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The National Museum of Australia's large technology lab is brought to life in the Museum Workshop. See the schedule below for the chance to talk with conservators about objects including a Holden station wagon from the ABC television series The Bush Mechanics, and a 1948 Daimler car used by Queen Elizabeth II on her 1954 Royal Tour of Australia.
Preserving special objects and skills
Cars, engines, aircraft, boats – these are what conservators call the ‘big stuff’ in the National Museum's collection. Conservators have to hone their engineering skills and understand a range of historical technologies to care for these hefty mechanical objects. Preserving and passing on these specialist skills and knowledge is as much of a challenge as preserving the objects themselves.
Some large technology objects are returned to working order to preserve the experience of using them and being near them when they are operating. These sounds and smells can be powerful reminders of an object’s history and significance.
The decision to keep an object functional has significant implications for the workload of the conservation team. Working objects have to be exercised – engines run and vehicles driven – and regularly serviced and maintained. Tasks such as determining the correct oils and engine fluids for older vehicles may require extensive research and testing.
The skills required to service and maintain older objects are not formally taught, as newer technologies emerge. So we rely on skills being passed from those who know and can do, to conservators who have the background and the drive to learn these valuable skills as they become rarer.
Meet conservator Ainslie Greiner
Respect for quality workmanship
Ainslie Greiner studied archaeology and discovered conservation during his travels to archaeological sites in South East Asia.
Ainslie works as a large technology conservator at the National Museum. Recently, he has been working on vehicles including the Bean car owned by adventurer Francis Birtles, and the Daimler used by Queen Elizabeth II.
This is not just a job for Ainslie – he has enormous enthusiasm for the objects he works on and great respect for the work that went into making them in the first place. The job also brings insights into the impact of technology on Australia's recent history.
The Museum has a team of consultants who work with Ainslie and bring many years of expertise to the conservation and maintenance of the Museum's fleet of historic vehicles.
Keeping the Enterprise steaming
Museum conservators Col Ogilvie, Ainslie Greiner and David Hallam describe their work conserving large technology objects, with special reference to the paddle steamer Enterprise.
The Enterprise is one of the oldest functioning paddle steamers in the world and requires an ongoing maintenance program, including a major overhaul in a dry dock every three years.
The Bush Mechanics car
Modified EJ Holden Special station wagon, known as the Bush Mechanics car, 1962
This EJ Holden, on show in Museum Workshop, is dented, dilapidated and crudely modified and repaired – and that is how it will remain. The car featured in the 2001 television series, the Bush Mechanics, about the ingenuity of a group of Warlpiri men in keeping old cars on the road in remote Central Australia.
The roof of the car was removed in 2001 to make a trailer for transporting a drum-kit and other gear. Restore the car to pristine condition, and the greater part of its story would be lost. Instead, conservators have stabilised the car in the condition that the bush mechanics had left it.
Acquired 2003, purchase.
Condition Stabilised in its dented, rusty and dilapidated state. The bush mechanics have replaced some of the car's original parts with salvaged parts, and carried out makeshift repairs.
Treatment Existing rust appears stable, but corrosion inhibitors have been applied to the engine as a precaution. All surfaces have been dusted.
Conservator time 2 days.
The Queen's Daimler
DE 36hp Daimler landaulette, 1948
The Daimler landaulette was one of a small fleet of government cars used for Queen Elizabeth II's first tour of Australia, in 1954. It was sold after the tour and gradually deteriorated during a period of use on a farm and being kept outdoors.
Although significantly damaged, it still retains its impressive bodywork and most of its original fittings, including its cord and leather upholstery, walnut dash and engraved light-fittings. The National Museum is planning to return the car to the glory of its 1954 condition, as the Queen would remember it. The car will be fully documented and a mechanical survey will be conducted as part of the Museum Workshop exhibition.
Acquired 2009, purchase.
Condition Untreated. The crankshaft is broken, possibly caused by sustained driving at slow speeds. Chrome is pitted and paintwork dulled from exposure to the elements. There is some engine rust and evidence of rat activity in the upholstery.
Treatment The vehicle will be completely dismantled to enable all parts to be cleaned and treated. Original parts will be retained where possible, but some mechanical items may need to be sourced or made.
Conservator time Estimated 3500 hours for survey and treatment.
Conserving the Queen's Daimler conservation video
The National Museum's large technology team bring conservation and automotive engineering skills to the Royal Daimler Project. The work will result in the dilapidated 1948 Daimler landaulette car being returned to a functional state and conserved to reflect the stately glory it held as part of Queen Elizabeth II's 1954 Australian Royal Tour.
Daimler lift and tour
A major milestone in the Royal Daimler Project was to lift the body of the vehicle from its chassis. The National Museum's conservation team undertook the lift in the Museum Workshop exhibition on 18 November 2012.
The lift was witnessed by visitors including 45 conservation partners, including members of the Daimler and Lanchester Owners' Car Club of Australia. These Daimler Club members joined an exclusive Conservation Partner Tour and brought six Daimler cars, including another DE36, to the Museum for the day.
Photos from the Daimler lift and tour
BSA M20 motorcycle, 1939
Bought from an army disposals store in 1951, this BSA motorcycle was modified for suburban life by its new owners, John and Shirley Killeen. The Sydney couple repainted the bike, fitted a duplex seat in place of the traditional army-style one and added a sidecar. It was the Killeens’ prime mode of transport, even after the birth of their first child, until John was given the use of a work car. The bike is on show in Museum Workshop.
Acquired 2001, donated by John and Shirley Killeen.
Condition Untreated. The engine is seized and the sidecar is missing. Period paintwork is intact, but some metal surfaces are rusted.
Treatment The bike has been examined and is awaiting treatment. This will include application of corrosion inhibitors and a full mechanical survey.
The bike will be preserved in its existing configuration. Conservators will not return the bike to its original military appearance, as its significance lies in its role in the early postwar life of an Australian family. Whether it will be made functional again will depend on treatment priorities and resourcing.
Birtles' Bean car
'Sundowner' Bean 14hp car, 1925
This Bean car, known as the 'Sundowner', was made famous by Australian overland explorer Francis Birtles. He drove it on two record-breaking journeys between Darwin and Melbourne (1926) and London and Melbourne (1927–28). The Bean car is on show in a protective bubble called a Carcoon, for the Museum Workshop exhibition.
Much can be gained by preventing damage to objects in the first place and the Museum's vehicle fleet is no exception. Cars are susceptible to metal corrosion and their painted surfaces are easily scratched. Inside the Carcoon, fluctuations in temperature and humidity are reduced and the air is filtered to prevent dust from settling on the vehicle. Dust can be highly abrasive and contain chemically active components that corrode metal surfaces over time.
The Bean car was dismantled to treat structural damage and rust, but conservators were careful not to lose the physical reminders of its significant period in history. Therefore, the mud, grime, dents and scratches collected during the Birtles era have been preserved.
Manufacturer A Harper, Sons & Bean Ltd.
Acquired 1980, originally donated to the Australian Government by Francis Birtles in 1929.
Condition Treated. The car is in full working order and is regularly serviced and driven.
Treatment Conservators carried out a full survey to establish the condition of the car and develop a conservation approach. The body and running gear were fully dismantled, and engine parts cleaned to remove old oils and internal corrosion, before the car was reassembled to working order.
Conservator time 2500 hours for survey and treatment.