Since November, every Wednesday I get the pleasure of volunteering at the National Museum of Wales- Amgueddfa Cymru in Cardiff. I work with the amazing Preventative Conservation team, lead by Christian Baars.
What does that mean? Like me, the majority of you probably think of wilderness or animals when you hear the term “conservation.” In the context of museums and my studies here in Cardiff, conservation refers to fixing and caring for objects such as pottery, paintings, sculptures… or anything you might find in a museum or archive. Therefore preventative conservation work encompasses anything and everything we can do to prevent damage to museum objects.
On my first day of volunteering, we were tasked with looking for signs of insect infestations… ironically we were looking for them in the museum’s entomology (insect) collection. How? Little insects who eat these collections may leave signs that they were there. We could find bodies, casings, or frass- the powdery leavings from insects.
The following week I was introduced to the re-occurring job of “hoovering” (which is what they call all vacuums in the UK) That’s right mom, I volunteer to vacuum with great pleasure!
There are two kinds of hoovering that we do at the museum. For every object you see on display, there are at least a thousand similar objects in storage behind the scenes (this museum has about 3 million objects). We have spent many hours hoovering every nook and cranny of many of these archives. Even though the public are not allowed in these areas, it is essential to keep them clean to prevent infestations and monitor their wellbeing.
The second kind of hoovering takes place in the galleries on the objects themselves. Painting frames and sculptures are cleaned by gently flicking dust off of them with a brush and hoovering up the dust before it floats away and lands somewhere else in the museum.
Although we clean these pieces for aesthetic reasons, as preventative conservators, our primary motive is that dust is a micro-exfoliator. Just like I use a salt scrub to remove dead skin cells the dust will scrub away at these objects overtime and ruin them.
We have also been working on changing the silica gel in the archaeological archives. Some items such as metal are sensitive to moisture and must be kept at a low humidity. You know how sometimes in packaged food there is a little white envelope that says: “to maintain freshness, do not eat.” That is essentially what we are doing. The silica gel will suck up any moisture in the containers and (hopefully) keep the items dry and safe for storage.
Here is a picture of what can happen when metal corrodes! Luckily this was just an air regulator, which although expensive to replace, is, unlike many of these objects, replaceable.
Hands down, my favourite part about this job is getting to see and touch some of these amazing objects. Changing the silica gel, I got to see cannon balls and 3rd Century BCE Roman Helmets. Hoovering in the galleries, I was tasked and trusted with cleaning the precious frame of a Rembrandt worth £35 million pounds. This week we got to tour an archive with taxidermy and skeletons!
I have to thank Christian Baars for taking me onto his team. We may be there to work, but we often just drink tea, eat biscuits, and learn. He has been a wonderful teacher and I feel like I’m learning so much about this side of museums. Before coming to Cardiff, I knew I wanted a career in museums, but I had no idea what collection care entailed. I have a few more months left at this museum, and I am looking forward to every week!
If you’re interested in keeping up with my museuming- follow me on Twitter @sophieyamauchi to see my dedicated museum page.