Today we find out more about what Collections and Exhibitions trainee Nicole has been up to at the Norfolk Collections Centre.
The Deep Clean at the Norfolk Collections Centre is an early highlight on the Teaching Museum Traineeship calendar. It opens up the opportunity to delve deep into the helm of the Norfolk Museum Service’s Aladdin’s Cave of collections. Although each museum within the service has its own on-site archives, this is the mother ship of them all. Based in the grounds of the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, the Collections Centre consist of two large warehouses, broken down into aisles of high shelving lined with history. From Mammoth Tusks to Snap Dragons, Colman’s Mustard Presses to intricately carved wooden mantelpieces, each corner turned or aisle passed catches your eye with objects of bait that tempt your curiosity with what could turn into hours exploration. Alas, there is a job to do, and a big one. Although collection care is a continual process, the annual deep clean offers the service an opportunity to thoroughly assess and maintain the condition of objects on mass. It calls upon teams of conservators, collections managers, volunteers, and of course trainees, to grab small brushes in one hand, low powered vacuum cleaners in the other, and clean shelves object by object.
It tempts you, when you are presented with a dusty piece of wooden furniture, to grab the furniture polish and shine away. The same may be said, when facing a large wooden canoe, to get a sponge and soapy water, roll up your sleeves and rub it down. ‘Sacrilege!’ the conservators would cry, and come after you with pitchforks (of which there are surely many at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum, so it’s probably best to stick to the system). No cleaning products are used, nor water unless in very small amounts and applied by a lightly dampened cotton bud. Objects are generally cleaned using a fresh paint brush, with masking tape fastened around the metal which joins the bristles to the handle as to avoid inducing scratches. Brushing is done in short flicking motions, as any rubbing may cause dirt to ingrain itself further into the object. It reminds me of dentistry, where by a latex gloved dentist removes debris from teeth using a tool in one hand, a suction pipe extracting it in the other. Gloves on, low suction vacuum cleaners at the ready, the dirt is dislodged with the brush, the vacuum cleaner removing it entirely. To reduce damage (especially when dealing with fabric conservation) the end of the vacuum pipe is covered in a fine gauze to prevent any elements of the object getting sucked up.
It is a two week process, of which I am assigned two days away from my usual museum site, the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. On the first day, I am teamed with Collections Management trainee Laura, whose training is based upon the collections between the Norfolk Collections Centre, and Strangers Hall Museum (Norwich). Together, we tackle a single shelf over the course of the day, a testament to the time consuming process of careful cleaning and conservation. I begin with two mannequin heads, with long eyelashes and removable ‘bob’ wigs. They smile charmingly as they oversee the careful vacuuming of their wavy locks, a section of gauze laid flat over the entire wig to prevent any hair loss. Then there is a wooden crib, a corner table, and a wicker linen basket. If you have ever attempted to dust wicker, you will sympathise with the idea of cleaning such an object. However, there is a sense of the therapeutic in the slow rhythm of the overall process, wrapped in one’s own little bubble amongst a hive of activity. A forklift truck bustles around retrieving cumbersome objects and crates from the lines of shelving. Outside, trainee Ruth gears up in a full Tyvek suit and mask. She cleans spots of mold off a retro orange and brown patterned sofa set, which splits the team with a Marmite dilemma of love and hate.
A piano stool with a hinged seat reveals an internal compartment containing old sheet music. Within museums, every object acquired is done so through a process called Accessioning. This is a process of documentation where the object is correctly logged into the collection and recorded upon a digital achieve database. The object is given an Accession Number, an official record number which is discreetly and reversibly marked onto the object using pencil or ink. The piano stool has several different components, and we mark each with the object’s overall Accession Number so that they could be identified if separated from the set.
The Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum sits out in the glorious Norfolk countryside, a perk for any visitor to the museum site and grounds. However, it is also a perk for creepy crawlies who like to munch on wood, as the Collections Centre offers a gourmet buffet of aged wooden furniture to choose from. Careful pest management is therefore key and continual. A pram and a table on which we work show signs of Woodworm, tiny burrow holes giving them away. Wood darkens with time, and so when old wood is freshly eaten it will appear lighter in colour inside the hole. An object will still bare traces of old infestations, however due to the ageing and possible accumulation of dust or debris, these holes will appear darker. If in doubt, freeze it out! Freezing is the adopted process of eradication, a freezer the size of a small room creating a temperature controlled chamber for two weeks per freeze. If correctly wrapped, a domestic freezer could be used for household pest removal, however is less easy to control. At the Collections Centre, objects are prepared first by filling any ‘void’ space with tissue paper wadding. This reduces spaces in which condensation can form during the defrost. They are then wrapped in thick plastic sheeting, and carefully shelved within the freezer chamber. After two weeks, the freezer is left to fully return to room temperature before any objects are removed, as when frozen they can become brittle and difficult to transport.
On week two the whole team is assigned a collection of wooden printing blocks: carved alphabet letters set into blocks, once used for newspaper or poster printing. We spend the whole day in the speckled sunshine of the Collections Centre forecourt, getting lost in the dusting and hoovering of individual wooden letters, spaces, and punctuation. Slow but satisfying, it is far from an average office day. Then again, there are no average office days upon the traineeship, and the next day I return to the Tide and Tide Museum and watch loans from Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum being installed into the new exhibition, Drawn to the Coast.