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Stop the Rot!

It was back in January after the Yuletide festivities had died away that a one day training session for volunteers, museum employees and one or two invitees from outside organisations had been arranged.  The event was called "Stop the Rot!" and was presented by Jane Thompson Webb, the Collection Care Officer with the Birmingham Museums Trust.

The event was focused on what is called "Collections Care" and to quote our wonderful presenter Jane is little more than proper housekeeping, taking into consideration what the particular item in question is made from and how it is being stored and displayed.  As Jane said:  "Objects in museums are at risk from deterioration.  They are held in trust by an institution for the benefit of the public and thus cannot be thrown away once damaged.  It makes more sense to limit or prevent deterioration if at all possible; this is collections care."  There was no way that just a few hours could be anything other than an introduction to the subject but if the short time allowed a greater understanding of how best to look after and preserve the valuable items stored in not only the British Motor Museum by those who need to know, then it's a great start.

I have to admit that having worked in the Curatorial team for nearly two years and mainly with Catherine Griffin, I had already gained what I thought was a good understanding of the topics Jane would cover. This turned out to be largely true for which I'm thankful to Cat but there's always other stuff to learn and so indeed there was.

Jane covered the development of collections care from an official position before getting down to the really interesting bits on what one has in a museum and just how it's almost decaying before our very eyes. Usually Jane brings items from the museum she looks after for the attendees to examine but rather shrewdly Cat had suggested beforehand that it might be more appropriate to use actual items from the BMM with the thought that the we might be better able to "gel" with largely very familiar objects. I mentioned that we had a couple of guests from other museums in the session and indeed we did with invitees from the Birmingham Lace Museum; they were naturally not so familiar with the objects used but said they found it fascinating to see the things Cat had brought and some of them were garment related, so they probably had a bit of a head start there anyway.

It seems that the most important starting points with collections care is identifying what you have, not what it is but more what it's made from and then how to look after it. Jane went through organic and inorganic materials before helping us determine whether something was metal, glass, bone, leather, wool, wood, and so on – the list is not quite endless but quite long. To drive home the lesson we split into teams of three or four and were tasked with identifying what a dozen or so of Cat's objects were made from.  We learned that whilst precision in identification is good, it is of no use if it's wrong and it's actually better to slightly vaguer – for example instead of suggesting the lining of an Edwardian driving coat is wool or cotton, if one is not absolutely sure "textile" is a better official description. Likewise "copper alloy" is preferable to brass, "white metal alloy" rather than steel, "synthetic" instead of plastic, and so on. This was quite an eye-opener and since Cat and I ultimately needed to catalogue all the items in "Automobilia", I felt I needed to sit up and concentrate…

Having worked out what stuff was made of, we moved on to how the items decay.  Jane started with a thing called the "Nine Agents of Decay", which basically lists anything and everything that can happen to museum items from dropping them through fire, water and pests before reaching environmental factors like light, heat and humidity with a whole raft of other problems in between. Over the winter the Lucas display had been subjected to water ingress via a leaky roof so most of us were only too painfully aware of at least one of the nine. Once the topic had been covered adequately in the class another team event out in the actual museum had been devised to get us to spot any of the nine agents on museum objects, documenting the type of damage (i.e. the "agent"), how it presented itself and what further damage and problems might ensue. At this point things got a little depressing. It became obvious that everything in the British Motor Museum, and I don't think there are any real exceptions, slowly and inexorably decays over time no matter how well it's stored and handled – but we can do our best and slow things down, hopefully to the point where ongoing deterioration is almost inperceptable.

Naturally in the British Motor Museum we do our very best to make sure we handle things correctly, using latex gloves, rather than cotton – which Jane reminded us were now largely frowned upon because their cost means they are infrequently changed and apparently they do not wash well - and monitoring the environmental factors such as light, temperature and humidity, however a keen eye can still find signs of gentle decay. Such decay included cracked tyres on many cars, chrome and silver plating polished away, and so on. Synthetic items notoriously fare the worst and a previous course I'd been on about plastics revealed that such material starts decaying during manufacture, so we can only do our very best to slow things down. Composite items also pose particular problems since some materials like different humidities and all we can do is the best compromise.

All in all I found the session on "Stopping the Rot!" very interesting and useful and I learnt a lot which will doubtless help in my voluntary curatorial duties but it was our highly professional presenter Jane who brought the session alive with sound, practical advice and a wonderful touch of humour in all the right places! Now, about that cataloguing...

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