A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to spend some time with our Conservator, Jane Hamill, who showed me some of the tricks of her trade and how to conserve some archive material. We decided to work on the Harris Tweed Authority folders that needed cleaning before they get catalogued.
The condition of some of the records, when they are arrive, can be pretty poor but after some conservation work, it is always surprising what a difference this can make. For me, I find conservation work fascinating because it involves using your hands – very steady hands at times in order to do the work. As a creative person, doing something practical also makes the work interesting.
In order to carry out the work, I had to get my safety gear on, white dust coat, mask, gloves and safety boots as we were dealing with mould.
Museum nan Eilean have a special lab where the conservation work takes place. This is separate from the main museum and is part of the museum store and up until now, I hadn’t had a chance to explore what was in there. I always feel like an adventurer entering a jungle when I enter Museum stores, never knowing what you are going to find!
Anyway, back to the conservation work in the lab, we started off cleaning folders of paper. One folder was covered in mould and before we could do anything we had to write a condition report on the item and take a before photo in the ‘studio’, the studio being a table with a grey covering, lights, ruler and a camera on a tripod.
Then the item was taken back into the lab to be actually cleaned. In order to clean it, we used a small vacuum and then a smoke sponge to gently lift the mould. Just doing this made a difference and lifted a lot of mould and dirt off the paper. But it wasn’t enough for a small number of weaving slips that needed cleaning too. These slips were used for taking down orders and then put on a nail peg so all of them have a hole in the middle and lots of folds and creases.
We cleaned them up with the smoke sponge before humidifying them, soaking a sheet of blotting paper and putting the weaving slips in between. There were layers of other types of fabric/fibre type sheets involved too. With the weaving slips left to dry between the blotting papers and weights on top we did more paperwork and took more photographs.
After half an hour or so, we lifted the blotting paper to see how the slips got on. What a difference!
One weaving slip had three slips stuck together and after humidifying them it was time to separate them. This was the most nervous task I have had to do since becoming a trainee! Using a special tool, I was able to lift the slip free from each other.
Once they were freed, the last slip needed a bit more work done to it as it had been hiding more dirt and mould than we knew. So this slip went off to have a bath in deionised water. Once this slip had been in the bath for a while, we took a PH balance – took me back to my school science days!
Once it had been cleaned in the bath, we put it on the blotting paper to dry out overnight. We headed back to the archive with the material that was heading back to the archive store, got it in the freezer bags and put them in the freezer so they could be catalogued. My two days of conservation work were over and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to Jane for taking the time to show me how it’s done!