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Preventive conservation and research

Preventive conservation and research

Preventing damage and understanding the collections

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 of Australia.   

Colour photoraph showing an Aboriginal carving with several small holes on its surface.
The small holes in this Aboriginal carving are signs of borer attack.
Preventive conservation requires a continuous cycle of work involving expertise from the Museum’s Conservation, Registration and Facilities staff.

 

Providing stable storage conditions

All the items in the National Museum's collection will deteriorate over time – this is a natural process but we can slow the rate of deterioration in many ways. Providing stable storage conditions appropriate to the types of materials in the collection is a first line of defense. Not all objects require the same storage conditions, so it is important to understand the materials that make up each object in order to place them in their optimum storage environment. The National Museum has a range of storage environments in its main building and off-site repositories, and these have to be maintained and monitored.

Cars from the Museum’s collection in their protective Carcoons.
Cars from the Museum’s collection in their protective Carcoons. Photo: George Serras.

Protective bubbles

Carcoons provide a specialised protective environment for the Museum's vehicle collection.

Cars are susceptible to metal corrosion and their painted surfaces are easily scratched. Dust can be highly abrasive and contain chemically active components that corrode metal surfaces over time.

Inside the Carcoon's protective bubble, fluctuations in temperature and humidity are reduced and the air is filtered to prevent dust from settling on the vehicle.

Materials analysis

Given the different characteristics of different materials, it is important that conservators know what they are dealing with. This is where various analytical techniques come to the fore.

X-ray fluorescence

One technique the Museum's staff use quite regularly is X-ray fluorescence (XRF). X-ray fluorescence provides information about what elements are present in a material.  It is a non-destructive technique for identifying metals and investigating the composition of materials such as paints, glass and ceramics. When a test piece is bombarded with high-energy beams from an XRF machine, it gives out secondary X-rays that provide a unique ‘fingerprint’ of the elements making up the material.

A conservator using XRF to identify the metallic make-up of threads and fabric in a Chinese processional costume from the 1880s.
Using XRF for analysis of a Chinese processional costume. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

X-ray fluorescence can also be used to check for the presence of hazardous elements such as mercury and arsenic, or to authenticate an object's age or origin by looking at its composition.

Museum conservator David Hallum used X-ray fluorescence in the Museum Workshop exhibition to help document a silk and tulle dress worn by Lady Alice Carruthers on her presentation to Queen Alexandra at Buckingham Palace in 1908.

More on X-ray flurorescence and Lady Carruthers' dress

David also used the technique to identify the metallic make-up of threads and fabric in a Chinese processional costume from the 1880s, on loan from Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum for display in the Landmarks gallery. 

More on the Chinese costume material analysis

Micro-fading

Hi-tech systems are also used to determine display periods for light sensitive objects. The National Museum has done extensive work on micro-fading to better understanding the fading characteristics of objects. This involves exposing objects to a very small pinpoint of infrared light. The results allow conservators to make more accurate predictions about the fading rate of objects if they are kept on display.

More on micro-fading in Nicki Smith's 'Risk management and light levels' audio presentation

Microscopes

Microscopes are used by conservators to identify materials and examine the structure of objects. Lower levels of magnification help to clarify features that can be seen with the naked eye. Under higher magnification, the fibres of paper become visible. In the case of a medal awarded to explorer Ludwig Leichhardt by London's Royal Geographical Society in 1847, surface characteristics not visible to the naked eye were revealed. Examination of objects under higher magnification requires careful interpretation. Scratches on a metal surface, for example, might result from the manufacturing process or alternatively be evidence of damage from vigorous polishing.

More on the Leichhardt medal

Compile of three images showing a circular, gold-coloured medal at left, a close-up image of an outstretched arm holding a laurel wreath, top right, and the letter 'LU' on a scratched surface, bottom right.
Medal awarded to the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt by the Royal Geographical Society in 1847 (left). At magnification x 10, details of the surface characteristics can be seen more clearly (top right). At magnification x 60, scratches on the medal’s edge, become visible (bottom right). Photos: Jason McCarthy.

Debugging the collection

A very important aspect of preventive conservation work is the detection and elimination of insect and rodent activity. All items that come into the Museum's collection are inspected for pests and hazards, and all collection areas are continuously monitored. If there is evidence of insect activity or of the outbreak of mould, the Museum's preventive officer isolates the affected collection items and determines the appropriate treatment to eliminate the offending organisms, while keeping the ollection items intact.

Colour photograph showing a small brown caterpillar-like create surrounded by pink fabric fibres and small pink droppings.
Case-making clothes moth larva surrounded by its droppings, coloured the same as the pink fabric fringe it is eating.

Bad bugs

Insects can cause devastating damage to collections if not controlled.

Carpet beetles, borers, silverfish and case-making clothes moths can make a meal of museum objects, especially those made from fabric, paper, wood, feathers and leather.

Conservators treat infested objects, but they prefer to practise prevention by creating conditions that discourage insects from coming into the Museum in the first place.

Anoxic treatment

To treat insect infestation, objects are snap-frozen at –21°C or placed in an oxygen-free, or anoxic, chamber. The oxygen inside the chamber is replaced with nitrogen, causing the insects to suffocate. Anoxic treatment is used on objects that could be damaged if frozen, such as feathers, bone and electrical equipment.

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 places insects she has removed from a coil basket into a ziplock bag, for later inspection and identification. Photo: George Serras.

Meet preventive officer Donna Wilks

A focus on preventing object damage

Donna Wilks had never considered a career in preventive conservation until she came to work in the conservation section at the National Museum.

Donna studied business management and completed a Certificate in Museum Practice. Her thorough attention to detail and enthusiasm for the work of the conservation team made her very well suited to taking on the role of preventive officer. Donna has not been through a formal training course in conservation but has had sound on-the-job training supplemented by specialised short courses.

Donna's work focuses on the prevention of damage to objects. On a day-to-day basis this means inspecting objects for any hazards or pest infestations, treating objects that are affected, inspecting storage and exhibition areas, supervising the cleaning of collection storage areas, monitoring environments and maintaining disaster bins.

Find out more about Donna and her work at the Museum