Old dog, new tricks…
In my previous incarnation as a print machine operator, I had got used to work being a means to an end and that was that.Or so I thought. How wrong I was!
After scouring the National Trust vacancies web-page, I quickly discovered ‘Collections Management’, the care and conservation of all items within National Trust Houses.There was a link to something called,(deep breath) ‘Heritage Skills – Passport to Your Future – Collections Management Traineeship’. This was set up with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help people get a chance to train for a career in the heritage sector.Not only did I get a place on the ‘Taster Day’ (set up to give prospective applicants the chance to visit the property before applying), but made it to the interview stage! All the spell casting, finger crossing and rune casting paid off as I was offered the job! (a subtle blend of careful decision making and names in a hat?…. )
First day nerves kicked in as the little butterflies turned into moths and then bats. A different type of nerves though as I had been looking forward to so much it was quite surreal to finally be starting. I had met a few of the staff on the taster day and interview days, so I didn’t take long to settle in, met more of the team and had a tour of the house which is quite a place. A ‘deep end’ moment came when I was introduced to the volunteer room guides and told I would be a room guide that afternoon! No pressure then… After a little wobbly start I quite enjoyed it as it was a good opportunity to hover over the voluteers and see how it’s done before attempting it myself.
Having been at Dyrham for all of two days it seemed quite fitting to go for a day out! The staff outing to Brownsea Island was a treat. The Brownsea staff were lovely and made us all feel welcome. Having been born and bred in Dorset it was familiar territory but had not been since my school days. It was a great day and a good opportunity to meet everyone. I Celebrated my employment at Dyrham by making use of my staff discount, and bought a copy of what is regarded as the conservator’s bible. ‘The Manual of Housekeeping’ is a weighty tome and detail’s everything you could possibly want to know about conservation. It benefits from being an excellent source of reference for conservation issues, while being a good read if you are interested enough to read it cover to cover. Since I started I’ve used it on many an occasion for both these reasons.
If the manual is the conservator’s bible then the 9 ‘Agents of Deterioration’ are surely the commandments!
Water, (flood/burst pipes/damage from extinguishers)
Physical,(accidental mechanical force)
Light, (enough to see but not too much to damage)
Wrong Relative Humidity, (Too much/not enough humidity in the air)
Wrong Temperature, (too high/low can have a nasty effect)
I was quickly shown the daily cleaning routine at the house- what to do & how to do it. Properly. What little I knew or thought I knew, went quickly out the window.
The concept of conservation cleaning is beautifully simple. (lie.) Start from the top and follow the contour of the object you’re cleaning. The idea is not to clean the same place twice so as to further damage the surface.The plan is to gently flick the dust away from the surface, to be caught in a vacuum nozzle or on a duster. That way you interaction with the surface of whatever you are cleaning is kept at a minimum. For this to be most affective a variety of different tools have been bestowed upon me.
A treasure trove of dusters, brushes and gloves. A different one for each job. My mentor for the year, (the poor girl who drew the short straw) is the newly crowned queen of conservation, the lovely Katy. She quickly showed me who’s boss and gave a crash course (no pun intended) in conservation cleaning. As I have a rather O.C.D-ish attitude to cleaning myself this was a concept I took to.
Next port of call was the course induction and CMS introduction training days at headquarters in Swindon. What’s CMS I hear you cry! More on that later! Having got through the hussle & bussle, finally arrived at the hotel with first day nerves again. As the project leader, CMS head honcho and housekeeping supremo were all there, as well as all the other trainees on the course throughout the country, I was in my element being thrown into the lions den of a room full of people – Not! As with my first days at Dyrham I was not afforded the luxury of ‘blending in to the background’ as I would have liked, being the ‘always in the kitchen at parties’ type of guy. So I was so far out of my comfort zone, I could’nt even see my comfort zone! ‘Sink or swim’ kicked in again and I was happy just to be treading water so to speak. What would have been an intimidating two days for me were made not just bearable but good fun by the general awesomeness of Andrew, Louise, Melissa, Husnara, Bethany, Graham, Jenna, Charlie, and Hajira.
CMS or ‘Collections Management System’ to mere mortals, is the computer inventory system used by the National Trust to photograph, detail and catalogue all items in the collection of each property. But not any old system oh no! It has it’s own way of doing things and you have to learn to play the game it’s way. A bit like a cyber cat that you want to do something for you. Ask it in the right way and bob’s your Uncle. Ask it in the wrong way, or be too obvious and ‘Computer says no’ springs to mind…Having said that it is a great source of information and a credit to it’s creators.( I’m legally obliged to say that! ) As with any form of inventory it’s only as good as the information that’s fed into it, so ‘human error’ is also a factor.
So, training over for now, and back to the house. A normal day at Dyrham, (if there is such a thing) usually kicks off with a good old cleaning routine.
As the working day starts at 8.30am and the house is open to the public at 11am that is quite a small window of time to do what needs to be done. Armed with a small array of conservation cleaning tools (vacuum cleaner/duster/furniture brush/banister brush/soft brush/even softer brush/gloves) The cleaning schedule for the day is usually determined by the previous days visitor numbers, but also needs to include any areas that need attention, or objects that are prone to attract lots of dust if they are near the visitor route. That brings me neatly on to a hot topic within historical houses and museums alike, that are open to the public. The whole idea of opening a house to the public is so everyone can have a chance to experience the collection in context with the house itself. Although that brings in much needed revenue, (the National Trust could not survive without it!) it does then raise the issue of what impact the visiting public has on a house and it’s collection. Basically, the more people visit, the more dust and debris get’s into the house, so the more you have to clean. A layman would say ‘not really a problem, just clean more often – crack open the Mr. Muscle!’ Oh no. Rookie mistake. The more fragile the surface, be it textile, painting, guilded frame, cabinet, book cover,etc the more it is prone to damage. So although a regular cleaning shedule is needed, objects in the collection are graded in importance to determine how often they are cleaned. Depending on the fragility and historical value of the object concerned, it can range from every day/week/month/year/five years/ten years/never!
When the BBC call you don’t hide & pretend to not be in, so in preparation of a bit of filming for a mini-series, there came the chance to do an in-depth clean of two of our roped off rooms. With a catch. It has to be done while the house is open, so visitors get to see conservation in action. Having a steady(ish) hand, a soft brush and duster were the weapons of choice. It’s a perk of the job to step over the ropes but even more so when you get to stay the otherside. With an eagle eyed mentor in tow, re-iterating how things are done and fielding questions from an inquisitive public, the pressure was on. Recalling all my conservation cleaning training, with a pony hair brush in hand I set to work. Firstly you have to be aware of your environment, which means avoiding kicking chair legs, elbowing table tops, not banging into anything…..a conservation version of the game ‘Operation’ but with no buzzer! Table tops and cabinet tops get the duster treatment but not how you normally dust. You fold the duster into a ball so as to have as little interaction with the surface as possible, and not to catch any loose threads, gently dust the surface. Particular attention is needed when cleaning a cracked or inlayed surface so as not to damage it any further. When cleaning carved wood, such as a chair or table leg, the trick is to follow the natural contours with a soft brush and flick the dust off. Hot on the heels of this, conservation assisstant and colleague Margaret gave an interesting instruction on pest control. Pesky little things. Some tolerated some not, so the ‘if it moves, squash it’ approach does’nt quite work as you need to record and monitor all the little fellas that stumble into the various sticky traps we have squirreled around the house.
There are various potions and gadgets we have at our disposal to monitor temperature and light, all supplied by the ‘Hanwell’ people. As two of the room units were on the fritz, Joanne Hallam payed us a visit to check them out. (Not even a truck fire on the main road stopped her!) The problem was an easy one to remedy so there was time for Jo to tell us about a few new bits of kit. The ‘Gutter Sensor’ prevents overflow and blockages in gutter systems. It’s an elegantly simple design with a sensor at the end of a cable to detect when the water level get’s too high. ‘Flexicubes’ are a cost effective way of treating pest infected objects.(‘Bug-Bags’is a far better name!) Basically they are a sealable bag that your infected object can be put in for treatment. Each container has a built in section to house the ‘Hanwell ZerO2 Alert device’. This little fella uses ‘Oxygen Scavenger sachets’ (I imagine little creatures that would normally live on the moon……) That are placed in the bag to reduce the oxygen level, thus killing unwanted beasties. This brings us neatly onto the ‘Dustbug’ – As the accumulation of dust is a conservator’s nemesis, this genius gaget is designed to monitor dust levels. It has a glass eye that gradually gathers dust naturally like other objects in it’s location, and the integrated camera measures the dust that settles And relates that info to the display screen. ‘Tis pure sorcery! ( and AA batteries)
Among Dyrham’s many paintings is ‘Facade of a Jesuit church’. The church in question still exhists, ( despite a lightening strike and fire!) and is being loaned to a gallery in Belgium. A logistical conundrum presented itself however, as not only is it on the wall next to a 300 year old staircase, there are two other paintings next to it! A crack team of logistical technicians arrived in the form of Oxford Exhibition Services. A maverick team of men with ladder’s. The plan was to take the painting underneath the Church one down first, get the church one down, the put the first one back up again. Simples. Not quite. After a little breathing in and head scratching, a plan was hatched. A cunning plan indeed… The Hondecoeter Bird painting was unhooked first, and whisked away to the West hall so I could give the frame a little dust. Then the real work began. With a ladder either side, and one underneath, the church painting was unhooked and gently lowered down, under Katy’s watchful eye. (I’m pretty sure I saw her shut her eye’s and hold her breath for a brief moment…) I myself played a pivotal role and put my current weight to good use for once by holding one of the ladders still. Once down, the painting was taken to a temporary display we had set up for it in our Great Hall. After the Bird painting was returned to it’s rightful place on the stairs, they rode off into the sunset. Which was weird as it was mid-morning…
There then followed a time of great reflection….. Although my time at Dyrham has been a matter of weeks, it does feel like longer. But in a good way! In a slightly euphoric, ‘am I really here, doing this’ kind of way. It really has been the career chance of a lifetime, and I for the first time in my life not only look forward to going to work but love it. The team here are awesome…( I’m contractually obliged to say so.) Too many to mention but a special mention has to go to Linda, Katy, Bridget, Margaret, & Jane – The House posse. Emma and Cath and anyone who I see on a regular basis. If anyone is still reading and i’ve not sent you to sleep then look out for future updates on a year in conservation!