Tag Archives: Conservation

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.

The pride and passion of Mr Babbage

Cate Watson, Content Developer takes a look at the pride and passion of Charles Babbage.

Designing the Difference and Analytical engines was a monumental task, demanding dedication and extreme attention to detail. Both engines were made up of thousands of parts that required near identical manufacturing – pushing Victorian technology to its limits. And Babbage was determined to make the machines operate without any possibility of errors.

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Gearwheel cut-outs for Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage was very certain his engines would work. His passion for his machines kept him going despite numerous setbacks such as losing funding and the lack of acclaim or understanding of his inventions. Babbage continued designing engines until he died, absolutely sure that one day his work would be appreciated.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 1, 1824-1832. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

And he was right. Nearly 150 years after Babbage’s death, our modern technological society can fully appreciate his genius in inventing the Analytical engine – a machine that embodies all the major principles of our computers – and the potential it had to change society.

Babbage passionately believed in his inventions and the importance of science. This uncompromising certainty made him highly critical of those who didn’t live up to his high standards. He published a scornful, sarcastic attack against the unscientific practices of the Royal Society. It was so shocking that Babbage’s friend John Herschel told him he would have given him a ‘good slap in the face’ for writing it if he had been within reach.

Babbage's Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage’s Analytical Engine, 1834-1871. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Babbage acted according to his scientific principles and succeeded in alienating the Royal Society – which had previously persuaded the Government to fund the Difference Engine. Babbage tried demanding more money from the Prime Minister, failed and lost all hope of further support.

Babbage’s uncompromising personality contributed to his failure to build his machines. Yet it was his unswerving dedication to science that made him continue to work beyond hope of realisation and produce the engine plans you can see on show in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

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?”.

First Oramics Podcast!

Today we have a treat for fans of our Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic  exhibition; a lovely little behind the scenes podcast about the Oramics machine! A B-Side to the main exhibition, if you will.

Nick Street‘s documentary about the creation of the exhibition features many fascinating interviews with contemporary electronic musicians, colleagues of Daphne Oram, and the curators and conservators behind the exhibition. Bonus material from Nick’s interviews was used to create this podcast, which features Science Museum Conservator Dennis Kelles-Krause offering his take on the Oramics machine.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Guest blog post from Robert Sommerlad, a musician and Science Museum research assistant.