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.
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.
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…