversible double-sided sticky tape to connect the ribbon back to the clasp.

I also worked on a ceramic plate, which I thought would be similar to working on the ceramic modern art I had done for my course. The angles of the plate and the sheer weight of it made it a completely different experience. Paraloid B-72 served well again to re-adhere this earthenware ceramic back together and I fashioned a secure way to hold it in place while it dried with a clamp and bowl of sand. I then filled the gaps with the comically named Flügger Snickerispackel, an acrylate filler which had to be sanded down and polished repeatedly until it was just right and level. I also got to try in-painting for the first time with a polymer varnish that would hold together pigments. Once I was able to colour match the paint, it was incredibly satisfying to see the fracture lines and filled gaps disappear— making the plate look good as new.

From left to right: My clamp and sand bowl contraption, filling in the cracks, and in-painting.

Bristol University had enlisted the help of the museum conservators to prepare their enormous amount of old teaching materials from the natural science department to go on display in their brand new building. This was perhaps the most exciting part of the entire placement for me as I have a very strange love that borders on obsession for all things bone related. We had to clean and consolidate (if necessary) any skulls, skeletons, taxidermy, and sea life that would be going on display. For the bone, we used about 2% of Triton-X  mixed in water and cotton swabs followed by IMS with a swab to remove the residue of the dirt that the Triton-X was able to gently break down without harming or staining the bone. The amount and assortment of objects was so incredible and entertaining—Izzy and I even spent nearly two weeks cleaning an entire bear skeleton!

Triton-X: This wetting agent was used as alternative to spit cleaning. It gently broke down the dirt and residue on the bone without harming it and without giving us dry mouths from using our own spit!

Our lovely bear friend.

Working with glass was new for me so I was given a small glass candle wax catcher to attempt to fix.  With Amélie’s extensive knowledge in glass conservation I learned how to carefully tape the fractured pieces of glass together and how to run the precise mix of Fynebond epoxy resin and hardener adhesive down the crack so that it was absorbed through capillary reaction. It was remarkable how the epoxy was absorbed into the fractured imperfections until the lines almost disappeared completely.

The glass: before and after.

Another object I got to work on was an ostrich feather fan. This may sound glamorous, but this poor fan had a tragic encounter with pests. The fan was frozen prior to my receiving it to ensure that no little buggers survived, so I was left with a yellowish handle that barely held some lovely white feathers which were covered in tiny black bug eggs. This put me off of starting treatment on the fan at first, but I dove in hoovering the bug eggs with a HEPA filter that is certified to pick up and filter extremely small particles. I then untangled the feathers and picked off any excess eggs with tweezers like I was combing through hair for lice. I did not want to use solvent on the handle to remove the old adhesive just in case it was made of cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate because it could dissolve that as well. Instead I spit cleaned it by running a swab on the inside of my cheek and removing the old crusty adhesive off the handles and wiping that residue off with water. Sounds gross, but it was super effective! I re-adhered the fan in place with cellulose nitrate and it looked good enough to use again (but don’t worry, I didn't)!

Yellowish Handle: Cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate are polymers that can be used as adhesives or have added fillers to be used to mimic ivory, tortoise shell, and other objects that were once fashioned into glasses, combs, and even fan handles.

From left to right: My mangled fan, the wonders of spit cleaning, and the careful handling of feathers.

I am extremely grateful that Bristol Museum gave me the opportunity to work with them this summer. Not only did I get to work with a range of materials that I had never worked with before, but I also got to work with a diverse group of people that were as fun as they were talented. From bones to bug eggs to loads of biscuits, Bristol Museum was a well-rounded placement!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Archaeological Iron

Many objects come to us from museums and require conservation for repairs, in preparation for display, or to protect from further deterioration. Some objects however come from archaeologists and require conservation for research purposes.

My first solo venture was to conserve some archaeological iron which had been excavated from Ham Hill – the biggest Hill Fort in Britain. I had 17 iron objects in total, all covered in dirt and several layers of corrosion, obscuring their original shape; looking at them you wouldn't know that beneath all the dirt was an actual object!

The largest of my iron objects before treatment

The conservation requirement was to reveal the shape and enable the archaeologists to record accurately what they had found; after which they would be put into storage. So the conservation requirement was simple enough – clean.

In this context it required removal of the dirt and top layer of corrosion to reveal a more stable and aesthetically pleasing magnetite layer underneath. The original iron of the object is now vulnerable; if exposed it can react with moisture and oxygen in the environment and cause further corrosion and damage (you may come back to the piece in a few years to find it has completely disintegrated!)

Magnetite: A stable layer of corrosion; grey in colour, it shows the original shape of the iron underneath it, while protecting the iron from further corrosion.

X-Rays provided by my tutor allowed me to see the shape and amount of the original iron left underneath the corrosion, and gave me a guide for where to clean to.

And what did all this mean? This meant it was time to get to grips with the Air Abrasive!
The Air Abrasive machines use Aluminium Oxide powder to blast away the corrosion; you can vary the pressure and powder flow to control how powerful it is. The work is done under a glove box, with gloves, lab coat and dust mask. Here’s me air abrading!

Me using the Air Abrasive machine to clean one of my pieces of iron

Blast the corrosion off with a nozzle, seems simple right? It is harder than it seems! Removing the outer dirt was simple enough and gave me a strange sense of satisfaction, rather like power washing dirt off of a car and making it all clean and sparkly.

Revealing an even magnetite layer without exposing any of the iron underneath it however requires a lot of patience and concentration – particularly where the magnetite is thin. I was having difficulties, but a discussion with one of the tutors soon sorted me out.

Some of the pieces arrived broken and many were cracked and on the verge of falling apart. I did my research and decided to repair using Epoxy-Resin to restore the objects’ original shape, and consolidate using Paraloid B72 in Acetone to prevent further breakages.

Epoxy-Resin: I used a 5 minute epoxy which is a two part adhesive – this means that it dries 5 minutes after mixing together so no hanging around!

Paraloid B72 in Acetone: Paraloid B72 is an adhesive soluble in acetone. Being dissolved in Acetone makes it easy to work with and on drying the acetone evaporates, leaving the Paraloid in place. It is a favourite in the lab!

And here we have it, a finished article ...

The same iron object after treatment.
This is a Bill Hook - the cleaning revealed the sharp edge on the outside and you can see where it was once attached to the handle

Below is my favourite, but most challenging object:

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Modern Art, Modern Conservation

Most people might not think of modern art in conservation.  Usually restoring, preserving, and taking care of older, archaeological objects often comes to mind.  This is what I was thinking when I was assigned Lisa Krigel’s sculpture “Wardrobe” from the Newport Museum.

This beautiful ceramic sculpture is of a wardrobe with a female figure and all of her ceramic clothes hanging on the walls.  I admit that I was completely confused as to why I was repairing a piece that was only about ten years old.  That was when I did some research and discovered how incredibly awesome modern art conservation really is.  You actually get to talk to the artist!  Obviously this is not possible with ancient artefacts that need conserving so I was very excited about being able to have conservation input from the source of the art.

"Wardrobe" By Lisa Krigel complete in the lab after treatment.

The first thing that I did was test adhesives to check which one would work best in repairing the earthenware ceramic which the broken female figure was made out of.  I broke a plate and tested different adhesives as well as researched their characteristics.  Out of cellulose nitrate, Paraloid B-72, and epoxy resin, I decided the consistency and adhesion of the B-72 was ideal for my little three-legged female figure.

Taking good care of the female figure.

Another conservation skill that I got to learn with this piece was gap filling.  The back of the wardrobe had a small gap which I decided would be more aesthetically appealing to have filled for future display.  There was also a bit of corroded copper that was coming through from the inner frame that I wanted to protect.  I basically had to make a putty that would match the colour of the surrounding area and fill the gap.  This was easier said than done—I found out the hard way that a little bit of pigment goes a long way.  I used calcium carbonate and B-72 again (it’s so versatile!) to match the grainy, porous earthenware texture.  I then tried to match the pale pinkish colour of the wardrobe and instead created a giant mess of bright pink bubble gum coloured goo.  Unfortunately, I did not manage to take a picture of this disaster before I had help from my tutor to finally get the right colour for the gap fill.

After it dried, I decided that there were too many bubbles in my gap fill and I wanted to re-do it.  Luckily, B-72 is very easily reversed and I removed it straight away with acetone.  For round 2 I used epoxy as it doesn’t involve a dissolving solvent that would cause bubbles.  This worked out much better and the finished fill matched the rest of the back of the wardrobe very well.

Bubbles: Paraloid B-72 is an adhesive that is mixed with a solvent to get the right consistency for application.  So as the acetone in my gap fill evaporated, it left the B-72 behind as well as some un-appealing bubbles.

Spot the fill!

The main interesting conservation aspect of modern art is that it is… modern!  This means that as a conservator, you may not have to try and retain all the original material of the object as you can probably still get it or make it today.  Instead, priority is often given to making sure the modern art piece maintains the artist’s concept and meaning.  Sometimes, with modern art, display is more important than preservation for generations to come.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A first time for everything!

In the practical part of our course, we all received a metal coin, waterlogged wooden treenail and waterlogged leather to treat. This gives us valuable experience in how to treat these kinds of objects and encourages us to link theory with practical treatments.

Metal Coin

So we received our very first objects; a silver 1696 Sixpence for Sam and a Shilling for Tanya.

Both were tarnished and had adhesive and fibres stuck to one side.

At first, we spent the majority of the time just staring at them, wondering what on earth we were supposed to do and how everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. Eventually with some help from the tutors, we pulled ourselves together and started thinking logically.

The conservation requirement was to clean for display – remove the adhesive and fibres, and remove some of the tarnishing if necessary.

We had to figure out exactly what the problems were (adhesive, fibres, tarnishing) and how to solve them. There are a lot of solvents in the lab that can remove adhesives but we used acetone because research told us that it seemed to be the least harsh and most effective for the job.

Did you know? Nail varnish remover is made from Acetone and can be used to remove stubborn adhesives and tape!

Acetone and a cotton swab removed the fibres along with the adhesive - this was surprisingly effective and the removal was much quicker than either of us had expected. Two problems solved!

We also used a cotton swab with calcium carbonate in water to remove some (but not all!) of the tarnish to keep some of its evidence of use. This turned out to be more difficult – it is hard to get an even ‘old’ look without making super shiny spots. It was almost like using sandpaper to remove a very thin coating of tarnish.

And so here it is – one of our very first conserved objects!



Waterlogged Wooden Treenail

We then received waterlogged wooden treenails, recovered from Newport Ship. The conservation requirement here was different; these treenails are going to be handled by visitors to the museum. This meant that after treatment, it should still look and feel like wood (but dry!)

Waterlogged: When most of the spaces in an object have been filled with water, which is now supporting it. Waterlogged objects can come from underwater or burial.

Wet wood!

The first step in successfully drying waterlogged objects is to keep them wet! Removal of the water without replacing it will result in collapse. To prevent this collapse, we bulked (filled the spaces that needed support) our treenails with Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) before freeze-drying.

Fun fact: If you check your shampoos and/or body wash, you might find that there is PEG in there too!

Freeze-drying involved freezing the treenail before placing into a vacuum; the ice inside the wood then changed straight into vapour, missing out the liquid phase and leaving the PEG in its place as structural support.

When they came out of the freeze-drier, the treenails were nice and dry! 

Nice and dry!

Waterlogged Leather

Another waterlogged object we received were pieces of leather excavated from Bute Park outside Cardiff Castle. What look like scraps of leather are actually really awesome because it is a part of history from right outside of our lab!


You would think an acidic environment is bad, but leather is slightly acidic. This is why we checked the acidity of the water when we were storing them.

We then placed the leather in ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid—say that five times fast! It’s more commonly known as EDTA, a chelating agent that draws out potentially damaging metals from the leather.

We had to work out the percentage of glycerol in water we needed and used it in the leather in the same way that we used PEG for the waterlogged wood. We then shaped the leather into how we wanted it before freeze-drying.


These were some of our group projects that we worked on alongside solo objects. So many objects, so little time! Stay tuned for more!