Tag Archives: Blythe House

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 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 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 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)

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

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)

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.

Putting theory into practice – our university placement at the Science Museum

Belinda Li and Jessica Martin are Museum Studies interns working on the Information Age gallery.

Belinda explores Making the Modern World

Hi! I’m Belinda. I’m currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. This is our sixth week out of our eight week placement.

The purpose of the placement is to give us professional experience in the museums sector. We are working on the Information Age gallery that is scheduled to be opened in September 2014. This experience has shown me how many people are required to accomplish all the different jobs to complete this overall project in time and how complex the planning process must be for an exhibition and a project of this size. This gallery has been years in the making.

I have specifically been working on the development of a digital in-gallery activity for school groups visiting the museum. I have been researching different aspects of this activity to present to the team. The activity for this new gallery has drawn on many of the topics I have been researching over the last few years at university and has been a very interesting project to work on. It is allowing me to translate theory into real world practice.

In addition to being able to see the true inner workings behind the museum, I have also had the chance to participate in some other amazing activities around the museum this summer. I have been scanned in 3D for 3D summer and gotten to wander around different parts of the museum to do research. This has been an incredible experience, which has given me chances to do and see things that I never thought I would but has also given me real world grounding in the museum sector. I have enjoyed it immensely.

Jessica in front of the Apollo 10 capsule

Hey y’all, I’m Jessica. Like Belinda, I am also finishing up my Master’s in Museum Studies. I can’t really believe that I only have two weeks left of the placement to go; time has gone by crazy fast here at the Science Museum.

I am working on two projects for the Information Age team. Firstly, I have been looking at the structure and content of the Information Age collections website. This has involved researching the collections websites of other museums, and trying to decide which features make collections interesting, and engaging for visitors as they browse through the objects. This can be something as simple as making sure that the on-line collections are easy to find.

Secondly, I have been working with a team of volunteers, trying to pull together a wish list for an object handling programme for the gallery. For this, we have been looking into what makes an object engaging, not just from an academic perspective, but also from a tactile one. We have visited the Science Museum store at Blythe House and we have gone on field trips to other museums with object handling programmes. This Friday, we are headed out to the London Transport Museum and the British Museum so that we can learn from their volunteers about the dos and don’ts of object handling.

Belinda and Jessica visiting Blythe House with a volunteer.

The Science Museum has been great. Seeing David Attenborough (and making my siblings jealous) has definitely been one of the highlights of my stay, and taking part in a silent disco being held in the Exploring Space gallery counts among one of the more surreal experience of my life. I have learned so much here about how a museum functions behind the scenes. Something is happening all the time, whether it’s the organisation of a conference, staff training or a staff picnic, there is always stuff going on.

We would just like to say thanks to Jen Kavanagh, our supervisor, the rest of the Information Age Office and to the Science Museum, for the opportunities and experiences we have been given. Thanks!

First Time Out…second time around

Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, writes about the collaborative museums project, First Time Out

A while ago the Science Museum took part in a project called First Time Out – where museums put on display a ‘treasure’ from their stored collections that had never before been seen in public. Well we’re giving it a go again – but this time the project is larger than ever. Ten museums, from all over England, have paired up to swap objects from their collections, with the Science Museum partnering with the Discovery Museum in Newcastle (a great day out – go visit!).

We’ve chosen a rather splendid set of ten ivory mathematical puzzles that was made in China and exported to Britain in the mid-late 1800s.

Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 - tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes – according to problems posed by a picture book.
Amongst the puzzles the set contains is a tangram. A sensation when introduced to Europe in 1817 – tangrams are made up of several pieces known as ‘tans’ that can be assembled to make different shapes.

 In July, all the museums are swapping objects with their partners. We’re very excited about the early light-bulb and light switch that will be heading down from the Discovery Museum.

Newcastle was a hotbed of activity during the development of electric lighting, with pioneers such as Joseph Swan based there. (Image courtesy of Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).

It’s strange to think on the 4th July all ten objects will be hitting the road, crossing paths up and down the country, until they reach their temporary new home. And there’s some seriously amazing objects that have been uncovered. The bone model guillotine from Peterborough Museum, and the Natural History Museum’s tattooed dolphin skull are pretty remarkable.

Previously lurking in Peterborough Museum’s store is this model guillotine made from animal bone by prisoners of the Napoleanic Wars. (Credit: Photo John Moore, Vivacity Culture and Leisure)

I think it’s useful for museums to draw attention to material in store – both to explore the strangeness and explain the significance of holding material in storage for perpetuity, as well as to highlight the particular riches to be found behind the scenes.  Objects of course convey multiple meanings. Museums as well aren’t homogenous, so perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the project are the different perspectives each partner brings to the same object.

From a personal point of view, it’s been great working on First Time Out. Part of the fun was in selecting potential object candidates to be displayed, it was a great opportunity to look beyond the usual artefacts I work with (medical stuff) and explore collections I don’t usually get my hands on such as maths or astronomy colletions pictured here within Blythe House. (Credit: Laura Porter)

First Time Out opens with home objects on display from 6th June. You can see the Discovery Museum’s objects on display in the Museum from 5th July – until the beginning of August.