Down in the bowels of the Gridshell Building, we’ve got an amazing rural, trade and buildings related artefact collection, with objects made from a mixture of different materials – from leather and brass horse harness, wood and iron shepherd’s crooks to a beautiful painted silk Friendly Society Banner from Cocking.
So how do we look after all these objects made of different materials? For a start, we already have the problem that wood and iron desire different relative humidity levels (air moisture content) so we control the store’s humidity to cause the least damage to the most humidity vulnerable material – the wood. If wood cracks through dryness we can’t fix it but a bit of surface rust on metal can be easily rubbed off with fine wire wool and some wax can be applied for protection.
We use a special type of conservation-grade wax which was developed by the British Museum and can be found in the back rooms of museums all over the country (possible the world). It can be used on several materials in our collection and not only polishes an artefact but, importantly, protects it over time.
Applying and buffing the wax is fun because it gives the object a lovely finish but before curatorial team members get to that stage, we have some other jobs to do first. We need to check over the item for weakness and damage, some items are more prone to insect damage so we need to look closely for any signs and treat if necessary. Sometimes we get things that are a bit mouldy because they’ve been stored in a damp environment with little air flow; white spirit dabbed on the wood and metal of old tools is effective (wearing mould-spore appropriate PPE of course!) Brittle harness-leather can be softened with a restorer but for other types of leather such as delicate book bindings, we would just give a gentle dust with a soft paint brush. If leather shows signs of flaking then it could have ‘red rot’ and will need special care. Metals are polished and buffed – and lemon juice worked well in one stubborn case.
The textile and paper part of the collection is the most susceptible to light-damage. Once items have been checked over for cloth or paper munching pests, they can be protected with conservation-grade packaging-materials and stored away from the harmful rays of the sun.