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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 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.

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.

Tools of the trade

What are the key tools of Donna's trade? Magnifiers, tweezers, ziplock bags, cylinders of nitrogen, sheets of plastic, data-loggers, rolls of plastic, fenoxycarb bombs, radiation detectors and a very large freezer – to name but a few.

Because of the nature of her work, Donna is always on the go – tool box in hand. She has to cover the National Museum's four main sites and inspect all incoming objects, whether new acquisitions or loans. For the inspection of exhibitions coming in from overseas, Donna works with Registration colleagues and with the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) – protecting not just our collections but guarding against the introduction of unwanted flora, fauna and insects into Australia.

When evidence of insect activity is identified, Donna seals the affected objects in plastic to prevent the insects spreading to other areas or objects. She will then have to determine the best treatment. Many insecticides used in the past were quite toxic to humans as well as the insects, were significant pollutants and/or could also have a detrimental effect on the museum collections undergoing treatment. We try to avoid these chemicals for obvious reasons.

Most of the Donna's insect pest treatments are carried out in a large walk-in freezer. Freezing at minus 21 degrees Celsius and maintaining the objects at that temperature for a week will kill insects. But not all materials can be frozen without damage – to treat these Donna uses an anoxic chamber. Anoxic or low oxygen treatment involves removing oxygen from the immediate environment and replacing it with another gas. At the Museum, we use nitrogen. Maintaining this environment for a prolonged period – 3-6 weeks depending on the object – will eliminate the insects. Large objects that cannot fit into the chamber or the freezer are wrapped in plastic, before fenoxycarb bombs are set off inside the wrapping.

Colour photograph showing two women standing at either end of a taxidermied sheep. They are removing white fabric from the sheep's head and rump.
Donna Wilks, right, and colleague Cathy Collins unwrap a taxidermied sheep after its removal from the freezer. Photo: George Serras.

Protecting people

Another very important aspect of Donna's work involves protecting staff, researchers and visitors to the Museum by identifying hazardous materials in collection items. This requires knowledge of when and where hazardous materials were used. Known hazards include: lead paints, used frequently prior to the 1950s and 1960s; fluorescent paints containing radium, used on aeroplane dials and watch faces; acids from leaky batteries; chemicals and old medicines in medical kits; asbestos in brake linings and machine insulation; and mercury or arsenic residues from past insecticides.  

Donna works closely with the Museum's Facitlities team on the regulation of the Museum environment. Data-loggers showing temperature and relative humidity readings from exhibition and storage areas are monitored closely. If fluctuations outside the agreed parameters arise, Donna alerts her Facilities colleagues so that appropriate action can be taken.

Donna takes great pleasure in knowing that her efforts contribute to the preservation of the Museum’s collections and that she makes a significant contribution to ensuring the safety of her colleagues and others who enjoy the Museum’s collections.

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