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The University of Cambridge Museums Conservation Work Experience is designed to give students aged 16 – 18 insight into developing a career in conservation. It took place at the Fitzwilliam Museum, The Polar Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Museum of Zoology from 18 – 21 August 2015.
Conservators investigate and research objects to unravel the secrets of how they were made, diagnose the problems that they develop and work out how to stop deterioration and keep the collections safe in storage and on display. They undertake conservation treatment to stabilise, repair and, sometimes, restore the objects.
Engaging with the University of Cambridge Museums and their collections, the students developed an understanding of object and art conservation. A hands-on programme was organised to provide a real appreciation of museum collections care and let the students experience the practical, technical and ethical challenges that conservators tackle.
The four-day experience was led by a team of conservators from the University of Cambridge Museums who supported the learning process and offered first-hand experience about pursuing a career in conservation.
Below, Ella Flavell, one of the students who took part shares her thoughts and experiences on her time with the museums.
“I was really excited to be selected for a week of conservation work experience with the University of Cambridge Museums as I am starting an Art History degree in September and wanted to see where my degree could take me.
Before I came, I knew very little about what conservation actually entailed, and how much had to be considered when conserving an object: the ethics, the history, the materials used and how much conservation or restoration was needed. We got a taster of restoration when we were each given a smashed plant pot to stick back together, which sounds a lot easier than it actually was. You became aware of how each piece fitted together, how you had to make sure you put them in in the right order, so as not to ‘lock out’ other pieces and how even the smallest fragment had to be included.
We also got to handle objects, including Egyptian artefacts, which we analysed using the FORS (fibre optic reflectance spectroscopy) machine, enabling us to see what pigments had been used. As well as antiquities we looked at paintings, manuscripts, works on paper, ceramics and more modern items from The Polar Museum. Each department had to treat their objects in a different way, and it gave me a new appreciation of the work it takes to get an item ready for display.
As well as looking at objects we also explored how they were stored and displayed. One task to designing an exhibition cabinet in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology got us to think about how temperature, humidity, light and insects can affect displays, and now I can’t look at another exhibit in a museum without checking out how they’ve arranged their case.
Our visit to the stores of the Museum of Zoology was a truly eye opening experience. It was packed full of all manner of creatures, from giant frogs to delicate butterflies, to some of Charles Darwin’s specimens. They even had the dried stomach of a Tasmanian wolf! We learnt how museums pack their items for storage, and then had a go for ourselves with some items from charity shops. After carful packing we dropped (or threw) them from the top of a ladder to see how well we’d packed them. Needless to say, some items didn’t survive, but the majority made it out unscathed.
This week has given me a real sense of how important the work of conservators is and how hard it is to find the right balance between conservation and restoration. It’s a brilliant opportunity that gives you a real insight into the behind the scenes world of the University of Cambridge Museums.”