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Caring for the collection

Caring for our collection

The National Museum of Australia holds a rich and diverse collection of Australian historical material in trust for the nation. The Museum's conservators care for this collection, helping to make it accessible now and in the future.

Black and white photograph of Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford-Smith.
Ulm and Kingsford-Smith photograph.

Physical care and preservation of the collection

The National Museum of Australia's conservators work to protect the Museum's collection when it is in use and in storage. The conservators manage risks to the collection, while helping to make objects accessible to a wide range of audiences and visitors. The main way the collection is accessed is through exhibitions.

Conservators are responsible for the physical care and preservation of the Museum's collection. They examine and describe objects, identify and analyse their characteristics and develop ways to repair and prevent damage.

The National Museum has three conservation laboratories at Mitchell, on the outskirts of Canberra. All three labs are represented in the Museum Workshop exhibition:

Preventing damage and understanding the collection

A colour photograph ofa woman sitting at a table with two brightly coloured baskets on top, lit by a bright lamp. The woman, who wears blue gloves, uses tweezers to place small objects in a plastic bag.
Donna Wilks. Photo: George Serras.

The old adage that 'prevention is better than cure' certainly holds true for collections. Protecting collections from damage is a vital part of the work that goes on behind the scenes at the National Museum.

When conservators look at objects they see what everyone else sees, and enjoy the historical and aesthetic significance of objects. But they also see and focus on the potential for deterioration within objects, treating any damage that has already occurred and responding to the challenges of caring for the collection into the future.

Preventive conservation requires a continuous cycle of work involving expertise from the Museum's Conservation, Registration and Facilities staff.

The art, science and craft of conservation

Over the centuries, people have used a huge range of materials to manufacture objects for domestic and industrial use and to create works of art. Because of this diversity, conservators specialise in particular areas.

Despite differences in expertise, all conservators are involved in the art, science and craft of conservation. They understand the science of deterioration, and they share a respect for cultural heritage, and the skills of makers and manufacturers. When working with objects, conservators mesh their knowledge with delicate craft skills to treat damage and prevent future damage.

The Museum’s conservators are passionate about what they do and feel privileged to work so closely with collections that tell the stories of our nation’s history:

Colour photograph showing a man sitting at a bench, holding a small metal component under lamp light.
Conservator Peter Bucke works on a chronometer in the Museum Workshop exhibition. Photo: Paul Chapman.

The white glove debate

Many people have an expectation that conservators, curators and researchers will always wear white cotton gloves when they are working with collections. It is good that this expectation has arisen, because this means that people are conscious for the need to protect collections, but – as with most things – it is not that simple.

Cotton gloves have served collections well over a number of years. When you see the damage and soiling that can be caused by acids and oils from our skin, you quickly realise why gloves are so important. But white cotton gloves become loose and baggy over time and they catch on edges and fine components of objects. More importantly they 'muffle' our sense of touch. Try picking up a piece of very fine paper while wearing white cotton gloves – your sense of touch is nowhere near as sensitive as without the gloves. The delicacy with which you handle the paper is very likely to be affected – handling some types of materials with cotton gloves could have detrimental effects.

At the National Museum we use a range of gloves. The ones you are most likely to see the conservators wearing when handling objects and when carrying out certain treatments are nitrile gloves (nitrile butadiene rubber). These gloves, typically purple or blue in colour, provide us with a much better grip on objects than cotton gloves. Conservators, who rely very much on their senses when examining objects, find their sense of touch is much better through these gloves. In addition, they protect the wearer from exposure to a range of chemicals. But we still use cotton gloves and larger technology conservators wear more robust gloves for heavier work.

Don’t be surprised, however, if the conservators working in the Museum Workshop, are not wearing gloves when you see them at work. There are some processes that require a very sensitive touch and for that, we rely on clean dry hands.

Caring for a diverse collection

The great diversity of objects in the National Museum's collection means it is rare that any two conservation treatments are identical. Explore some of the objects on show in Museum Workshop below.

Conservation decision-making

Colour diagram showing three circles which overlap at the centre to form the 'Conservation decision-making' zone. The top left circle is headed 'Significance', the circle top right is headed 'Physical state' and the bottom circle is headed 'Use'.

Conservators consider the physical properties and condition of an object. They also take into account its historical, cultural, social or even spiritual significance, and its likely use for exhibitions, study or research.

Conservators and curators investigate all aspects of an object's history to understand its significance. Treatments are then developed to preserve the evidence of important aspects of an object's ‘life’, to address any existing deterioration and prevent further damage in the future.

The area of ‘overlap’ between an object’s physical state, its significance and its intended use can be seen as the conservation decision-making zone.

Conservation case studies online

Go behind the scenes online to explore some of the Museum's other conservation projects through this rich collection of images showing objects being prepared for exhibition and storage.

More of the Museum's conservation projects online