National Museum of Ireland – a tour of the conservation facility

We recently had an opportunity to visit the conservation facility of the National Museum of Ireland, at Collins Barracks, Dublin. Always keen to have a look behind the scenes, we jumped at the chance to sign up; the tour is a public tour and takes in a number of departments within the facility; our tour guide Kathy, an intern in the Education and Outreach department, began the tour by advising us that we would be visiting active working environments.

Our first stop was a laboratory in which museum staff were investigating textile remains from the Dublin Viking site at Fishamble Street 1; although excavated over 30 years ago, some of the textiles are only now being assessed. The Dublin Wood Quay excavations, as they are known, comprised the rescue excavation of a massive Viking site on the south bank of the River Liffey in Dublin city; the National Museum at Kildare Street Viking exhibition already displays a number of the artefacts from this site (http://www.museum.ie/en/exhibition/viking-ireland.aspx).

The work being carried out on the Fishamble Street 1 textiles includes the processing and examination of textile fragments to identify the fabric used, the method of construction, any dyes or pigments that may have been present and palaeo-environmental sampling to identify insects remains.

The textiles, when excavated in the late 1970’s, were placed in plastic bags which were then vacuum and heat sealed; this conservation method has proven incredibly effective, and along with careful storage in cool, dark conditions has maintained the textiles in a stable condition. The fragments survived in a remarkable state of preservation from the Viking period; the weave and design features on some pieces still clearly visible and different fabric types easily discernible, from fine woollen weaves to coarse sacking material.

 Fine woven textile fragment with design detail visible at the top

The examination and conservation process includes analysis of the clay from the original find contexts, still present on the fragments; this is part of a a pilot project to identify whether insect remains may further the understanding of the original use of the artefacts; we were told that results so far indicate that distinctions can be made as to the type of insects present and the environment in which they are usually found (e.g. insects associated with food, human or animal waste etc.).

A more coarse woven textile fragment

The textiles, when clean and dry, are re-packaged to stabilise each fragment,  each stored in a clear plastic pocket, coated on the inside with an invisible film of an inert compound (ceramic) to prevent degradation of the textiles. The pocket (looks like a plastic pocket for a lever-arch file), labelled with details of the excavation references & available technical information may then be made accessible to researchers for further investigation as the samples may be investigated under a microscope etc. This is an exciting development  and opportunity for future researchers, giving unprecedented access to artefacts that otherwise might be considered too fragile for further examination!

We moved on from this part of the tour and were led to another section of the conservation department and to a completely different end of the history of textiles in Ireland; to the preparation of a retrospective exhibition of the work of the iconic Danish-Irish couturier Ib Jorgenson, who began his career in the 20th century.

On this visit, a dress was being restored for display; the wool crepe dress dating from the 1960’s is in excellent shape due in part to a very careful owner. The silk lining had worn through in places and a hand-dyed silk, coloured to match as closely as possible the original garment, is used to support the original fabric where further damage might occur in displaying the dress. This work is supportive of the structure of the garment, and crucially, reversible.

Mannequins for the exhibition of costume are specially designed to support each individual garment and while the dress described above was relatively standard in terms of display requirements, we were shown examples of mannequins customised to support 17th century gowns, where skirts and sleeve supports were carefully tailored to fill out the dress, to ensure no undue stress on the structure of the garment and to accurately reflect its original silhouette.

Our third stop brought us to the archaeological conservation laboratory where our guide introduced us to technical staff undertaking the careful work of replicating an artefact for display – the museum is occasionally asked, by local (regional) museums, archaeological interpretive centres etc., for copies of artefacts (found locally but housed in the National Museum) for permanent display.

The process is a relatively straightforward one, however before the artefact is copied, tests are carried out to ensure that the process will not harm the original artefact in any way. Polychromatic artefacts e.g. painted, enamelled etc., or artefacts with fractures, flaking or lamination are unsuitable for this process as the silicon of clay moulding penetrates even surface scratches and pitting to give an exact copy. A mould is made using clay or silicone. Where objects are fragile, they may be coated with Japanese tissue (a fine paper made from vegetable fibre) before being cast though this will compromise the copy as some detail will be lost; this is thus considered a replica rather a copy.

Making a mould for a resin cast copy

The copy is then cast with a casting resin and using carefully chosen pigments and inclusions to mimic the colour and feel of the artefact. On the visit, we saw the process of casting a bronze axe head. The details of the surface of the artefact were clearly visible on the silicone mould; a number of trials were made to match the green colour of the oxidised bronze. The casting resin would ultimately include powdered bronze to  give the copy a similar feel and weight to the original artefact!

We were also shown the process of packing artefacts for transport when being loaned out to other Museums. This is a much detailed process to ensure that the artefact is not damaged while being unpacked at its destination. The packing process is documented, step by step from the way the artefact is wrapped up, to the way the wrapped object is packed in its container, with written and photographic directions on how to extract it to ensure no damage is caused. The artefact is accompanied by a detailed record of the condition of the object, for the benefit of the curators at the destination institution.

Our last, and by no means least stop, was at the binding and book conservation department. The main function of the this department is to bind volumes for the Museums collection of periodicals and journals however some conservation and restoration work is also carried out. The book binder is a third generation master craftsman; the skills used, passed through generations are now largely replaced by mechanisation for large-scale or commercial production, however at the Museum the continued use of traditional methods is appropriate to the material.

We were given a demonstration of the process from trimming the paper to a uniform size, selecting buckram (a binding textile – a sort of leatherette) for the cover, the arrangement of the brass letters, some in use for over 100 years, for the metal foil lettering and the finishing of the bound volumes in an array of colours to represent the different series of periodicals.

 Brass letters used to heat-print metal foil lettering onto book covers

We were also treated to a look at (modern) vellum, used in the reproduction of the recently opened exhibition of the Faddan More Psalter. Vellum is made from animal skin (e.g. calf) that is treated and dried to create a remarkable thin, almost translucent, flexible, smooth and strong material for writing.

The tour, which took just over an hour was very enjoyable and informative thanks to the museum staff and their obvious enthusiasm for their work!

References:

 Dublin Viking excavation Fishamble Street 1: http://www.excavations.ie/Pages/Details.php?Year=&County=Dublin&id=5704

Preparation for a retrospective of the iconic couturier Ib Jorgensen : http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/magazine/2011/0115/1224287297721.html.

Faddan More Psalter: http://www.museum.ie/en/exhibition/list/focus-on-the-faddan-more-psalter.aspx

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About blackfriary

The Irish Archaeology Field School (IAFS) is Ireland’s leading provider of university accredited, site based archaeological research and training. The Blackfriary research project is part of a community archaeology project, based in Trim, Co. Meath. Blackfriary is a 13th century Dominican abbey site; the archaeology includes the buried remains of the medieval abbey and graveyard. Students that participate in the excavation experience and practice all aspects of archaeological excavation processes, learning from experts and leaders in their field, and contribute to an established archaeological research project. IAFS have been excavating at Blackfriary since 2010; students participating have come from all over the works including the Australia, Canada, Europe and the USA.
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