Category Archives: Conservation

Conserving a “Super Selector”

Sophia Oelman works on the conservation team for Information Age, a brand new gallery about the last 200 years of communication and information technology, opening this autumn.

There are a huge range of exciting objects being prepared for the Information Age gallery. As one of the six conservators working on the project, I have the privilege of cleaning, documenting and repairing the objects before they go on public display. My favourite object is the Super Selector Radio Receiver, made around 1927 in London by Selectors Limited.

The Selector super portable before conservation (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Super Selector appeals to me because of its interesting shape and design – it looks more like a piece of furniture than a modern radio set. The radio has attracted lots of attention, although because of its size and shape it is commonly mistaken for a wooden PC computer.

The portable radio is very heavy compared to today’s pocket electronics. Perhaps that explains the rather well worn back of the object. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The first challenge of working with this radio, was moving it from the storage rooms to the conservation lab at the Museum.  Although it is called “super portable”, it weighs about ten kilos and is certainly not super portable by today’s standards, weighing one hundred times more than an average MP3 player.

When the object arrived at the Museum, there were several areas of damage that needed to be documented and repaired before it could go on display. The main areas of concern were the leather handle, which was powdery and weakened and the textile speaker which was torn with sections of missing fabric.  The object needed to be documented, cleaned, repaired and then documented again to record the changes it went through during conservation.

After inspecting the exterior of the radio I began to look inside. Luckily, there were two keys with the radio set which allowed us access to the fascinating mechanisms inside.  Inside the radio, some of the most attractive components are the glass valves.  The valves are potentially dangerous if broken as this may cause flying glass, so one of my first tasks, after cleaning the radio, was to pack the valves with tissue to prevent any breakages.  After packing the valves, the conservation treatment of the radio receiver involved more cleaning, securing the handle and repairing the textile speaker.

The delicate glass valves inside the set needed to be carefully packed before work began. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The silk speaker posed the biggest challenge in terms of repair, but after consulting a specialist textile conservator at the National Maritime Museum I decided to cover the fragile silk with toned patches of special conservation silk. I cut the patches to shape, coloured them so that they matched the green colour on the speaker and carefully attached the patches to the speaker frame.  This technique prevents further damage to the object from light, physical damage and dust.

Sophie works to conserve the silk speaker area (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

The Super Selector radio receiver was a fascinating object to work with and despite the challenges involved, I believe the radio will stay in good condition for visitors to enjoy in the Information Age gallery for many years to come.

The radio is now fully conserved and radio for display in Information Age when it opens later this year. (Source: Science Museum / SSPL)

Behind the Scenes at Blythe House

Alice Williams is part of the team of Science Museum Conservators and Collections Assistants that have been working behind the scenes since June 2012 on objects that will be displayed in the new Information Age gallery.

As a Collections Assistant working on the new Information Age gallery my role means I work with the objects through each stage of their journey – from storage to display. At the moment I spend my day working in the stores, where each object must be checked for any potential hazards (such as lead or mercury), handled, and moved for conservation. With so many objects to keep track of a lot of time is spent planning conservation and logistics schedules, and making sure every object is accurately documented and well cared for in storage.

With over 800 objects to conserve, pack, transport and install, this is certainly no mean feat. The team is divided across two sites, with three Conservators based at our store for large objects in Wroughton and three Conservators, two Collections Assistants and one Conservation Student based at Blythe House in West London.

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House

A 1924 view of the main block of Blythe House (The National Archives: Public Record Office NSC 27/2 Album of Blythe Road photographs)

Blythe House, formerly the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and built between 1899 and 1903, is now a museum storage facility and home to the Science Museum’s incredible collection of small to medium sized objects. There are over 203,000 objects stored over 90 rooms at Blythe House, with extensive and diverse collections ranging from the History of Medicine to Telecommunications.

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store

Racks full of objects in the telecommunications store (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

The Conservators work meticulously on each object in our Conservation Laboratory, carrying out research and treatments, and documenting every object in great detail. The Conservators also advise on the best way to display the objects, ensuring the objects will be safe, secure and stable when in the gallery and that they are protected for the future.

Conservators at work in the conservation lab

Conservators at work in the conservation lab (Source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

While each Information Age object will go through the same thorough process, every day is different for the team at Blythe House. Whether it is co-ordinating the move of larger and more challenging objects, taking part in public events, providing tours, couriering loans, or planning for the arrival of new acquisitions, there is never a dull moment in the stores.

Some carefully stored early radio receivers

Some carefully stored early radio receivers (source: Alice Williams / Science Museum)

With the opening of the Information Age gallery planned for later this year, we will soon be reaching the final stages of object conservation. Before long we’ll be packing and transporting the objects to the Science Museum where we will all be on hand to install the objects in the new gallery.

Information Age team begin the one year countdown

Charlotte Connelly is a content developer on Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opening in September 2014.

This week over in the Information Age team we passed an exciting marker. Instead of counting the time to the gallery opening in years, for the first time we’ve slipped into counting in weeks and months. It seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done so far, and some of the interesting things we still have to look forward to.

Where we’ve come from

The early days of the project were all about research. We spent time rummaging in the museum stores for great objects we could include, visiting other museums, immersing ourselves in archives and doing interviews with knowledgeable folks about communication and information technology.

Where we found gaps in our collection we came up with plans to fill the gaps, growing our collections and expertise as we went. One of those gaps was a decided lack of mobile phone technologies from developing countries – a massive oversight if you’re trying to tell a story about the impact of mobiles in the world today. Our solution was to embark on an ambitious collecting project in Cameroon, which I’ve written about here.

We collected objects and interviews on a research trip to Cameroon to find out more about the impact of mobile phones in Africa (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

We also set about improving our knowledge of the collections already in the museum, and spent long hours looking at objects and reading through the files we keep on them.

We made some exciting finds rummaging through the museum’s archives (Source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

As our knowledge about the technology and collections grew so did our ideas about we could include in the gallery. We developed a list of 21 compelling stories about how communication and information technologies have affected our lives over the last 200 years. Our next challenge was working out the best ways to tell those stories. We have been working with a lot of different people to help us, from individuals offering their telegrams for inclusion in Information Age and volunteers helping with our research, to larger organisations like the British Vintage Wireless Society and the Samaritans.

Members of the British Vintage Wireless Society in the museum’s stores (Source: Science Museum)

Where are we now?

With a year to go we’ve selected all the objects that will go into the Information Age gallery, and worked out what the showcases will look. The Museum’s conservation team have been beavering away on preparing the objects for display, and the collections information team have been arranging loans and getting all the paperwork sorted for the new objects we’ve acquired, like a replica of the first ever computer mouse.

Things have started happening in the gallery space too. The space is now empty (we captured this stunning laser scan of the old gallery), waiting for the new Information Age gallery structure to be built. We’re even expecting our first objects to be installed soon (mostly the very big ones that require quite a large hole being made in the wall!)

The empty gallery leaves us with a formidable amount of space to fill. (Source: Science Museum)

In April 2013 we officially launched the project, and invited some of our supporters to see the work we’d been doing. Suddenly we were faced with lots of expectant faces, and it made the whole project feel much more real somehow.

We got some of our objects out to show off to supporters at the Information Age launch (Source: Science Museum)

What comes next?

Those of us working on the content of the gallery have already started writing the labels that accompany the object. We’re also getting started on all the digital things – things like interactive screens in the gallery, and the pages for the website, plus one or two surprises that we’ll announce later.

Some of the audience research team testing a prototype of one of our interactive displays. (Source: Sophie Keyse / Science Museum)

The building work and show cases will soon start to progress quickly, and behind the scenes the conservation team will be slowly but surely working through the list of objects that need preparing for display. It won’t be long before we’re starting to install objects in their final positions, ready for the exciting moment when we open our doors.

Information Agean exciting new gallery about information and communication, opens in September 2014.

Putting a piece of Cameroon in the Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer on Information Age, a new exhibition opening in 2014. She works on stories about mobile phones, radio and television. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp are conservators based at the Science Museum’s stores at Wroughton.

This week I’ve headed up to Manchester to talk about a tiny part of Information Age at the biggest ever history of science conference. Together with some other people from the Information Age team I’m running a special session about communications technology in Africa, with a special focus on Cameroon.

Last year a small group of us were lucky enough to go to Cameroon on a field trip to collect a range of objects for the museum that show how mobile phones have affected peoples’ lives. Just like in Britain, the mobile phone means that people organise themselves differently now that they’re constantly connected.

But, in Cameroon telecommunication technology used to be very expensive and difficult to access for most people, and now many more people can own and use a mobile phone making communication much easier. Although we collected lots of different kinds of mobile phone technologies I want to tell you about just one of objects we collected.

Emmanuel’s call box in Bamenda, Cameroon (Source: Science Museum / Sjoerd Epe Sijsma)

Emmanuel Bongsunu lives and works in Bamenda, in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He set up his first call box business in the late 1990s, very soon after mobile phones were introduced into the country. His call box tells the story of how the business evolved over time. In the picture you can see the original part of the call box – the small yellow box at the front that he would have sat behind, probably under an umbrella. As the business grew so too did his call box until eventually it was big enough to stand in, and even had its own electricity supply. When we spoke to Emmanuel he offered to sell us his call box as it would allow him to get a brand new one made to meet his needs today. It was such a great example that we couldn’t resist – even though getting such a big object back to the UK was going to be tricky.

A local carpenter helped us by building enormous crates to put our objects in, and his team also helped us to dismantle this large item. It was difficult to watch it being taken to pieces, and I made endless notes and labelled each part carefully so we would know how to put it back together afterwards.

Our crates ready to be taken to the port and shipped to the UK (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

A few weeks ago I travelled to our stores at Wroughton to work with two of the Science Museum’s conservation team to finally bring the call box back to life. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp have written about the part they played in reconstructing this rather dilapidated object. Here’s what they had to say:

When this item first arrived at Wroughton we froze it to eliminate any unwanted pest activity, after that it arrived in the conservation laboratory in its disassembled state. We decided to give the object a relatively light clean and to make only necessary repairs to the structure to allow it to be put back together in a stable condition.  Running repairs and rough edges were all part of the object’s history and we wanted to preserve this, making it look too clean or new would not give a true impression of its working life, or the piecemeal way in which it had been constructed.

We did a light surface clean to remove some insect debris and thick soiling that had built up during transportation. Original nails also had to be removed where they were sticking out from the timbers as they were usually bent and corroded and would get in the way of the reassembly, as well posing as a safety hazard to the team. We used modern fixings in the re-build instead, as this involved putting the timbers under less stress and also means in the future it will be obvious which bits are the original object, and which bits we added. Anything we added to the object has been carefully recorded.

Esther and Diana working on reconstructing Emmanuel’s call box (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

Some timbers had to be repaired for the structural integrity of the object; in these cases the damage had been caused entirely through the deconstruction process.  The work included ‘consolidating’ the feet of the object to prevent any of the original wood being lost and to protect them during transport to the gallery. Working on the roof was quite challenging, and we built a special support so that it could be worked on upside-down. We haven’t put the roof back on yet because it’ll be easier to transport it back to London in two pieces ready for the display.

Keep your eyes peeled for future posts about how we’re working with Cameroonians based in London to decide together how the various objects we brought back should be displayed.

“Love to Soph”, hidden Morse messages from the SS Great Eastern

Jennifer Bainbridge, Conservator on the new Information Age gallery, writes about the conservation of Morse code tapes from the SS Great Eastern, 1865, a ship which undertook the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable. John Liffen, Curator of Communication, provides details of transcription.

As one of the conservators working on the new Information Age gallery, opening in September 2014, I handle, document and carry out treatments on objects destined for display.  Working so closely with artifacts means I am often in the lucky position of discovering new quirks or secrets, as I was recently reminded when undertaking conservation of some Morse code tapes from the S.S Great Eastern voyage of 1865.

Morse code tapes before treatment (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Looking at the tapes on a shelf in our Telecommunications Store, sitting alongside larger and grander objects, they appeared deceptively small and manageable, while at the same time they held the promise of untold stories.  Curator of Communication, John Liffen, informed me that within living memory at the museum the tapes had never been unravelled and no transcription of the message existed. It was now my job to enable this task! Firstly, I had to determine the object’s condition. Wound round an old paper envelope core the tapes were overlapping as they were coiled round and round.

While providing a compact means of storage, the tapes looked under stress.  They were, however strong enough for unravelling to take place.  The unwinding was quite a slow process as it turned out there were nine tapes wound together, with some being very lengthy.

You can see why the tapes were wrapped around an old envelope, they’re a little unwieldy when unwrapped. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

Once unravelled, the tapes were lightly cleaned with Smoke Sponge, a natural vulcanised rubber which gently picked up dust and dirt.  The tapes then needed to be humidified to relax the bends and creases caused by having been rolled.  Direct moisture causes cockling of paper and potential running of inks, so instead the paper was rested on a one-way permeable membrane to allow vapour, rather than water though.  Once lying flat the tears were repaired using heat set tissue, activated with a heated spatula.

With the tape repaired John then stepped in to commence the transcription. (Credit: Jennifer Bainbridge)

The main problem encountered at the transcription stage was that the dots and dashes inked on the tape can at times be ambiguous, with a dot often looking like a dash and vice versa.  As John says,

“To a twenty-first century researcher much of the Morse on the tapes translates as random letters. However, in places recognisable words can be read. On piece 1, the phrases ‘still in Vienna have red red’ and ‘none from Paris’ can be seen. Piece 6 was indecipherable, but when the tape was inverted the phrase ‘concludes lead iron cable’ was found within a string of Morse letters. This is more promising as part of a possible message. Most intriguingly, on piece 4 can be found ‘love to Sophbin’. Presumably ‘Sophie’ is the intended word but the Morse clearly shows a ‘b’ after the letter h. Whoever Sophie was, how did she come to be on board the Great Eastern during its cable-laying voyage?”.

How to make your pets last longer…

Wrapped up beneath these bandages is a mummified animal. How did it die? What material is it wrapped in? Are there amulets we can’t see inside? Is it an animal at all – could they be human remains?

Mummified cat, ancient Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, (source: Science Museum).

To answer question like these and more, the Science Museum is collaborating in a new nationwide project analysing the remains of ancient Egyptian animals. Led by researchers at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, the Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project is aiming to scan, sample and study all such remains in the UK.  

Dr. Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton - researchers from the UK wide Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project - take a look at our mummified animal collections on 30/03/11 (Source: Katie Maggs).

Ancient Egyptians appear to be the only civilisation to have deliberately mummified and preserved animals. Yet, relatively little is known about their motivations to do so (for some theories visit this British Museum site).

The study should produce valuable information about the role of animals in ancient Egypt – a critical part of the human story there.  Egypt was (and is) an agricultural society. Studying these animals will shed light on the food supplies and environment ancient Egyptians lived in, as well as the diseases that may have affected both animals and humans.

It’s a great opportunity for the Science Museum to get to know more about these objects. Part of the collections amassed by Henry Wellcome in the early 20th century, we know relatively little about where and when in Egypt they come from. Participating in this project will give us a better insight into how complete the remains are, whether there are other items inside we cant see, cause of death -  and a better idea of the time period and regions they’re from. Moreover – knowing more about their materials will help us care for them better in the future.

Along with birds like this one and cats - crocodiles, baboons, cows and bulls have all been found preserved through mummification. You can see some of the beak and wings poking though the cloth that this bird is wrapped up in. (Source: Science Museum)

Next steps will be bringing the animals up to a Manchester hospital for x-ray and CT scanning later in the year. With scanners focussed on patients for most of the week - imaging has to be carried out on the weekend by radiographers willing to donate their free time to do this.

Samples of the various remains will also be collected for testing. We don’t damage the animals on purpose to do this – often small fragments flake off whilst they sit in the showcase. We can gather these up and send them to the biobank for analysis. 

You can visit our collection of mummified animals in the Art and Science of Medicine gallery (5th floor). We’ll keep you up to date with progress and report back on what the study finds out!

Oddy Oddy Oddy

Would you like to take a test to see what you’ll be like in the future?

Well, if so an Oddy test could be what you’re looking for - although unfortunately it’s not suitable for human testing.

An Oddy test is an accelerated aging procedure that we carry out on materials to see how they’ll react over time. It was first introduced by Mr Andrew Oddy in the 1970s and materials are enclosed in a test tube with metal coupons and heated over 4 weeks. The principle is that the heating accelerates the aging of the material.

The setup for oddy testing materials (Kayleigh Beard, 2010)

We use Oddy tests in museums to test how materials which are used for storage and display are going to react over time.

We can tell whether a material is suitable for use by looking at the metal coupons within the test tube. For example, if the material gives off gases while it ages the accelerated aging in the test tube will cause the metal coupons to corrode – obviously we don’t want this to happen to our objects!

You can also look at the condition of the materials after the 4 weeks and if cracking has begun to occur it may indicate that after 10 years your material will no longer be strong and stable.

Metal coupons used in Oddy testing. Compared to control coupons you can identify if corrosion is present. (Kayleigh Beard, 2010)

Currently we are working alongside the British Museum to try and build up an archive of Oddy tested material. The aim is to then make the results of these tests available to other museums.

Sharing knowledge means that museums can ensure they are looking after their collections using the best possible materials. Not so odd afterall…

Let’s blog about conservation!

In previous blog posts you’ve had a taster of how we manage conservation at the Museum, but there’s much more to come…

But before we get carried away with our fantastic objects and treatments, let’s answer that fundamental question: what is conservation?

Cleaning of Hastings & St Leonards Gas Co seal (ScM, London, 2008)

The National Trust sums up conservation nicely as ‘the careful management of change’.

The objects in our collection are often acquired for their historical significance. They tell us a story, and we aim to maintain the condition of the objects so that their story will never be lost.

That is why we don’t ‘restore’ things to look brand new. The marks on that piece of wood can tell us how it was manufactured, and wear on that prosthetic limb can tell us how it was used.

I feel archaeologists are often mistaken for conservators, and I am fully prepared to don my brown Stetson fedora and be Indiana Jones… but really Indy, you shouldn’t just grab that sacred relic with your un-gloved hand and shove it in your back pocket!

I recently found an alternative role-model when I discovered that Agatha Christie, one of my all time heroes, was a makeshift conservator.

Working with her second husband Max Mallowan out on archaeological digs she was involved in ‘removing dirt from the relics (she used facial cleanser)’.

I digress - let’s get back to the point. We in the conservation department hope that by caring for the objects, ‘their special qualities are protected, enhanced, enjoyed and understood by present and future generations’.

So stay tuned for conservation blogs on all sorts of exciting projects taking place behind the scenes! Catch you later…

Location, Location, Location

Can you imagine taking a jigsaw of over 6000 pieces apart just to move it to another location and put it back together?

That’s just the task we’ve been set for one of the Science Museum’s most complex exhibits - James Watt’s Workshop, which is due to open in spring 2011.

We acquired his complete workshop in 1924. It includes the doors, window, furniture, stove - pretty much everything but the kitchen sink.

General view of Watt's Workshop, in original Heathfield location.

It was painstakingly moved in the 1920’s from its Birmingham location to London, and a room was built to exact specifications to recreate the look and atmosphere of the original space.

Watt's Workshop before it's moved into a new location and open to public.

Now the challenge is to take it from that room to a public gallery.

As conservation staff it’s not only important to conserve objects from deterioration but to also help conserve the interpretation.

This can include cleaning and repairing an item so it appears as it would when in use, but also - most importantly - to make sure that an item is not altered in such a way that it is no longer possible to identify what it was or how it was used.

The workshop is pushing this principle to the extreme as we want to retain how Watt worked in the room, giving us some insight into his thought processes and working practices.

We can achieve this by carefully locating, recording and photographing every item in the workshop prior to moving it to the new gallery. Not all of the objects we record would normally be seen as museum-worthy – scraps of paper and bits of discarded thread and sawdust - but they all add to the overall interpretation of the room.

And, who knows, that scrap of paper may have held the doodle of his latest invention…

Winding the Wells

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights switched from horsepower to electric power. Here’s a video.

A 1961 travel advertisement for Wells (NRM / Science & Society)

Other parts of the clock remained hand-wound, carrying on a tradition of over 600 years. It’s a time-consuming job and the clock is now going to be wound automatically.

However, the original medieval clock from Wells Cathedral is still wound by hand. The mechanism, which was installed in the cathedral in 1392, was replaced in 1837. It came to the Patent Museum in 1871, and has been part of the Science Museum’s collections since 1884. Currently on display in our Measuring Time gallery, it’s the second-oldest working mechanical clock in England, after the one in Salisbury Cathedral (although that is not regularly run).

A detail of the Wells clock (Science Museum).

The daily job of winding the clock is done by Richard from our Conservation team. Each morning, he winds the clock’s three gear trains (one would have controlled the interior and exterior clock faces, one the hour actions and one the quarter-hour actions). The whole process can take up to half an hour and Richard says it’s a very good workout! Read an interview with him here.

Fast hands: Richard winds the Wells (Alison Boyle).

The clock keeps very good time, only losing a few seconds per day. And our Conservation team keeps other clocks in the gallery running too – more about that in a future blog.