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Objects and paintings conservation

The National Museum of Australia's objects and paintings conservation lab is brought to life in the Museum Workshop exhibition.

International time-recording clock about 1907.
International time-recording clock. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

See the schedule below for the chance to see conservators working on our diverse collection of clocks and chronometers, Aboriginal bark paintings and precious photo albums and period costumes for our upcoming exhibition, Glorious Days: Australia 1913.

Treating a diverse range of objects

Clocks and chronometers, furniture and musical instruments, glassware and crockery, dolls and toys, bark paintings and stone tools – all these and more come under the care of conservators working in the objects and paintings lab.

These conservators look after the greatest variety of objects in the National Museum's collection. The range of skills required of conservators continues to grow as more modern materials and technology items are added to collections.

Colour photograph showing a woman wearing a white lab coat and blue gloves using a small vacuum on a grass sculpture. Another sculpture sits in the foreground.
Mary Gissing brush-vacuums grass fibre figures made by Tjanpi Desert Weavers before they go on display.

Some conservators specialise in a particular material or object type – for example metals or furniture – but many are multi-skilled and able to treat a range of objects.

The same person might switch from peering through a magnifier to dismantle a clock with tweezers, to repairing the mechanical parts of a parasol, reassembling an old television camera, or using a brush-vacuum to clean a grass sculpture.

Conservators working in all areas of the Museum practise minimal intervention. This means treating the object as little as possible to make it stable and preserve its significance.

Meet conservator Peter Bucke

Expertise in horology and beyond

Conservator Peter Bucke working on the Blaxland clock.
Peter Bucke. Photo: George Serras.

Peter Bucke has worked at the National Museum for more than 20 years and came into conservation though his expertise and training in clock and watch making.

Peter's horological skills will be on show during the Museum Workshop exhibition, where he has set himself the task of servicing as many of the Museum’s chronometers as he can in the three month exhibition period.

Peter is also a musician, and has also been drawn to treating the Museum's musical instruments. His varied career and personal interests have given him a depth of knowledge about many objects in the collection.

But Peter's expertise extends well beyond clocks and musical instruments, and he has treated objects from ladies' parasols and sporting trophies to an 1821 landau coach and the Paddle Steamer Enterprise.

International time-recording clock

Time-recording clock, about 1907

The use of time-recording clocks for recording the arrival and departure of staff was part of the new ‘scientific’ approach to management introduced in the late 19th century. The first clock of this type was designed in 1888 by William Bundy, inspiring the popular name of Bundy clocks for time-recording devices in general.

Colour photograph showing circular black metal dial and small clock face mounted on the front of a timber cabinet.
International time-recording clock, about 1907. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

This clock from about 1907, which uses different technology to Bundy’s design, incorporates innovative materials of the day, such as bakelite, one of the earliest plastics. As the clock’s electrical circuitry fails to comply with modern safety standards, it will not be returned to working order.

Manufacturer International Time Recording Co. Australia.

Acquired 2006, purchase.

Condition Untreated. The clock is in reasonable condition, although a full condition report has yet to be completed. Electrical circuitry does not comply with modern safety standards.

Treatment Corrosion of metal components and the increasingly brittle condition of the plastic parts are the main concerns. Mechanisms will be cleaned to remove corrosion-causing lubricants. The clock will be stored in a temperature-and-humidity controlled environment.

A black and white photograph of workers at an American company lining up to ‘clock on’ to work in 1926, using a series of time-recording clocks.
Workers at an American company line up to ‘clock on’ to work in 1926, using a series of time-recording clocks similar to the 1907 model in the National Museum's collection. Courtesy Computer History Museum, California.
Colour photograph showing a wooden pram with two sets of metal wheels, sitting on a bench in a workshop. The pram's hood sits alongside.
Wignalls brand bamboo pram with cane and seagrass decorations.

Wignalls brand pram

This eye-catching pram is being prepared for display in the upcoming exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913, opening in March 2013.

The pram was made in Hobart by Wignalls and acquired by the National Museum as part of the Bothwell Museum collection.

The body of the pram is made from timber and shaped bamboo, with cane and seagrass decoration and a green canvas hood.

In a composite object such as the pram, it is vital to understand each of the materials, along with their deterioration characteristics and how they interact and affect each other.

Conservators will treat the pram during the Museum Workshop exhibition.

Caring for canvases and bark paintings

Stretching without straining

Colour photo showing two people kneeling on the floor, attaching a canvas to a timber frame.
Stretching large paintings, such as this Papunya canvas, is more than a one-person job. Photo: George Serras.

Conservators in the objects and paintings lab stretch paintings to keep canvases taut and prevent damage during storage or display.

Loose canvases respond to changes in humidity, which can cause paint layers to separate from the surface. Paintings can be stretched on either stretchers or strainers.

Conservators opt for stretchers because, unlike strainers, they are adjustable. Keys in the corners of the stretcher allow tension to be fine-tuned as the canvas expands and contracts, preventing it from becoming too taut or slack. All stretchers are custom-made to fit the artworks.

Splitting images

The National Museum also holds an extensive collection of Aboriginal bark paintings. These works are inherently unstable. The bark itself can split and crack with changes in temperature and humidity, causing extensive structural damage to the object. Traditionally, plant resins and animal fats were used as binders to hold together the particles of ochre pigment and fix them to the surface of the bark. Resins and fats can deteriorate over time, causing the paintwork to flake or crumble. Conservators carry out structural repairs to the bark in several ways, including using splints of Japanese repair paper. Then individual flakes of pigment are meticulously reapplied to the bark using tiny dots of adhesive.

All manner of objects and their conservation: videos

Caring for objects ranging from chronometers to an 1821 horsedrawn coach owned by the Ranken family requires knowledge of a range of materials and an understanding of how those materials deteriorate.

Conservators Andrew Pearce, Peter Bucke and Natalie Ison describe their backgrounds, training, experience and their work at the National Museum of Australia.

More on the Ranken family's horsedrawn coach

11 Chronometers before Christmas

From the opening of the Museum Workshops to Christmas Peter Bucke has completed the dismantling, examination, cleaning and servicing of 11 chronometers. This is the first time that Peter has been able to focus exclusively on the chronometer collection and he is delighted with progress. Peter’s work has also included photographic and written documentation of each chronometer, which provides the Museum with more details about this wonderful collection.

A composition of detail photos of four chronometers.

The chronometers treated are:

  • Brockbank & Atkins No 1437
  • Dent Two Day Marine  No 46982
  • Dent No 5386
  • Gardner No 5/3947
  • Kullberg No 3834
  • Loseby No 109
  • Parkinson & Frodsham Marine No 4164
  • Morris Tobias Marine No 695
  • Dent Two Day Marine No 1604
  • Dobbie Son & Hutton Marine No 5475
  • Arnold No 246

Of the Tobias, Peter says it is one of the most beautiful and well-made chronometers he has encountered. Morris Tobias was an English watchmaker who practised in the town of Wapping from 1798. The #31 was made around 1830 which makes it one of the oldest chronometers in our collection. The movement is unique as it has two separate bridges, one housing the fussee and mainspring barrel, and the second housing the wheel train and escapement. The wheel train and escapement overall size is much smaller than found in a regular chronometer, more in line with the size of a large pocket watch, whereas the barrel and fussee are twice the size of a regular style chronometer. The wheel train bridge is fitted within the main plates housing the mainspring and fussee. This unique design allows for the need to service the finer parts of the movement more frequently, without having to disassemble the whole clock mechanism.

The movement was in poor condition, showing old lubricants throughout, which in some places had turned into a thick glue like paste, fully restricting its operation. Since a compete dis assembly , clean , adjustment and re lubricating with the finest synthetic watch oil, the chronometer now has "come alive". A minimal amount of power wound on the mainspring resulted in the escapement proceeding into a full action, displaying a healthy amplitude of over 200 degrees!

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