Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

How museum conservators protect collections

How museum conservators keep our treasures from decay(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring). Click here to view video.

Declan Bowring, How conservators in Australian museums keep our national treasures from decaying, ABC Radio Sydney, 17 August 2022

Sydney’s Australian Museum houses and displays cultural and scientific specimens ranging from rare fossils and animal remains to minerals and valuable gemstones, and its conservators take a hands-on approach to preserving those items.

Conservators often have a background in visual arts, including the museum’s manager of collection care and conservation Heather Bleechmore.

While backgrounds in history or material science might be more intuitive, Ms Bleechmore said the skills picked up in arts school were very applicable when caring for collection items.

Artists are trained to appreciate the strength of a wide variety of materials, which are used to make sculptures and physical artworks.

The fine touches artists use are also important skills that can be applied when handling and cleaning precious artefacts.

Heather Bleechmore (left) says many of the skills learnt at arts school are applicable to a career as a museum conservator.(Supplied: Abram Powell, Australian Museum).

“Conservators need to be able to use their hands. It’s a very hands-on career,” Ms Bleechmore said.

“Implementing the research that we do into materials and being able to practically apply that to an object requires a bit of dexterity,”

Being a conservator is a very hands-on job.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring).

“The spark of curiosity that you already have with materials can lead you into that curiosity with science.”

Controlling the elements

Most of the work involved in conservation is preventing natural deterioration.

Humidity, temperature and light are the main things that need to be controlled in order to maximise the life of museum artefacts. Some of that work focuses on sealing the gaps in the container holding the collection item.

Artist skills using fine touches with brushes are required in the job.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring).

“We also look at the infrastructure that surrounds the collection and how best we can improve that,” Ms Bleechmore said.

Pests such as beetles and moths also represent a danger to the collections.

“Insect pests are the biggest threat to any collection.

Particularly if they’re laying eggs and the larvae hatch. That can be a very voracious time of eating and it can cause a lot of damage very quickly”

Humidity is one of the key elements conservators seek to control.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring).

Protecting your personal collections

As part of National Science Week, the museum’s conservation team will be holding workshops on Saturday with visitors showing how conservators use cellulose-based paper such as Japanese tissue to repair tears or holes.

“We can use it in when we’re trying to carry out tear repairs, gap filling, and we often use it as a poke material to fill holes,” Ms Bleechmore said.

Cellulose-based paper is used to repair tears and holes in collection items.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring).

“It’s extremely versatile material.”

The team will also be imparting knowledge to the public about protecting personal collections.

The best thing to do to protect precious artefacts in the home is to seal them in an airtight container and keep them in a dark, dry and cool place, Ms Bleechmore said.

Each item brought into the museum has its condition assessed by the conservation team.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

“That’s where the temperature and humidity remains stable,” Ms Bleechmore said.

“It’s going to do a lot for the preservation of your own objects.”


Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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