The Roman artist who painted the beautiful wall fresco in the Villa of Livia could never have dreamt that 2,000 years later it would be reproduced at actual size and on display in an exhibition on the other side of the world.
The Australian National Maritime Museum were asked to participate in TABA NABA – Australia, Oceania, Arts by Peoples of the Sea exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. Living Waters was a key theme of the exhibition developed by curator Erica Izett and featured items from our own Indigenous collection. Donna Carstens, Manager of Indigenous Programs at the Maritime Museum worked closely with Erica to select collection items that support the exhibition themes.
When you tell people that you work at the museum, most will assume that you are a curator. Little do they realise that there are many other career paths in the cultural sector. Indeed, few teenagers would be advised by their guidance counsellor to study materials science at university. But those unfortunate souls will never get the chance to wear a onesie at work.
Object conservators specialise in the preservation, treatment and care of three-dimensional and mixed-media objects. In the collection, our conservators work on a wide range of objects including cannons, boats, model ships, swimsuits, canoes, glass-plate negatives, ethnographic items, marine archaeological objects and paintings. The diverse nature of the collection means our conservators often have to employ a range of preventative measures and treatment methodologies to look after a single collection item.
Dismantling Shackleton: Escape from Antarctica was a normal day for our object conservators. The objects were on loan from Museum Victoria and they were wonderful additions to bring the story of Shackleton’s epic Antarctic escape to life. Several of the taxidermy specimens required the team to don filtered masks and hazmat suits. As one conservator called it, ‘the science onesie: which is the only acceptable type of onesie’.
These specimens were over fifty years old and had been created with a series of treatments to keep insects away. Such treatments used hazardous chemicals including lead, arsenic, mercury and bromine. Decades later, these treatments are still rather effective at keeping the bugs away – and can still be harmful to humans if the proper safety precautions aren’t followed.
Hence the need for a science onesie.
After condition reporting the objects, our conservators suited up. Their Tyvek coveralls are made from a flash-spun, high-density polyethylene which provides a barrier against hazardous dry particles, aerosols and light liquid splashes. The outfits were completed by half-face respirators with particle filters.
Removing the objects from display was a delicate and time-consuming job. Each step required planning and consideration of how best to move the objects from their plinths and sliding the objects into their specialised packing crates.
Team work, coordination and communication are key qualities of an object conservator on jobs such as this, especially when you and your co-worker are handling a 100-year-old albatross while wearing a suit that doesn’t breathe, a mask which muffles your voice and cumbersome oversized gloves protecting your hands.
But our conservators are talented professionals with great passion for their jobs. They ensured that the operation ran smoothly. The objects are now safely in their crates ahead of their return to Museum Victoria.
Object conservation is a vital skill for the care of our collection. Materials science is an intriguing field of study with unique job opportunities. Suiting up to move a taxidermy penguin is certainly a fascinating day on the job.
– Kate Pentecost, Digital Curator
If you wish to get up close to our collection but want to wear an onesie, head over to our Google Cultural Institute page.
Constructing exhibitions such as Voyage to the Deep is the work of preparators, or ‘preps’. They are an integral cog in the machine of traditional museums and, as the name implies, are employed to prepare objects, specimens or exhibits. Originally they included embalmers, flensers and taxidermists as well as model makers and tradespeople. The museum has four preps, all of whom have visual arts degrees. Creativity is just as essential as practical skills in a job which requires us to exercise our minds as well as our hands.
If you read my previous blog, you might know that we’re currently treating the Sirius anchor while it’s on display inside the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Sometimes, actions taken to protect objects change their appearance. When the Sirius anchor was prepared for its original conservation treatment in 1986, a thick layer of marine concretion and organic growth acquired during nearly 200 years underwater was removed with hammer, chisel and a descaling gun. This exposed the corroded metal of the anchor and allowed it to be treated by electrolysis – this process converts corroded iron to black metal and removes salts. When treatment was completed the Sirius anchor was painted with an anticorrosive coating. The thick, black, glossy paint flowed into the crevices and channels throughout the anchor, rounding off the anchor’s surface and filling in some of its texture.
Now that the coating has reached the end of its life and we are removing it, the Sirius anchor is slowly being re-revealed. The exposed surface has the characteristic ‘eroded wood’ appearance of corroded wrought iron. We can now see the complex texture of the anchor, with its chains of islands, undulating channels, serrated points and small hollows. We have also found the holes drilled into the anchor to take the cathode rods used in the electrolysis process.
The anchor was created by hammering together a series of iron bars under intense heat. The direction of channels and ridges in the anchor’s surface show the meeting and fusing of these bars. The construction of the anchor, disguised for 25 years, is now becoming visible again.
The Sirius anchor has been on display in the museum since 1991. Despite its monumental size, there is a tendency for visitors to hurry past the anchor to temporary exhibitions and perhaps not really see it. Yet now, as we work on the anchor, visitors are stopping by for a chat and they have lots of questions about what we’re doing.
Some visitors are surprised to discover that there is such a day-job as conservation. Indeed, one visitor asked us if we were real! Perhaps they had never seen anything other than a manikin in a display environment.
Usually – in order not to disrupt the visitor experience – we undertake the maintenance of permanent displays before opening hours, almost secretively. But this means that the public have little opportunity to appreciate what goes into putting and keeping objects on display.
While working on the anchor we’ve met a First Fleet descendent whose ancestor came to Australia on Sirius, chemistry students studying aspects of maritime archaeology, and children fascinated by the tools and muck which are all part of large object conservation. We’re loving meeting visitors while giving the anchor the conservation care it needs.
We’ll be working on the anchor on weekdays until July 5, so be sure to stop by and meet this significant piece of Australian history and the people who look after it.
These are paper conservators.
This is a textiles conservator.
Artefacts from shipwrecks have often travelled far and undergone much before being exhibited. This is true of the gudgeon was selected for display in our upcoming exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia. It’s believed to come from the wreck of the Cato, a merchant vessel built in Stockton, Britain in 1799. Cato was carrying a shipment of coal destined for India – possibly Australia’s first coal export. Coal blocks were found at the wreck site, one of which is displayed in the East of India exhibition.
As a Librarian, my favourite job is cataloguing diaries written by sailors or passengers. Often these diaries are of a very personal nature, and I feel I’m being transported back to the 1800s.
One such diary is that of Captain Buttrey of the brig Dart, which sailed to the South Sea Islands in 1865 to collect bêche-de-mer and tortoise shells. It’s a wonderful diary, written, he says, for his wife and four boys, and “it is only intended for their eyes”. I love to picture him writing this diary to them, while he looks at their “likenesses” and imagines what they are doing at that moment. I was wondering whether these “likenesses” were drawings or photographs, as at one point he doubts the accuracy of the colour of his wife’s eyes. But later in the diary he mentions that his wife had to hold her breath when her likeness was taken, so they must have been hand-coloured photographs.
In the diary he mentions that he is collecting specimens for his “good friend the Curator of the Museum”. Detective work came into play when trying to establish which museum this was, and a search of the Trove database came up with an article from the Sydney Morning Herald listing the donations to the Australian Museum in January and February 1866, including reptiles, fishes, molluscs and crustacea from the South Sea Islands, donated by our Captain Buttrey – http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/13129338
His descriptions of the natives of the islands are fascinating – especially his observation of small children being given cigarettes to quieten them, and babies given pipes for the same reason.
He returned to Sydney as a passenger on the schooner Chance, all the way hoping to be home in time for his wife’s birthday, and he expresses the hope that the pilot will be able to drop him off near his home in Manly.
Further research found them moving to England in 1868; the family having expanded to 5 children, and another born in England, as shown in the 1871 census. He is listed there as “retired merchant”.
I’m sure when he sent his daily allocation of kisses to each of his children he never imagined a Librarian would be reading about it almost 150 years later.
Way back in 1986 I joined the museum as the first of the curatorial staff – and 26 years later I’m still here and enjoying it as much as ever! Why? That’s easy – there’s something new to learn everyday and maritime matters cover such a wide sphere that there’s just never any time to be bored. My first big job was the curation and installation of the Commerce gallery – one of the opening exhibitions of the museum in 1991.
The gallery has hosted some wonderful stories and objects over the decades but it’s now time for revitalisation, rejuvenation and reinvigoration. So, when it came time to demount the objects I thought I should pop down for one last look. Of course, I couldn’t help myself – I’d put most of the objects in myself as part of the installation team in 1991 so I decided it would be nice to help take them out – just a few of them, that is.
What do I do now? I’m senior curator and look after Australian Naval History. I’m currently working on plans for our contribution to the ANZAC centenary, helping out with a mobile App for HMAS Vampire, researching and writing up training notes for our fantastic volunteer guides for when we open HMAS Advance to the public later this year and acquiring more material for the museum’s naval collection. See, I told you there’s never any time to be bored!
– Lindsey Shaw, senior curator
This week we are going to take you behind the scenes of the museum to meet some of our staff and see the interesting things they get up to!
Today we’ve checked in with our conservators… Julie is preparing a flag from the early 1900s for storage and Sue is painstakingly conserving a sailors woolie from the late 1800s!
To make sure the flag can be safely stored, Julie will need to stabilise the damaged corner of the flag by attaching a temporary patch. She has chosen to use a piece of silk, which is a protein based fabric with a similar weave to the original flag. To avoid further damage she’ll attach the patch with thread, using existing holes created by insect damage to thread her needle through.
The stabilised flag will be stored in the museum’s new textile storage system, along with over 3,000 other textile items including flags, uniforms, shoes, head wear, bedding, towels, and clothing.
Our conservator Sue shows us a beautiful embroidery she has been conserving for a while now – it’s one of her favourite objects to work on. Originally in a wooden frame, she has carefully removed the artwork to conserve it as best she can.
As part of the conservation process Sue uses a low suction vacuum to remove insect debris and dust from the artwork. The wool and silk thread are extremley fragile and in some parts the thread has already snapped or been nibbled by insects.
On the underside of the embroidery you can see how vibrant the original thread was, before being damaged by the sun. It would have been a glorious piece of needlework!
Wool pictures (or ‘woolies’) like these were mostly produced between 1840 and 1900 by British sailors. This one was thought to be made in the late 1800s. They cover many subjects, but commonly show broadside views of ships, ‘patriotic’ flags, and samples of embroidered patterns such as flowers, demonstrating the skill of the embroiderer. They were almost never signed, and are usually naive in character, but the detail of the ships in woolworks indicates that they were the work of seamen. Sewing and sailmaking were important skills of seamen, and woolwork pictures show the expertise they brought to this engaging handcraft.
Our current exhibition Fish in Australian art includes over 170 artworks and objects. Ranging from small pieces of jewellery and beautiful sculpture, to paintings and drawings, video work and light installation pieces, the exhibition presents varying styles and ways fish have been represented in Australian art over time.
The organisation of all of these artworks was a mammoth job. To tell us more about the process, we had a chat with our registrar Will Mather in this video interview.
If you have any more questions for Will after watching the video, please let us know in the comments section and we’ll get back to you!