Week 3: Glorified cleaners? I think not!

I thought this week I’d give comment on one of the most exciting aspects of my time in Melbourne. Looking like a cross between a medical practice and a shop on diagon alley with all its pots, potions, brushes, and mists, the CCMC labs are an exciting place to work. 

Being a commercial practice and not solely tied to the University, a large commission of work has come in recently. The labs are full of people at the moment – established professionals, interns, and volunteers all helping each other. They also learn together – as they take students from the course run at the University of Melbourne the established members of the team get told the latest in conservation theory and current debates, while the students learn some invaluable on the job experience. The exchange of knowledge is wonderful to see, knowing that the relationship is beneficial for both partners.

The staff there are, to an inexperienced participant like myself, almost counter intuitively hands on. Getting intimate with objects, touching paint surfaces, putting paper in water is the opposite of what I’ve always been told – minimal access = longer life. They carry out their treatments with the utmost respect and care for the object. However, most treatments they actually employ are therapeutically gentle and simple. For instance, cotton wool can get rid of stains and paintbrushes can get rid of corrosion. You learn that it is not necessarily the change you can see with the naked eye that is important. For instance, when you brush vacuum a textile or smoke sponge a paper you are getting rid of all the surface dirt which can be hugely detrimental to an item in the long term, despite not seeing much of a difference when you are undergoing the treatment. 


Brush vacuuming an item

I also carried out some solubility tests following on from my first week introduction to immersion baths for paper. Here the lithographs are tested with water, 50/50 ethanol and water, and pure ethanol. Tiny amounts are applied to the lithographs to determine whether any elements will bleed when you put them in the bath. The process is to dab and press where the solution has just been applied with a small square of paper, check to see if anything has bled, and if not place the paper under a weight and check every 5 minutes for approximately 15-20 minutes. If, at the end of that process, nothing has bled then it is allowed to be immersed. 


Solubility testing

Despite these highly skilled and knowledgeable members of staff carrying out far more difficult treatments than the ones I have just described, Jude Fraser (CCMC Senior Manager/Paper and Photography Conservator) jokes that they are just glorified cleaners!! Somehow, I think not! The work they carry out there is so instrumentally important to the survival of our cultural heritage, and for a volunteer like myself there is a great amount of satisfaction you are benefiting the objects whilst becoming a part of its history.

She also explained to me the differences between the professions internationally e.g. different conservation controls that are needed for the southern and northern hemispheres (in terms of disaster management and humidity controls) and that in the UK is it relatively easy for a person to specifically study one type of conservation, e.g. ceramics, and be able to get a job, whereas in Australia the broader your skill set the better because there isn’t enough of one medium to specialise to that degree. 

It has been so wonderful to get such an access-all-areas look at a conservation lab, and I can’t see what they have in store for my final week! 


To continue in the hands-on theme I’ve had practical experience at all my placements this week. On Tuesday with Kerrianne at the prints I learnt how to make book cradles and exhibition labels on top of my Blake research. They are skills I am keen to employ when I return to the UK to install my exhibition at the University of Birmingham. 


My book cradle holding my book cradle making instructions!

I also finished my Potter project this week as Steve Martin is on leave in my final week. So Wednesday and Thursday I set to finish identifying as many cylinder seals as I could! In the end I managed to find 50/150 they have there, and then I spent the entire final day training on their KE Emu database, learning how to create parties, modules, accession lots, link affiliations, and (most importantly from my perspective) create an accession entry. It was a fantastic experience to get key access to the database, and to see myself forever immortalised as the creator of those records at the IPMoA!


45 cylinder seals, just before I reached the 50 mark, all bagged and boxed!

Finally, even though I’m in week three I finally started my outreach project with the cultural collections unit! My brief to create a carnival themed activity proved a challenge. In the morning I pitched a series of my ideas to Helen (cultural collections project curator) and Jason (conservation programs co-ordinator) who gave me some great feedback. My most ambitious idea would not be able to be accomplished during the time-frame and resources, but they mentioned that it would be an idea they might pursue in the future. The idea that has been settled upon is a darts-themed game where prospective students approach the stand on open day and are asked what degree they are considering studying. Then the team on the stand tells them to hit a target that is the collection which will be most beneficial to them during their stay at Melbourne. It introduces the students to all aspects of the collection, that they are available to access whether they study at the university or not, and (most importantly) which they can utilise to the best effect when they study here. Unfortunately I won’t be around on open day to see whether it is a success, but I’ve been assured pictures will be taken that I’ll try and include in my final blog!

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