Preventive conservation

West Dean College
West Dean College

Last night I returned from a short course entitled ‘Preventive Conservation’ at West Dean College’s ‘professional conservators in practice’ series of programs. I was lucky enough to secure a grant for half of the course fee from the Clothworkers’ Foundation CPD Bursaries program and the other half from the Archives. I was also lucky enough to stay at West Dean on full board basis – a fantastic experience in itself! Originally the bursary was for a course due to be held in October 2012 entitled ‘Conservation of Archival Materials’, but sadly this particular course was cancelled. Preventive conservation is a relatively ‘new’ area of conservation but is of great importance, so I had no objection to switching courses.

This short course was designed towards different object/textile conservators working in historic houses. This in itself is not directly related to my work in the Archives – but was a huge eye-opener! With a little bit of tweaking, a lot of the things we discussed can very easily be related to archives, libraries and museums.

We were a group of 12 eager students from various backrounds and institutions as well as countries; England, Wales, The Netherlands and Norway were all represented (and perhaps partially Finland, too, by yours truly). The teaching on the course was undertaken by a very impressive list of people – Linda Bullock, Helen Lloyd, Frances Halahan, Bob Hayes, Fiona Macalister, Helen Moody and Dr Jane Nicklin.

Books on dust
From the selection of books on dust we were provided access to – ‘Suck, don’t Blow!’ being a favourite title of mine – proving conservators, too, have a sense of humour!

The National Trust determines conservation as “the careful management of change, revealing and sharing the significance of places and ensuring their special qualities are protected, enhanced, understood and enjoyed by present and future generations.” This obviously relates directly to the historic houses and their contents the National Trust and English Heritage maintain, but can very easily also be related to other heritage sections. For me, coming from an archive, it was actually rather mind-blowing to think about the scale of conservation needs a historic house holds. In a nutshell, the course got us thinking about several issues surrounding conservation; sustainability in conservation, relative humidity and temperature, mould, pests, gaseous pollution, dust, light and lighting, emergency planning, objective setting, communicating conservation and the economics of preventive conservation (to name a few).

Mould samples
It is amazing how beautiful mould samples can look! These were examples collected by Dr Jane Nicklin for identifying different types of mould, with sampling kits showing on the right.

It was fantastic to be with a group of people that were enthusiastic about a lot of the same things, and to have many discussions with not only the tutors but the other participants about the day-to-day situations everyone faces in their respective workplaces. In some respects it was reassuring to realise that everyone faces the same (or very similar) issues, as it is very easy to get ‘tunnel-visioned’ in what we do in our personal working environments. I found the simple act of talking to like-minded people to be one of the most valuable things I took away from the course – the importance and value of the dreaded phrase of ‘networking’ really hit home. Talking to people who understand a side from which you are coming from in regards to the trials and tribulations of the preservation and conservation world as it stands is priceless. It can sometimes be very difficult to ‘think outside the box’ and shake off the feeling of a sense of isolation, as the working week takes over your time and energy narrowing the opportunities and chances you might have to be able think further and wider and discuss these thoughts with others in similar professions.

Protective materials
Some samples of protective materials compiled by Fiona Macalister

It was very helpful for me to re-cap some the things I learned during my PgDip in Paper Conservation at Camberwell, especially the issues surrounding light and lighting and relating these to exhibiting our archival materials. I also thoroughly enjoyed the sessions on mould and dust and doing this short course made me long for getting stuck into doing some research…

A few of the different types of magnifying loupes we tried out to identify different types of samples of clothing fibres

The mission statement of the British Library states that “the aim of the British Museum is to hold for the benefit and education of humanity a collection representative of world cultures (‘The Collection’), and ensure that the Collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited.” Again, a statement like this can very easily be related to all kinds of collections all over the world. As a final thought, I think the latter part of the above statement is very true when it comes to our small, but ever growing, Design Archives.

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