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Seeing Conservation in Action

by Louise Simmons

National Museums Liverpool Conservation CentreAs things get older, they start to deteriorate. It happens to all of us, but it's a major concern for the keepers of museums, galleries and archaeological sites, where exhibits are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Ancient artefacts have to be preserved, but this must be done sympathetically to maintain the integrity of each item. While it might be easier to lock artefacts away in a sealed, climate-controlled, dark room,to keep them from further degeneration, that's not much help when the main purpose is to let people see them. So teams of conservation specialists work to restore and preserve items, from paintings and books to steam engines and monuments. It's a fascinating process, and one that we can watch in action throughout Britain.

To see conservation in action, one of the foremost places to visit is at National Museums Liverpool. Founded in 1851, it's actually made up of eight museums and galleries throughout Liverpool. The newest of these, opened in 1996, is the Conservation Centre, housed in an appropriately enough restored Victorian warehouse.

In the late 1980s, the Liverpool museums found that over half of their one million exhibits were in need of repair, restoration and conservation. The Conservation Centre was formed to do this, but, unlike many other museums, where this work is done behind the scenes, at Liverpool the emphasis is on letting people see what's going on. Hands-on workshops are run most weekends, where you can learn some of the conservators' skills for yourself, while regular tours let you see how some of the priceless artefacts are maintained. Everything from taxidermy to laser cleaning is handled by the people who work here; you'll see them restoring ceramics, textiles, metalwork, jewellery, sculptures, paintings and even ships.

Leyland Bus Amberley Working MuseumFor a more political viewpoint, why not visit The People's History Museum in Manchester? Formerly the National Museum of Labour History, the museum has only been around since the 1970s, but has grown to become the national centre for the collection and study of material related to the history of Britain's working classes. It has the largest collection in the world of historic trade union banners, including the oldest trade union banner in the world, that of the Liverpool Tinplate Workers, from 1821. Unsurprisingly, its Textile Conservation Studio is the UK's leading authority on the conservation of banners.

The Conservation Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London employs about 50 people to care for the museum's thousands of exhibits. Behind-the-scenes tours and talks by conservators on on-going projects and techniques are offered throughout the year: email bookings.office@vam.ac.uk to find out what's on.

Amberley Working Museum, in West Sussex, is an open-air museum dedicated to the industrial heritage of the southeast of England. It aims to keep history alive, and as such, has resident craftspeople who use traditional skills to restore and preserve the exhibits. Potters, wheelwrights and woodturners show visitors how things used to be done. One of this year's major projects is to restore a 1918 steam locomotive engine.

Steam engines have many romantic associations, and are a popular attraction with grown-ups and children alike. Another great place to see them in their glory, and learn how they are looked after, is York's National Railway Museum. As well as all the exhibits and interactive activities, you can visit The Workshop, where you can see and talk to the engineers who are restoring some of the magnificent vehicles owned by the museum.

York Railway Museum

In a similar vein, there's the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, in Cambridgeshire, which is itself located on a heritage site: an airfield used in the First and Second World Wars. It is now one of Europe's best aviation museums. In addition to its many exhibitions (it plays host to the famous Air Shows throughout the year), the museum plays a significant part in the restoration and conservation of aircraft. This is carried out in some of the many hangars on the site, and nearly all the work is carried out where visitors can watch; indeed, the museum reports of many visitors who return often over a period of time to see how their favourite plane is coming along.

For a change from museum visits, English Heritage's Festival of History at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire in August is well worth a visit. As well as historic performances, battle re-enactments, and traditional markets, the weekend event will include historical lectures, and demonstrations of ancient skills and crafts.

National Museums Liverpool Conservation Centre

If you fancy a go at some conservation techniques yourself, or just want to learn more about some aspect from the experts, there are a variety of workshops, courses and seminars you can attend. The Building Conservation website, for instance, has a comprehensive listing of events, from lectures on historic joinery and practical sessions on antique furniture restoration to courses on the conservation and repair of stonework.

All too often at museums we only get to see a finished artefact once it's been painstakingly restored and put back on show. But the work involved in that restoration is itself a fascinating mix of art and science, and it's well worth visiting some of these places where you can see it as a work in progress.

More Information:

National Museums Liverpool Conservation Centre

People's History Museum

Victoria and Albert Museum

Amberley Working Museum

York National Railway Museum

Imperial War Museum at Duxford

English Heritage

Building Conservation

Louise Simmons is a Scottish freelance writer who lives in a 19th century farmhouse on the top of a hill in the middle of a sheep-farming area of central Scotland. An engineer by profession, after spending many years working in the IT industry in such unusual places as Nigeria, Russia and various oil rigs in the middle of the North Sea, she decided to take up her favourite occupation, writing, on a full-time basis, and currently writes for several online and print magazines. She particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history and culture of British people and places. Louise's website is at http://www.grayrigg.com.
Article © 2006 Louise Simmons
Photos courtesy of National Museums Liverpool Conservation Centre, Amberley Working Museum, and York Railway Museum.


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