Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rediscovering objects: Origin, Use, Significance and Condition

When you spend a few hours with an object every week, you build a connection with it. Every conservator knows that, and there is something beautiful at almost touching the mind that created that object.

During ARCLG 142 Context ofConservation: Understanding Objects (a core course of the UCL MA Principles of Conservation), I was assigned H.0039, a gourd vessel without records of its past history or when it was acquired by UCL. The object consisted in two main parts: a main spherical body and a cylindrical stopper. With little information to begin with, I started my research about the object surrounded by countless questions: Is the object really from Africa? Where exactly in the continent? Is it a copy or an original? How old is it? Who brought it? When was it made? How was it used? What does it mean?
Fig 1: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel located in the Material Culture Room at the Department of Anthropology (UCL)

Fig 2: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel without stopper, showing geometrical designs.

Fig 3: Object H.0039. Gourd vessel stopper formed by a rolled-up leaf decorated and protected by woven grass fibre.

As a starting point, I decided to verify the information available. I picked one question and I started from there. I asked the object ‘Where are you from?’. After looking at other collections, closely studying the object, some research and emails exchanged, I found reason to believe that despite the label of the object stating that the provenance is Africa, the provenance of this object was probably Papua New Guinea. I believe it is possibly a lime pot – or a copy of one – known as yaguma in the native language of Massim culture.

Fig. 4: Scheme of the stopper manufacture process.

Fig. 5: Scheme of the geometrical designs decorating the gourd.

The object is thought to be a lime gourd, used to carry burnt shells, forming a lime powder that was used along with betel nut for betel chewing. Similar objects were often used for magic rituals, music, and as a summoning instrument.

Betel nut chewing is appreciated for its psychoactive effects and hunger-reducing properties. In the past, this old tradition was followed by lowland indigenous;  since the 1960s it has spread to the metropolitan and highlands areas of New Guinea. It is believed to be a result of the process undergone by Papua New Guinea of building their own and united ‘national culture'. It is one of the few traditions that have been left untouched by European colonialism.

The overall condition of the object is fair. However, despite its stability, the object shows signs of deterioration and is covered by a layer of dust. The deterioration of materials is essentially limited to the grass fibre in the stopper, where changes in the relative humidity might have caused the embrittlement of the organic material. The grass fibre that decorates the rolled-up leaf stopper presents an area of material loss and fibre breakage. The flattened section of the rolled-up leaf shows minor signs of chemical deterioration indicated by crackling (Figure 6).

Fig. 6: Stopper of H.0039 showing the areas of loss of the grass fibre decorating the leaf stopper and the embrittlement of the fibre.

Fig. 7: Stopper of H.0039. Embrittlement of the rolled-up leaf forming the stopper. (Image made with a DinoXcope)

My most important discovery, in my opinion, is the white residue in the bottom of the stopper, hidden when closed. This sediment could be related to the original purpose of the gourd: transporting lime. However, further technical analysis should be carried to confirm this hypothesis. If the white residue was confirmed to be lime powder, it would authenticate its provenance as well as its use, which would reinforce its value inside the collection. The inside of the gourd is completely clean. The gourd might have been cleaned or the stopper could have been used in another gourd, but this second thesis seems unlikely since the joint fits snugly.

Fig. 8:  Interior of the stopper: rolled-up leaf. Broken fibres and white residue
 (Image made with a DinoXcope)

Fig. 9:  Interior of the stopper: rolled-up leaf. White residue suspected to be lime
 (Image made with a DinoXcope)

It was essential to confirm the evidence found and reassess the values of the object due to the relevance of the provenance, since the change in provenance meant an entirely new perspective of meanings and stakeholders that will affect the significance of this object. Unfortunately, it was not possible to find the acquisition date and, therefore, it is difficult to give an estimate date of manufacture.

What is clear is that, understanding this object, its provenance, function and significance is crucial for the collection. The most significant thing is that if the object, original or not, really comes from the Massim Culture, instead of from Africa, its value for the teaching collection of the Anthropology Department radically changes. Observance and research allow recovering the significance of an object that was lost by the lack of documentation. Consequently, this case illustrates the importance of documentation.

By Alicia de la Serna (all images by the author, please do not use without permission)

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Adventures at AIC—My Experiences Attending and Presenting at My First American Institute for Conservation Conference

   My last year as a student in University College London's (UCL) MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums program included an internship placement at the Wallace Collection in central London. There, I was able to conduct conservation treatment work on the Oriental Arms and Armor collection under the supervision of metalwork conservator, Seoyoung Kim. Most of the work I participated in throughout this internship concerned cleaning the Collection for catalogue photography.
A picture of me testing the dry ice cleaning equipment prior to
using it on the objects.

  Throughout this project, I was fortunate enough to be able to be a part of the cleaning of the Oriental Helmets--a magnificent group that numbers 74. In the 1980s, the helmets were coated with petroleum jelly as a protective coating. The coating eventually degraded, interacting with the copper rings, creating a green, waxy corrosion product. The aged coating darkened and obscured the patterns on the mail and also made it less flexible. Conventionally, White Spirit/Stoddard Solvent would be used to remove this coating, however, the amount of solvent needed and the time it would take to remove the coating was not ideal. To reduce the use of solvents and in the interests of saving time, the ColdJet® i3 Microclean® dry ice shaving unit was hired to aid in the cleaning of the mail on the helmets. During this time, I was kindly permitted to conduct research for my MSc degree dissertation.

A picture of the setup used for the dry ice cleaning of the
furniture mounts.
   After my graduation from UCL's conservation program, Seoyoung and I decided to submit an abstract of our work on the Oriental Helmets Collection and my dissertation experiments for the American Institute for Conservation's (AIC) 43rd Annual Meeting themed, "Practical Philosophy or Making Conservation Work".   We were both very excited when our abstract was accepted, and I was especially excited since this would be my very first AIC conference.

   I was a bit intimidated by the fact that I would be speaking at my first AIC conference, but I realize now that my worries were for naught. The conference was an amazing experience, filled with interesting research, productive networking opportunities and fun social activities. The talks for the conference took place throughout May14th-16th in Miami, Florida. I was able to attend 23 different talks on a wide range of topics, including sustainability in conservation, the use of reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) in conservation, innovations in laser cleaning, the conservation treatment of radioactive objects, the varied uses for gellan gum in conservation and new coatings for the protection of outdoor bronze sculpture.

During the conference, I was able to spend some
time exploring Miami with friends.
    Aside from the talks, there were a multitude of other social activities which fostered engagement between attendees. These activities included opening and closing receptions, poster presentations, group luncheons and also discussions. Throughout all of this, I was able to meet new colleagues and connect with old friends while exploring Miami.

    My talk was scheduled for the last day of the conference, and although I was nervous at the beginning, I felt calm knowing that I was presenting research in good company. Overall, the AIC conference was an amazing experience that I hope to get the chance to present at again someday. I greatly encourage all others who study conservation to submit abstracts and convey their research to the wider conservation community--it certainly helped me professionally as well as personally. For more information on my presentation and research, please make sure to check out the AIC Postprints Publication which should be available in Spring 2016, or keep posted on the past and future meetings at

The wonderful, sunny view right outside the conference hall!



Saturday, 27 June 2015

Getting ready to go to Olduvai Gorge

It’s that time of the year, when we start hoarding conservation materials, packing supplies, and getting ready to join friends and colleagues in Olduvai Gorge.

The UCL conservation team working with OGAP in Olduvai Gorge will be mighty this year! UCL conservation students Abby Duckor, Anna Funke & Jan Cutajar will be working with Eli Diaz and Renata Peters. We are looking forward to joining our colleague Dan Mainoya in Arusha and possibly have some Tanzanian conservation apprentices in the team as well.

The wonderful manager Carmen Martin Ramos and conservator Eli Diaz.  
And here are Abby, Anna and Jan (in very good company) on Gordon Square. Very soon you will see them at the Laetoli Lab in the Leakey Camp! 

Our main activities this year will include:
-Development of new approaches to lifting, consolidation and stabilization of fossils and lithics
-Removal of matrices
-Identification of available local resources
-Testing and use of local materials
-Building capacities among Tanzanian colleagues and students
-Engagement with local groups through the practice of conservation
-Evaluation of approaches to increase access to the collections

But we are also hoping to continue our Maasai beading workshop and possibly some basketry! 

Watch this space, we will be blogging from our lab in the Leakey Camp!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Olduvai Gorge Conservation Project

By Anna Funke
This post is to introduce you to a fascinating project that three MSc Conservation students (myself, Abby Duckor and Jan D. Cutajar) will be involved with this summer. 
The three of us, also known as the GTCT (Greatest Tanzania Conservation Team) will be going to Olduvai Gorge in – you guessed it - Tanzania this summer! We will be in pursuit of some hand-fast evidence about the lives of early man and woman. This famous site is right at the heart of the theory that humanity’s origins are to be found in East Africa.

The archaeological research at Olduvai focuses on the transition between the Oldowan and the Acheulean. Both these groups are steps in the line of the human biological as well as technical evolution. The archaeologists on site will therefore be looking both for human remains that can give some insight into the biological stages of our development, as well as for ancient stone tools that can shed some light on our early technical developments. The finds from Olduvai Gorge go back as far as 1.7 million years!

Olduvai Gorge

Our contribution to these grand questions will be to try to stabilise these fragile finds so that they can safely be studied. We will also try our hands at excavation by helping out with the lifting of particularly fragile finds.  

A fragile find being worked on in the Laetoli Lab by Ephraim Lucas Tarmo, one of the Tanzanian conservation apprentices in the 2014 season. Photo courtesy of OGAP.

We are now in the final weeks of preparations before the departure of GTCT in early July! We are getting our vaccinations and gathering our tents, travel showers, and tool kits. We can’t wait to jump in and we hope you will stay tuned for updates during the excavation! If you would like us to send you a postcard, we will happily do so in return for a small contribution to our travel fund. We are so close to going but we still need to raise the last of our balance to make this trip a success! You can help by contributing here or by spreading the word about our project. Thank you for any help you can give!
Find out more about the conservation at Olduvai Gorge here.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The complexity of making mounts

As part of the course ARCLG139 Skills for Conservation Management (UCL MA Principles of Conservation) last April, I carried out a mounts project with the objective of learning how to create safe mounts while taking into account the space and resources of the collection. Although it was a challenging project, I very much enjoyed the process, especially when thinking that my work might help to expand the lifespan of those unique artefacts.
The project consisted of creating suitable mounts for 22 objects of the Ethnographic collection in the Material Culture Room at the Department of Anthropology (UCL). The objects were stacked one above the other and were protected by acid free tissue. Because of the organic nature of the artefacts and the lack of appropriate mounts, they were rapidly deteriorating. What a shame, right? Especially since these objects are very interesting from  ethnographic and aesthetic perspectives.

Fig. 1. Drawer 4H: Acid free tissue and plastic bags were the only protection the objects had (before project).

The aims of the project were discussed with Delphine Mercier, responsible for the care of the MCR collection. After my discussion with Delphine, the next step was to identify those limitations and needs.
  • Improving the visual and physical access to each one of the object.
  • Provide safe mounts that could easily be handled, inviting handling of the mount rather than the artefact.
  • Reducing mechanical friction between artefacts.
  • Produce support in the most sensitive areas of the object.

  • Space: Only the space in the drawer was available. No extra space could be provided.
  • Materials: the materials already available in the Material Cultural Room.

Fig. 2. Drawer 4H Dimensions
Due to the restrictions of space, the resulting proposal stated that two levels would be needed inside the drawer with the taller artefacts in a first level and the shorter in a second. Also, the objects that weighted the most were placed in the first level to avoid the weight of objects affecting each other.
Additionally, similar materials and other connections - for instance, provenance - were also taken into account, and whenever possible they were placed next each other. For example, artefacts J.0027, J.0028 and J.0111 A&B were placed close to each other because they have the same provenance – Papua New Guinea – and are made of similar materials.
Fig. 3. Organisation plan of the first level in Drawer 4H

Fig. 4. Organisation plan of the second level in Drawer 4H placed over the first level (during project).

Although the original intention was to use plastazote and corex, corrugated board was also available. The space restrictions made the last material more suitable than corex. Moreover, corrugated board resistance made possible to make boxes for individual objects or small groups of objects. 

Fig. 5. Folding the edges before gluing them 
Fig. 6. Checking the space available to place J.0027 inside the box.
Fig. 7. Gluing the edges of the boxes with a hot glue gun.

                                                Fig. 8. Boxes and objects place in the First Level

Two layers of plastazote were placed in each box, a first providing a softer surface were the artefact will rest, and a second with the shape of the object, preventing objects impacting each other. The first and second layers of plastazote were glue together. Ultimately, individual measures were carried out when needed depending on the materials and fragility of each box. Ultimately, individual measures were carried out when needed depending on the materials and fragility of each box.
Fig. 9. Plastazote layers and box with objects J.0058 (on the right) and J.0073 (on the left: A&B).
In order to reduce the weight of the upper level on the lower level, small plastazote pillars were placed. To provide further security among levels, an extra layer of corrugated board was placed between them. The  boxes were cut and glued with a hot glue gun.
Fig. 10. Project result: first level (now with the Plastazote cutouts) in Drawer 4H (after project).

Fig. 11. Project result: second level (now with Plastazote cutouts) in Drawer 4H (after project).
The result fulfilled the objectives of the project, successfully improving their safety, access and visibility. The experience has been unique, and I have realised the creativity and dexterity needed to design mounts that usually need to meet several objectives. Moreover, almost any institutions have space and materials restrictions, which make the task even more challenging.

Now, I find myself looking first to the object and then inevitably to the mount. I deeply admire professionals working on the safe storage of collections. Thanks to their work those objects are still alive when someone finally decides to lay down their curious eyes on them.

By Alicia de la Serna Saenz

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