Careers in science and museums: Meeting our conservators

Textile conservator Sue Frost. Image: ANMM.

Textile conservator Sue Frost. Image: ANMM.

What a museum without its collection? The stories we tell are imbued in the objects the museum collects and the conservation department is tasked with caring for these objects. Our conservation team look after a range of artefacts, from paper to paintings, ceramics, textiles and even archaeological material recovered from the seabed. From small coins to the HMB Endeavour replica, every object is condition reported, treated and conserved. The team monitor the environmental conditions our objects are either stored or displayed in, checking light levels, relative humidity and maintaining a stable temperature.

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Digital preservation

Examples of the scanned image quality from degraded negatives. Images: © Estate of Denis George / ANMM Collection ANMS1274[615] and ANMS1273[043].

Examples of the scanned image quality from degraded negatives. Images: © Estate of Denis George / ANMM Collection ANMS1274[615] and ANMS1273[043].

It’s in the nature of all materials to degrade and break down, some faster than others. Even with our conservation, preservation and archiving techniques designed to slow that degradation, objects from our collection need a bit of extra help to survive. While digitising the National Maritime Archive last year, I came across a surprising discovery: a collection of photographic negatives that were degrading while in our archive storage. Continue reading

Artefacts as windows to the past: Answers from #AskAnArchaeologist

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

In the spirit of National Archaeology Week 2016 we took the opportunity to open the floor to you, our audience and community, with the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. This was a chance for you to ask your questions about all things archaeology and maritime heritage to our team.

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Penguins, dogs and onesies: A day in the life of a Conservator

One of our conservators, suited up for work. Image: Kate Pentecost / ANMM.

One of our conservators, suited up for work. Image: Kate Pentecost / ANMM.

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.

The End of a Watermark: Changes to our Permanent Gallery

Watermarks exhibition gallery, when it opened. Image: ANMM.

Watermarks exhibition gallery, when it opened. Image: ANMM.

The museum is undergoing an exciting change to its permanent galleries. After more than 15 years, on 29 February the Watermarks Gallery set its sails for the last time (pardon the pun). The gallery first opened in 2001 and told the story of how water and the ocean plays a vital role in the lives of all Australians and how the coast has inspired our recreational lives.

Our new permanent gallery exhibition, ULTIMATE DEPTH: James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, will open in late 2016. Continue reading

Applications for MMAPSS 2016-2017 grants now open

2014 MMAPSS grant recipients Museums Australia mid North Coast Chapter Waterways. The grant funded conservation projects for five smaller museums.

2014 MMAPSS grant recipients Museums Australia mid North Coast Chapter

Applications are now open for the 2016–2017 round of the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPPS), with applications closing on 31 March 2016. Check the website for more details on how to apply.

In recognition that much of Australia’s maritime heritage exists in regional organisations outside the major collecting institutions, the museum is committed to providing outreach support. We are proud to administer this national outreach program, awarding grants annually, of up to $10,000 each, and supporting internships so that regional organisations can continue to care for, conserve, preserve, interpret and display Australia’s maritime heritage.

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Blasting the Zeewijk Cannon, Conservation in action

Ok, so we didn’t blast the cannon in the conventional sense, but stabilising a 289yr old cannon was almost as satisfying!

In June 1727, a Dutch East India Trading Company ship, the Zeewijk, was headed for Batavia (Jakarta) when it wrecked off the coast of Western Australia. The survivors made it to Gun Island and were able to salvage chests of coins and other cargo but could not float the ship. In July 1727, a longboat with 11 survivors was sent for help, never to be heard from again.

The remaining survivors were able to use salvaged materials from the Zeewijk and local mangrove timbers to construct a new ship, the Sloepie. It was in the Sloepie that the remaining 88 crew members set sail, yet only 82, of the original 208 people, made it to Batavia. It is believed that the Sloepie represents the first European-style ship constructed in Australia and with Australian timber.

In 1840 those aboard the HMS Beagle discovered relics at the camp site, and further relics were discovered during guano mining in the 1880s and 1890s. Over the years, many more objects were found until the Western Australian Maritime Museum conducted a series of expeditions on the wreck site from 1976 .

One cannon from the Zeewijk wrecksite was treated by the Western Australian Maritime Museum using electrolysis, and was later allocated to the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The Zeewijk Cannon displaying active corrosion.

The Zeewijk Cannon displaying active corrosion.

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Meet Migaloo, our Wild! Rhino

The museum's painted Rhino, Migaloo. Painted by artist Alejandra Diaz, it celebrates the famous all-white humpback whale, one of only two in the world.

The museum’s painted Rhino, Migaloo. Painted by artist Alejandra Diaz, it celebrates the famous all-white humpback whale, one of only two in the world.

This Sunday 2 February 2014, you might notice something rather unexpected standing on Pyrmont Bridge. Migaloo is one of 125 painted rhino sculptures that will form a sculpture trail across Sydney from February to April to help raise awareness and funds for Taronga’s world leading Black Rhino breeding program. Painted by artist Alejandra Diaz, the museum’s rhino depicts Australia’s famous white humpback whale, one of only two ever sighted.

Named after an Indigenous Australian word meaning ‘white fella’, Migaloo is regularly sighted migrating up Australia’s east coast from Antarctica to the waters of Tropical North Queensland. The inspiration for Migaloo the Wild! Rhino came from two exciting upcoming exhibitions here at the museum – Amazing whales – Evolution and survival (from 20 March 2014) and Beautiful Whale – Photographs by Bryant Austin (from 11 April 2014).

The museum is proud to sponsor this exciting program supporting Taronga’s Black Rhino breeding program and other wildlife conservation projects.

Download the Wild!Rhinos App to learn the whereabouts of all 125 Wild! Rhinos.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram and share your photo with Migaloo the Wild! Rhino using the hashtag #whaleseason

Jackson Pellow

Goat Island – Conservation Kayaking

‘Conservation kayaking’, by former conservator Julie O’Connor. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).

Centrally located in Sydney Harbour, Goat Island is managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). As part of the recent Sydney Harbour National Parks Management Plan, NPWS plans to encourage greater use of the island.

NPWS officers are working with volunteer organisations to preserve the botanical and biological environment surrounding the island’s buildings. During August, September and October 2012, I made three visits to historic Goat Island with a group of conservation kayakers, which offered an insight into the island’s maritime history.

Preparing for the trip.

Preparing for the trip.

On each visit to the island, we launched our kayaks from Birchgrove Park, and then circumnavigated the island from east to west. Approaching from the south-east, we passed an Aboriginal shell midden, a pile of discarded shells on the shore. This is the last dietary remnant of the Sydney Aboriginal people who used Goat Island before its colonial occupation from the 1820s. It later became a source of lime for mortar during the construction of buildings on the island.

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Hidden in plain sight: revealing the Sirius anchor

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.

A newly recovered anchor in its treatment tank, clothed in marine concretion and organic growth.  This image appears to be the Sirius anchor on display at ANMM.  Image courtesy Jon Carpenter, WAM.

A newly recovered anchor in its treatment tank, clothed in marine concretion and organic growth. This image appears to be of the Sirius anchor on display at ANMM. Image courtesy Jon Carpenter, WAM.

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.

direction of bars

The construction of the anchor is visible again. The hole drilled for the cathode rod has also been revealed (at the top of the image).

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.

ANMM staff and volunteers at work on the anchor.
Clockwise from top left: Senior Paper Conservator Caroline Whitley, Shipwright Lee Graham, Senior Textiles Conservator Sue Frost and volunteer Jan Russell painstakingly remove the old coating.

Conservation gets dirty

These are paper conservators.

Senior Paper Conservator Caroline Whitley and Head of Conservation Jonathan London line a fragile watercolour with Japanese repair tissue.

Senior Paper Conservator Caroline Whitley and Head of Conservation Jonathan London line a fragile watercolour with Japanese repair tissue.

This is a textiles conservator.

Two women inspecting muslin dress

Senior Textiles Conservator Sue Frost (right) undertaking a condition assessment of a gown with Jane Donnelly, Property and Facilities Co-ordinator, The National Trust of Australia (NSW)

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A gudgeon’s life – from ocean floor to exhibition

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.

East of India curator and maritime archaeologist Nigel Erskine examines the gudgeon at the wreck site

East of India curator and maritime archaeologist Nigel Erskine examines the gudgeon at the wreck site. Image courtesy Xanthe Rivett.

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Mrs Philip Gidley King’s muslin evening dress

Over the last few weeks I have been preparing a mannequin for the display of a muslin dress in our exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia, opening on 1 June. The dress is on loan from The National Trust and is reputed to have belonged to Anna Josepha King, wife of Philip Gidley King, the third governor of New South Wales from 1800 to 1806.

White muslin dress with silver embroidery

Evening dress worn by Mrs Anna Josepha King, circa 1805. Muslin, silver thread. Collection of the National Trust of Australia (NSW)

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Another America’s Cup Challenger – Dame Pattie

Dame Pattie wet weather trousers before treatment.

Dame Pattie crew wet weather trousers

A recent conservation treatment on some wet weather gear uncovers the history of another America’s Cup challenger, Dame Pattie a purpose-built 12m class racing yacht, named after the wife of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies who served two terms as Australian Prime Minister from 1939-1941 and then 1949-1966. In 1967, although winning the trials easily, Dame Pattie skippered by Jock Sturruck, lost the series (4-0) to the American yacht Intrepid skippered by Bus Mosbacher in a a series raced in unseasonally stronger winds when Dame Pattie was better suited to lighter breezes.

Dame Pattie , christened in 1966 was designed by Warwick Hood and built by WH Barnett using a combination of Australian, Danish and Canadian timber. The main-frame was constructed using laminated Queensland maple. Edge-grain Douglas fir planking was fastened to the intermediate frame constructed using Danish ash, using silicon bronze screws.

During that particular America’s Cup race in 1967, hurricane Doria was generating off-shore northeasterly winds making wet weather gear an essential article of clothing for the contest. The Dame Pattie crew wore wet weather gear made by Plastalon. The jacket features a hood with a small peak brim, white nylon drawstring and plastic toggles and large pockets either side of the centre front opening. The jacket is fastened using black, press studs. The yacht Dame Pattie logo is printed on the left chest. The trousers feature two side pockets, an elasticised waist adjusted to fit the wearer using press studs.


The textile conservator removes black soiling using a 50% mixture of ethanol and deionised water.

Prevention is better than cure.

Photo of the

Textile conservator showing a flag with a damaged corner.

“Preventing textiles from damage by storing them appropriately is better than spending time repairing them”.

This is the guiding philosophy behind the textile storage project at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Three main storage formats have been implemented to minimise handling. Textiles are mainly hung, rolled or placed in boxes with internal supports to protect the collection.

However, when damage has already occurred, it is necessary to repair textiles to prevent further damage prior to rolling or storing them.

The conservator stabilises areas of fabric loss.

It is important to stabilise areas of fabric loss to prevent damage.

Large flat textiles like banners and flags are interleaved using acid free tissue then rolled carefully onto archival cardboard rolls, covered using Dacron or polyester felt followed by cotton/polyester Interlock or Stockingette. The outside of the roll is covered with a final layer of acid-free tissue.

The conservator shows rolled storage method.

Roll storage method for large, flat textiles (Eg. banners and flags)

Clothing and uniforms are hung on Dacron padded coat hangers covered using cotton Interlock while swimwear and accessories are stored separately in boxes or grouped together, separated on cardboard shelving within boxes.

Swimwear is stored on archival cardboard shelving within archival boxes.

Swimwear is stored on archival cardboard shelving within archival boxes.

Collars are stored in boxes using internal supports to soften folds.

Collars stored in boxes using internal supports to soften folds.

Hats are stored separately on powder coated metal hatstands using internal supports constructed using Dacron padded Ethylene foam supports covered using cotton Interlock.

Hats are stored separately using internal supports on hatstands.

Hats are stored separately using internal supports on hatstands.