Hello! I have just joined the team at CMAS as an object conservator, having spent the last four years working on the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.
In my first three weeks I have had some lovely objects to get stuck into; one of which is a cream painted plaster model horse with a leather and textile collar from the Mere Museum.
We think this was a display model for a saddlery, although the records are a bit thin on the ground. It was brought in for conservation with fractures across all four lower legs and pieces of plaster had come away from the hind right leg exposing the iron armature inside. On top of this, the paint surface was flaking in places and is rather uneven, having been touched up and repainted several times.
Both the body of the horse and the base show signs of previous damage and repair, and indeed there are records of the horse having already been conserved twice by CMAS in the last 20 years.
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) is based at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. We preserve the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and provide support to museums, heritage organisations and individuals to care for and conserve historic collections and meet professional standards.
According to the UK’s professional conservation body the Institute of Conservation:
‘The purpose of all conservation is to facilitate the public’s access to and enjoyment of our cultural heritage. It helps us understand ourselves and our future by preserving our past.’
So, when a marching band drum from Radstock Museum recently came into the object conservation studio at CMAS, we had to think about how to preserve the history of the object in the best way.
The drum was from the Radstock Jubilee and much of the original paint had cracked and lifted from the surface. There were already large areas of loss, but the main text on the drum remained. It was not the intention for the drum to be used again, instead the Museum planned to place it on display. In discuss with the Museum it was decided that it would be most ethically appropriate to preserve the remaining paint to show the history and use of the object.
During lockdown our teams, like everyone, have had to adapt to new ways of working and think creatively about how we continued to support our heritage community and maintain our statutory services. In Part 1 Neil and Dorothy shared some of the work done by the Archaeology team and Wiltshire Buildings Record. In Part 2 we turn the spotlight on our Archives and Local Studies team, the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service and the Heritage Education Service.
Archives and Local Studies
While lockdown forced the cancellation of our 2020 events programme, we were able to reinvent some of the activities in new formats. County Librarian Julie Davis had planned a talk on TheHome Front in Wiltshire, as part of the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May. Instead she turned her slides into an online film show with a recorded narration. Julie also recorded readings from her recent publication From Blackout to Bungalows which explores the effects of World War Two on Wiltshire. These are available on our VE Day page on the website.
Pre-lockdown we were delighted to host a display of artworks by students from Wiltshire College in the History Centre foyer. Community history advisor Joy Bloomfield, who worked with the college on this project, redisplayed the pieces in our search room and created a more widely-accessible online exhibition available via our Facebook page.
Julie's Memory Box sessions also went online. Before lockdown the group would use written sources as a springboard for discussion and reminiscence. Unable to meet physically Julie recorded several readings themed on local fairs and industries which are now online to be enjoyed at home. Similarly, Ian Hicks has replicated his popular Introduction to Ancestry.com sessions as online videos. All videos can be found on our youtube channel including four short Welcome Back films featuring members of our team. Creating video content is new for most of us at the History Centre and, we’re not afraid to say, it was a bit daunting to begin with, but we have learnt new skills, gained confidence and seen the benefits of developing online content for the History Centre. Watch this space for more online material over the coming months.
We have also used lockdown to add more content to the Know Your Place website. Scanned copies of our tithe awards have been added to this already brimming resource. The tithe awards give details of landowners and occupiers plus land use for parishes across the county. In addition, more content has been added to pages of the Wiltshire Community History website, most notably on the subject of Wiltshire schools. Julie has also continued her engagement work with the team of Wiltshire Libraries Local Studies’ Champions to create digital material for the library service's YouTube channel.
Lockdown resulted in the disruption to many arts, heritage and cultural projects but as restrictions eased organisations looked to restart their programmes. The History Centre is delighted to be working with our new partners at Celebrating Age Wiltshire on their lottery-funded project to improve health and wellbeing of older people living in isolation. We are also feeding into the Swindon Heritage Action Zone, which is part of a wider Historic England heritage project and the project officer is working with local people in and around Swindon’s Railway Village to post old photographs onto the community layer of Know Your Place website.
Visitors to the History Centre usually come to consult documents, but the Local Studies Library is also an important research tool. It contains over 50,000 volumes and is the largest collection in the world of books about Wiltshire. We are always on the lookout for new titles and actively collect any published work that is about Wiltshire or is written by someone with a strong Wiltshire connection.
The last few months have been an opportunity to catch up with the backlog of cataloguing, making over 100 new books available to users of the service. They include biographies; newly published research on the two world wars and a beautifully illustrated book of the plants found in the gardens of Salisbury Cathedral Close. Perhaps these books may inspire you to write something and be part of Wiltshire’s written history. New lists of our latest catalogued books can be found in our Local Studies newsletters.
We have also used this time to update our staff toolkit which contains key guides on various collection themes in the hope we have the answers to all your questions at our fingertips. Quite an undertaking, we’re sure you’ll agree. Colleagues have also conducted research on topics such as militia records, the architecture of Salisbury and the Kennet and Avon Canal, plus we have been putting the finishing touches to a major new catalogue for the archive of Westinghouse Rail. This has involved formatting data collected by our volunteer Mike and uploading onto our electronic catalogue.
Like most archives and museums, we have launched a new collection that will record the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives. The History Centre’s Living in Lockdown project aims to collect personal reflections from people in Wiltshire and Swindon on their experiences of Covid-19 and how it has affected daily lives. We are also looking for printed material such as posters and leaflets, or newsletters from local groups, plus photographs recording lockdown, such as public displays of art and craft, and how local shops, services and events have been affected. Read more about the collecting project (including how to get in touch) on our archives pages.
Conservation and Museums Advisory Service
The Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) aims to promote excellence in the care and use of collections by providing conservation advice and practical treatments to heritage organisations and the public. We also support museums in Wiltshire to meet professional standards and become sustainable, resilient organisations.
Based at the History Centre, we can normally be found working in our two conservation laboratories, or out and about giving advice to museums, archives and historic houses. Lockdown meant that, like many others, we were confined to working at home and had to find a whole new way of doing things.
Without access to the specialist equipment and chemicals in the laboratory, we had to stop carrying out practical conservation treatments such as x-raying archaeological finds, cleaning coins, reconstructing ceramics and repairing documents. Instead the conservators have taken the time to carry out a number of other tasks.
We have been developing new training and support packages for both staff at the History Centre, and other museums and archives looking to gain Accreditation or better care for their collections. This includes topics like pest management, environmental monitoring and control, collection care planning, and preventative conservation of archives and historical collections. We’ve been looking at services aimed at those involved with archaeology, such as archaeological contractors and metal detectorists. There has also been the opportunity to develop our environmental sustainability plans, becoming greener to help the Council meet its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Even though the building has been closed, the archives have still required some care and attention, so we’ve been carrying out regular environmental monitoring checks to make sure the temperature and humidity levels in the strong rooms is suitable for their long-term preservation.
We have been exploring the digital world and finding alternative ways of working. A redesign of the CMAS web pages has begun including a simplified web address - www.wshc.org.uk/cmas - and we took part in a twitter conference organised by the Institute of Conservation (#IconArchTC) talking about our treatment of a Roman coin hoard owned by Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury. You can also watch our new video about the conservation treatment of a pair of Pele’s football boots.
Meetings have gone online, and we have been getting to grips with the technicalities and etiquette of virtual meetings, including Wiltshire Museum Group get-togethers. The team has also been available by telephone and email to answer questions and give advice to organisations and the public about all things conservation and museums.
Wiltshire’s museums have been hit hard by the lockdown, with the cancellation of events, loss of income, and other challenges that come from having to close their doors overnight. Working with South West Museum Development, we have supported them throughout the last few months, answering enquiries to help them look after staff, volunteers and collections, providing information about the latest government guidance, and encouraging applications for the grant funding available. This has continued as museums have started to re-open. Museums in the county have been working hard to address the issues and several have now welcomed back visitors, with special measures put in place to keep everyone safe: Wiltshire Museum, Chippenham Museum, Boscombe Down Aviation Collection, REME Museum, Salisbury Museum, The Rifles Museum, Crofton Beam Engines www.croftonbeamengines.org. More will follow in the not too distant future.
Although the CMAS team is now back in the building and the laboratories, we’re not quite back to normal! It’s likely to be a little while before we’re able to make visits to organisations or carry out face to face training. So, in the meantime, we’ll carry on developing our digital delivery and because we love showing off the work we do we’re planning to add more case studies, videos and a virtual tour of the laboratories to our web pages soon.
Heritage Education Service
As heritage education officer I work with schools and community groups providing facilitated sessions in schools, community settings and at the History Centre. All those face-to-face sessions ended with lockdown. The other aspect of my work involves creating classroom and online resources – and this has very much continued.
In anticipation of the lockdown the History Centre could see that digital resources – our website, blog and social media platforms – would be our way of keeping some of our services operational and allow us to stay in touch with our community of users and volunteers. With that in my mind my role morphed into coordinating the History Centre’s digital services and joining with colleagues in Libraries and Leisure to develop and deliver online services to replace, as best we could, the wide range of physical services provided by our teams. This resulted in the Active Communities webpages and a host of downloadable resources on the Wiltshire Council website.
As our services resume, with new policies and procedures in place, my work on the History Centre’s digital strategy will continue alongside creating classroom resources for teachers. I am also delighted that many of the projects we support are getting back on track, including the Salisbury Soroptimist’s Her Salisbury Story project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) celebrating the women of Salisbury past and present. I will be providing support and training to the group and their volunteers as they work on this wonderful project.
After meticulous planning and much hard work we are delighted to have welcomed out first visitors back into the search rooms on 25th August. Making sure the History Centre is COVID-secure for staff and visitors does mean we have had to put in new procedures for accessing our services and these follow national guidelines and regulations. We are now operating an appointments-only system for accessing our services and face coverings are mandatory for all visitors. To book your archives and local studies visit go to our website. http://wshc.org.uk/visiting-the-centre.html For other teams please telephone ahead to make an appointment.
I have been working as a Conservation Assistant at the WSHC for nearly a year, and a large part of my role involves administration and financial processing. However, one of the more interesting and slightly unusual aspects of the job is the hands-on work I get to do as part of the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service here at the centre, and I have recently undertaken training to use the x-ray machine which we have in the lab. This is a complex process which requires stringent processes, records and maintenance checks to ensure the machine is used safely and functioning correctly. Regular use of the equipment is key to building experience and a ‘feel’ for the items being investigated and how to get the strongest images.
How it works
Inside the x-ray machine is an x-ray tube. A heated filament called a cathode sits inside the tube and accelerates high energy electrons at a metal target anode, usually made of tungsten, as the electrons strike the anode they interact with the atoms. In this process, which is called Bremsstrahlung (braking radiation), the electrons lose much of their energy and a photon x-ray is produced. X-rays are electromagnetic radiation of a short wavelength and high frequency invisible to the human eye, but possible to record on photosensitive film, known as x-radiographs.
The object to be x-rayed is placed on top of a cassette which holds the photosensitive film. On exposure the x-rays will penetrate through the object leaving the image captured on the film. The x-rays are partially absorbed, “attenuated”, by the denser materials such as bone or metal and pass more easily through soft material such as soil or skin. Therefore, the strength of the x-ray (KV) and the length of time the object is exposed for is adjusted for the type of material, size and condition of the item.
The photographic films then require a wet, chemical process similar to that used for black and white photographic film with a developer solution to reveal the image, followed by a fixer to secure the image and a wash to remove all chemical residues. This process takes around an hour and half and must be carried out in the dark room, with only red light, which can be a little disorientating at first!
Digital or computed x-radiography is well established and allows greater speed in reviewing and manipulating images. CMAS are actively working to move to digital, so watch this space!
How X-radiographs are used in conservation
X-radiography produces images on a 1:1 scale which allow the conservators to investigate the structure, manufacture or identity of an object. Small dark bubbles can indicate casting processes, the distinctive herringbone structure of pattern welding or wave formations of damascening are often clearly visible in x-rays, even when the surface of a blade is severely deformed.
Moreover, x-rays pass more easily through deteriorated materials and voids, these areas will appear darker grey or black compared to the brighter white of more stable areas. This can show up pitting, cracks and breaks assisting in the accurate assessment of the condition of items and their longer-term conservation requirements.
X-radiography is a non-destructive way of retrieving and revealing information and so it is commonly used in the primary stages of investigation.
One of the many joys of our archive is how it encompasses not only the county’s history – its people and places – but also world events as witnessed and experienced by Wiltshire folk through the centuries.
Each year I am in the privileged position of being able to take young historians on an archival journey round the world thanks to the extensive collections held by Wiltshire and Swindon Archive. These youngsters come to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for work experience and for a week they get to explore the archive and local studies collections, as well as learn about the work of the conservators, archaeologists, civil registration certificates team and business support staff.
During five weeks of work placements – this year we took 14 students from six schools –the archives have transported us through time and space. We have crossed continents and centuries, catching a glimpse of the ordinary and extraordinary lives of people from another time.
As Education Officer at the History Centre there are types of documents that I frequently use because they make great classroom resources – maps, photographs, diaries, personal letters, school log books. And then there are the topics for which we have excellent collections – Tudors, Victorians, canals and railways, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.
But with the arrival of work experience students I have the opportunity to explore the archives at a more leisurely pace and in broader terms – and I am always finding new things to look at or seeing familiar documents in a different way. A good example is Siegfried Sassoon’s February 1933 letter predicting war. This year was the third time I produced the document for students and it was as they were practicing their transcribing skills I finally made out a word that had been eluding me all this time – ‘entente’. It was so obvious that I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I had not worked it out sooner.
Although we often begin by digging out documents related to topics being studied at GCSE and A-Level, the challenge is to find the more unusual and quirky among them that don’t always see the light of day but which take us on wonderfully unexpected journeys.
One of the quirkiest set we produced this year concerned the gift of an elephant to Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) in 1794. Three letters (WSA 9/34/42) contain hints and allegations of an East India Company man, who acted as an intermediary in delivering the elephant, claiming back the cost of the animal despite it being a gift.
The East India Company is well documented across a number of significant collections within the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive, including archives from Wilton House, the Earls of Radnor (Longford Castle), the Seymour family (Dukes of Somerset), politician Walter Hume Long and the Money-Kyrle family.
But I was not expecting to find any further reference to elephants… Yet in the Lacock archive, among documents belonging to the Davenport family, is a cache of letters, invoices, receipts and company accounts detailing goods being shipped – including elephants’ teeth! (WSA 2664/3/2B/125 & 139 and WSA 2664/3/2D/79 et al.)
A number of Roman finds were recently uncovered in the back garden of Marc Allum, a specialist on the Antiques Roadshow, during excavations organised by Chippenham Museum volunteers Clive Green and Mike Stone.
Mr Allum kindly donated the finds to Chippenham Museum. The Friends of Chippenham Museum worked hard to raise funds for the conservation of one of the finds - a fine Samian ware bowl - and conservators at CMAS were privileged to undertake the reconstruction of this beautiful piece.
The Samian ware is an example of a Dragendorff type 37 bowl, suggesting it is Gaulish dating from c. AD 70-130. The bowl has intricate decorative panels with repeating motifs of Gladiators battling wild cats and a more risqué scene thought to depict the deity Bacchus.
The Samian ware was found in 51 fragments forming almost half the bowl. Due to the fine nature of the form and decoration it was decided to fully reconstruct the piece, replacing lost areas to give more complete impression of its original form.
The conservator worked hard to piece together all the fragments. Interestingly the way the ceramic had broken into layers reveals its method of construction. Samian ware with such detailed patterns was formed by pressing clay into preformed moulds. The ceramic has split along the lines of the layers that were built up.
Graham Taylor of Potted History (@Pottedhistory) has created replica moulds for the vessel and its decorative features in order to produce a facsimile using the same techniques.
Once the form of the original ceramic was determined it was possible to create an accurate profile from base to rim using measurements of the thickness of the ceramic fragments and the diameter of the base and rim, comparing these with known examples.
The profile was used to form an accurate core in clay to which the original ceramic could be secured. Plaster replacement fills were then ‘spun’ using the profile as a guide. It was decided to only replace larger areas and those smaller areas required for strength.