Amgueddfa Cymru


Mrs Beeton, spreading Victorian housekeeping wisdom through the medium of her 1861 classic “Book of Household Management” (still in print in 2016!), said in her introduction: “What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement.”

Every conservator can identify with that; how many times have we seen objects damaged by inadequate environmental controls, neglected pest management, or insufficient pollution control? Panel paintings will split when the humidity in a gallery fluctuates widely; taxidermy displays are devoured by dermestid beetles; and lead objects, even minerals, corrode to dust in the presence of airborne organic acids, a typical indoor pollutant.

For conservators, the modern version of Mrs Beeton’s book is the National Trust’s “Manual of Housekeeping”. This is a book that has grown over the years into something now requiring a good sized tree to print it on – and, according to the National Trust’s paper conservation advisor, Andrew Bush, should be the only book in your collection that is badly damaged (from frequent use for reference purposes, of course). Conservation has changed from the use of traditional remedies into a science in its own right, with many dedicated scientific journals where the latest research is published. The National Trust, as one of the largest employers of conservators in the UK, runs an in-house training programme to ensure dissemination of cutting edge research to the coal face, as it were. Last week I had the pleasure of going through this week-long training – and a pleasure it was indeed.

The course (held this year at Attingham Park, an almost 250 year old mansion in rural Shropshire) is both an introduction for new staff and a refresher for long established conservators, which is reflected in the intense programme: each day was packed with demonstrations, workshops and lectures. Shorter sessions introduce the agents of deterioration and advice on the care of carpets, rugs and paintings and their frames. Practical workshops deal with diverse topics such as the conservation of paper, ceramics, metals and natural stone – each with their own material properties, risks and preservation techniques.

Even Mrs Beeton was able to tell us that “Essence of Lemon will remove grease, but will make a spot itself in a few days”, but did you know that it takes up to seven people to remove a large painting safely from a wall? Or that the corrosion on the copper kettle leaves permanent damage in the form of pits which are visible even after careful conservation treatment? That much damage is caused to floors by the sheer number (and type) of shoes walking across our heritage sites? That light causes irreversible damage to pigments and materials which even the best conservator cannot repair?

This is where preventive conservation, the pre-emptive care of collections, comes in. We know the mechanisms causing damage to objects. The challenge for heritage organisations is therefore more than simply fixing objects when things go wrong – instead, the focus now is on ensuring that as little damage as possible happens in the first place.

This means undertaking dust surveys to set up cleaning management plans; risk assessing collections for the presence of mould and managing the store/display environment accordingly; spot checking collections for pest damage and monitoring the occurrence and movements of pests around the museum; monitoring and adjusting light levels to avoid sensitive objects being over exposed.

For many years the advice was to wear cotton gloves when handling paper. But libraries and archives found that much damage was done to sensitive documents through the use of cotton gloves, which reduce manual dexterity, allow sweat and oils through from the skin and can snag on paper. So the advice now is to use either vinyl gloves or none at all – providing your hands are clean and free from grease.

Looking after the nation’s heritage takes more than locking objects in a store and hoping for the best. The proper care of collections requires much knowledge and experience; constant training to keep up to date with the latest research forms part of that.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

In the last blog I outlined (very briefly!) what museum conservators do. Recently we (that is, the conservation team at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) had an opportunity to present ourselves and our work directly to the community during an Open Day. And the day gave us as many interesting insights as it did the public.

This was the first ever Conservators Open Day held at National Museum Cardiff. First up, the day was not a flop: almost 4,000 people came to the museum that day; for comparison, the daily average over the year is approximately 1,200 visitors, so the turnout was good. In fact, it exceeded all expectations. You could say we were happy with that.

The offer on the day had included an insight into every branch of the museum’s conservation. The furniture conservator brought a real harpsichord and explained how it had been repaired recently. The paintings conservator demonstrated how she restores paintings. The natural history conservators asked our visitors how a damaged stuffed peacock should be conserved – and they are now working on applying these suggestions so that the peacock will soon be presentable again. Here is a little summary with many photos giving an impression of the day.

So we know that people are interested in our work and how we go about preserving heritage. But what exactly does that mean? Are conservators really being confused with conservationists, and did people go home having learned what the difference really is? Museums are about learning – so we would like to know if this works. Some big questions – we wanted to know the answers and undertook some research in the form of event evaluation.

The results of the evaluation indicated that many people had come specifically to see this event (the marketing is working), and almost all enjoyed it (our offer was good). This is good to know and gives us some direction for the organisation of future events. What surprised us was to find that most people knew who museum conservators are and what they do – apparently we do not get confused with the people who look after pandas (who also do incredibly valuable work). Not only that, but 100% of our respondents said that the care of collections is one of the most important roles of museums.

An important answer in many ways. It makes conservators – who spend most of their time hidden behind the scenes, working on their own in a laboratory or windowless store, where it is easy to get a sense of isolation – feel valued for the many hours of painstaking work. More importantly, it suggests that the community cares deeply about its heritage, and appreciates that there is somebody who looks after it on their behalf.

We all need our heritage. It defines who we are. It is a reference point for our values. It anchors us in our roots. But it’s not as easy as handing your grandfather’s watch to the museum and putting it on a shelf. Things fall apart without proper care, and once an object is lost we cannot simply buy a new one from a supermarket/antiques shop/ebay. Together with the object the story is lost, and a piece of history gone.

Conservators are key in the museum sector’s work of maintaining the link between objects and history, values and identity. Our visiting public are aware of this and know to value it. Does that mean we can stop holding Open Days? Absolutely not: according to the evaluation, no visitor went away not having learned anything, and now that curiosity has been awakened the majority want to find out more. In fact, two thirds of visitors want conservators to be more visible in public spaces. This is what we are now working on – so watch out in our galleries and you might just see more of us soon.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Mae Archwilio eich Archif yn ymgyrch ar y cyd rhwng Yr Archifau Cenedlaethol a’r Gymdeithas Archifau a Chofnodion ar draws y DU ac Iwerddon. Y bwriad yw dangos potensial unigryw archifau i gyffroi pobl, dod â chymunedau ynghyd ac adrodd straeon anhygoel.

Y llynedd cynhaliodd staff Amgueddfa Cymru ddigwyddiad Archwilio eich Archif am y tro cyntaf. Cafodd ei gynnal yn Sefydliad Oakdale, Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, gyda detholiad o ddogfennau a ffotograffau yn ymwneud â Chymru a’r Rhyfel Byd Cyntaf i gyd-fynd â lansiad ein catalog Rhyfel Byd Cyntaf ar-lein. Gallwch chwilio’r catalog yma.

Roedd yn ddigwyddiad poblogaidd, gydag oedolion a grwpiau ysgolion yn mwynhau gweld y deunydd archif hanesyddol a chael trafod eu hanes gyda’r staff sy’n edrych ar ôl y casgliadau. Yn dilyn llwyddiant y digwyddiad, rydym yn trefnu un arall eleni. Bydd ‘Darganfod Cymru: Hanes ar Stepen y Drws’ yn cael ei gynnal ar 20-21 Tachwedd ym mhrif neuadd Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd, Parc Cathays. Y thema eleni fydd teithio a thwristiaeth a bydd detholiad o ddeunydd archif o’n casgliadau i’w gweld, yn cynnwys ffotograffau, ffilmiau, cardiau post, llythyrau a llyfrau nodiadau, gyda chyfle i chi eu trafod gyda’r tîm sy’n curadu, rheoli a gwarchod y casgliadau archif. Eleni hefyd bydd cyfres o ddigwyddiadau i blant, gyda chyfle iddynt greu eu cardiau post eu hunain i’w harddangos yn y brif neuadd, neu afael yn y chwyddwydr a’n helpu ni i adnabod enwau a lleoliadau anhysbys o’r casgliadau ffotograffig! Bydd hefyd lwybr Archwilio eich Archif i’w ddilyn o gwmpas yr Amgueddfa.

Gobeithio y gallwch ymuno. Mae mwy o fanylion yma.


Roedd Palas yr Esgob yn Henffordd yn neuadd fawreddog un tro, a gan i’r gwaith adeiladu ddechrau ym 1180 mae’n rhoi cipolwg prin i ni ar dechnegau’r cyfnod. Yr wythnos diwethaf fe es i a rhai o’m cydweithwyr, i’r Palas i weld yr un cwpwl siap bwa sydd wedi goroesi hyd heddiw, ynghudd yn yr atig.

Un o brosiectau diweddaraf Sain Ffagan yw ail-greu un o lysoedd Tywysogion Gwynedd. Sâf y llys gwreiddiol yn Rhosyr, ger Niwbwrch ar Ynys Môn ers y drydedd ganrif ar ddeg. Roedd yn un o 22 llys a ddefnyddiwyd gan Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn Fawr) er mwyn cyflawni ei ddyletswyddau gweinyddol ym mhob ardal. Adfail yw’r llys bellach a phrin yw’r dystiolaeth o ffrâm bren y to, ac felly gwnaed ymchwil helaeth er mwyn creu cynllun addas i’r ail-greuad. Roedd tystiolaeth un sylfaen postyn ynghyd ag ardaloedd gwahanol o gerrig pafin yn awgrymu bod dwy rês o byst pren yn y brif neuadd yn rhannu’r neuadd ar ei hyd, gan greu ‘corff’ canolog a dwy ‘eil’ i’r naill ochr. Byddai’n rhaid angori pyst pren tal fel y rhain er cadernid, a dyma’r rheswm dros ein hymweliad â Henffordd. Y bwriad yw ail-greu’r dechneg fframio drwy ddefnyddio trawstiau angori bwaog tebyg, fydd yn ffurfio pendistiau cryf i ddal distiau’r to. Mae’r trawst bwaog bron mor fawreddog heddiw ag yr oedd yn anterth y neuadd.

Roedd safon y gwaith ym 1168 yn uchel iawn, a gallwch chi weld y cerfio cain ar bennau’r colofnau a’r stydwaith ar ochr uchaf y carn-tro. Rhaid nodi’r pren ei hun hefyd, gan taw dim ond breuddwydio am goed o’r maint all seiri heddiw. Crëwyd dau hanner y cwpwl o un boncyff crwm, a fyddai’n hynod o brin heddiw, ac mae’r golofn gron ger gwaelod y bwa wedi’i cherfio o’r un boncyff â’r trawst sgwâr y tu ôl iddi, sy’n galw am goeden trwchus dros ben. Er bod safon y gwaith yn uchel iawn, rhaid nodi hefyd bod rhai wedi amau y dechneg. Yn English Historic Carpentry (1980) dywedodd Cecil A. Hewett bod hyn yn ‘saernïaeth wael... lluniwyd esiampl Henffordd i safon uchel, ond gwelir y safon yn hollti medrus y pren a manyldeb y ffitio yn unig. Fel y dangosir, mae’r uniadau mor wan, prin y gellir eu galw’n uniadau...’

Ond, mae Palas yr Esgob yn dal i sefyll 835 mlynedd yn ddiweddarach er gwaethaf y ‘saernïaeth wael’. Wedi dychwelyd o Henffordd, yr her i mi yw ail-greu’r cynllun yn ein neuadd ni gan godi dwy ar bymtheg o drawstiau angori hanner cylch i ddal to gwellt Llys Rhosyr. Bydd y cyfan ar raddfa lai, ond y gobaith yw y bydd dau denon cudd ar frig y bwa yn cryfhau’r uniad, tra’n cynnal yr edrychiad traddodiadol.

Conservators are a misunderstood race. When we start talking about what we do (conservation, of course), many people see us cuddling pandas and elephant babies. Some of us do indeed work with elephants – but generally only long after their demise. Because we protect not the living from dying, but the dead from decaying.

Natural and cultural heritage (for a definition, please see here) does not last forever. In fact, heritage can be incredibly ephemeral. In the museum context, just think of all the materials we hold in store: paper, wood, bone, feathers, leaves, glass, ceramics – all things that can break or decompose easily. But this just happens to be what your heritage is made of. All those objects making up our cultural treasure chest are in constant danger of breaking, getting mouldy, being eaten by insects, falling apart.

It is the job of your friendly museum conservator to make sure your children and your children’s children will still have that cultural reference point in many years to come. This requires a lot of work, all of the time – the rot never sleeps. Usually, only when things go wrong do conservators end up in the news. Most of the time, these highly skilled and experienced people go about their jobs unseen, in laboratories and studios deep in the bowels of museums, or in the galleries long after closing time.

To be a conservator today requires years of training, and rightly so – our heritage is too precious to risk gluing a beard back on wonky and with the wrong type of glue. The National Museum’s team of 20 conservators cares for approximately three million objects. These collections are hugely varied: the museum collects helicopters, microfossils, skeletons, oil paintings, mobile phones, harps and 18th century ball gowns. Conservation is therefore definitely for the specialist.

Restoring a painting, cleaning a Viking sword or preparing a fossil dinosaur skull, let me tell you, is really not easy. If you want to do it well it takes knowledge of materials, history and analytical sciences, experience and skill. Is it any easier to store things? Well, no, actually, to store objects correctly – that is, without inviting decay – the store must be dry (but not too dry!), cool, clean, free from pests, well organised, and have the right type of shelving for whatever we are storing.

Do you now want a chance to find out what a conservator is and what they really do? If you have a coin bring it along to our first Museum Conservators Open Day – we’ll show you what it’s made from during half term week: 27th October 2015 at National Museum Cardiff. You can play the X-ray game (perfectly safe, promise!), find out what creepy-crawlies are eating our collections and your wardrobe at home, and try your hands at conservation skills. All for free from 10am to 5pm!