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How can you care for museum collections during lockdown?

f.taylor7 August 2020

This blog was written by Conservator Graeme McArthur from the UCL Culture Collections Management Team.

The closure of UCL’s campus during lockdown has provided new challenges for UCL Culture’s Collections Management team. We are responsible for taking care of the world-class collections of artworks, ancient artefacts, zoological and pathological specimens, instruments and scientific equipment held by the university. We make sure that these objects and specimens are available for use, study and exhibition by ensuring they are properly stored, handled, displayed and documented. But carrying out this important role usually requires us to be on site!

Usually we carry out regular programmes of cleaning, auditing and conservation as well as environmental monitoring and pest control. We work closely with our curatorial colleagues to agree new acquisitions and prepare objects for loan for exhibition in the UK and abroad. Our lovely team includes Collections Managers, Conservators and four Curatorial and Collections Assistants.

So how have we cared for our collections during lockdown? Well the very first thing we did was produce a risk register to highlight areas of concern when nobody is physically present in our museums and collection spaces. Here are some of the things we’ve been keeping an eye on.

Pests!

Some of UCL’s collections are an excellent food source for the larvae of insects such as beetles and moths. This is especially true of the feathers and fur that are prevalent in the Grant Museum of Zoology. It is vital to know if there has been a pest outbreak as soon as possible, by the time someone notices moths flying around there could already have been significant damage.


Image: A drawer full of feathers and other organic material in the Grant Museum, many pests would consider this to be a drawer full of food!

To this end we have sticky pest traps throughout all of our collection spaces. These will not remove a pest threat but enough will blunder onto them to give us an indication that there is a problem. Traps are placed on the edges of rooms where pests tend to run around as well as near particularly vulnerable materials. Of course to tell us anything these need to be checked regularly which became a problem once the UCL campus closed.


Image: Pest traps and the all-important grabber to position them behind furniture.

Environment

Understanding the environment in museums and object stores is vital to the long-term preservation of our collections. Extremes in light, temperature and humidity as well as rapid changes can all cause permanent damage. We have all seen what can happen to book spines if left next to a sunny window, but this can be stopped with something as simple as closing the blinds!

High humidity can promote mould growth and corrosion whereas low humidity can cause organic materials such as wood to shrink and crack. Knowledge of the materials in the collection allows us to make an informed choice on how we want to the environment to be, though it is not always possible to keep it that way.

Thankfully even though we have not been able to work on campus during this period we are lucky enough to have a system where data is sent to us remotely. We have sensors in all of our collection spaces and we can look at this data even whilst working from home. Without people in spaces and with lights off and the blinds closed the environment has been very stable. It is easier to keep objects safe when they are not seen or used for research, but then there wouldn’t be much point in having them!


Image: A day of environmental data from the Petrie Museum.

Flooding and leaks

Many of the UCL buildings are prone to the occasional leak. Most of the collections are well protected inside cases or cupboards, but even so if left for too long a leak can potentially cause damage. It is important to check the environmental data to look for an increase in humidity that could be caused by there being standing water in the room.

To reduce these risks, we have set up socially distanced fortnightly checks of all of our collections with two members of staff who can drive in to campus. This allows us to check all of the pest traps so any outbreaks can be discovered as soon as possible. Sometimes traps become so crowded that they need replacing so we can see what new pests have become stuck.


Image: Spiders caught in our pest traps

Unfortunately, the pests caught on traps tend to attract spiders who are actually very helpful in reducing pest numbers.

During our fortnightly visits we checked all the spaces, cupboards and drawers where objects are not visible to ensure there were no other problems.


Image: Revealing a beautiful papyrus from the Petrie Museum storage

Adapting our ways of working

Working from home is an unusual situation for our team as we don’t normally spend most of our time in front of a screen! We have had to refocus to other areas, however this has allowed us to work on projects that there would not normally be time for. One of these is improving the collections database that is used as the base for our online catalogue. Over many years data has been entered in an inconsistent manner with fields being used differently by individuals and throughout different collections. We have now standardised how the fields should be used and begun to ‘clean’ the old data to remove inconsistencies. Once this is complete it will be more useful for us, the researchers and general public who use the online catalogue.

The campus has been eerily quiet during the checks but we are looking forward to welcoming back UCL students, staff and the general public in the near future!


Image: UCL campus

Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month January 2018

Mark Carnall31 January 2018

Welcome to January’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month. Normally in this introductory bit, before the jump, I try to do a bit about some topical event and then tentatively link it to this month’s fossil fish. Increasingly, this gets harder to do as topical events aren’t so much celebrity talent judging shows or how a politician struggles with eating a sandwich but is altogether more bleak and “Isn’t the world awful?” Ha, ha, ha, ha, here’s a fossil fish is a tough gig.

Last week, the Doomsday Clock was moved two minutes to midnight, the closest the clock has been to Doomsday ever and as close as it was in 1953. In the summary of the setting of the clock for 2018 it’s not just the threat of nuclear war but cyber warfare and climate change which are reasons for the clock edging closer to midnight.

But what are you gonna do about it? Kids have got to go to school tomorrow, bills have got to be paid and those selfies, by definition, won’t take themselves. There’s a paper thin wall between civilisation and anarchy when the distraction of the rat race changes to a basic fight for survival and we’re closer than ever to bursting through that wall. In post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows there’s often a protagonist who wakes from a coma to find the world changed. Society shattered. The slept through the apocalypse trope is so heavily used because when society collapses, when the rules go out of the window, it will be swift and brutally violent and deeply disturbing. Which might be too real for audiences. Especially these days. There won’t be a warning and before you know it, you’ll be throttling a friend or colleague to death for the last bag of skittles. It’ll likely be on a day that starts just like today.

But until that happens, here’s another underwhelming fossil fish to idly pass the time. Tick. Tock. (more…)

Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month September 2017

Mark Carnall2 October 2017

Welcome to this month’s EXCLUSIVE September 2017 underwhelming fossil fish of the month, your one stop shop for monthly underwhelming fish fossils delivered direct to your eyeballs in exchange for only the most precious resource you have, your time. Always ticking away. Always edging towards oblivion.

This month we’ve got a real spectacle lined up for you. This fossil fish was a SUPER MEGA PREDATOR that struck fear into the hearts of animals that saw it. This fossil fish is so impressive, it has inspired generations of artists, toy manufacturers, video game developers and the people who make stamps, minters? Stampers? Those people anyway. These fossils often form the core of museum displays and make for the most memorable visits…..

NOT!

That’s right we’re bringing back the 90’s positive setup followed by an obnoxious NOT. This fossil is almost the complete opposite of exciting, in fact the least underwhelming aspect of it is how it looks and it looks like this. (more…)

Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month July 2017

Mark Carnall31 July 2017

Another month has come and gone, so like the perpetual progress of time this means another underwhelming fossil fish of the month is upon us. For the happy ignorant just joining us for the first time, this blog series examines an underwhelming fossil fish from the Grant Museum of Zoology collection on a monthly basis. CAUTION Reading #UFFotM has been known to cause; accidie, apathy, boredom, desolation, ennui, lack of enthusiasm, languor, malaise, melancholy, uninterestedness, unconcern and weariness. Cases of inspiration are extremely rare but please seek professional medical attention in these instances.

Following on from last week’s Specimen of the Week with a rockstar* connection, this month’s underwhelming fossil fish also has a famous connection, albeit in name only. Can you wait to find out what it is? I know I can. (more…)

How and why did these animals die?

Will J Richard27 April 2016

Something which I get asked a lot by the Grant Museum’s visitors is “how did these animals die?” It’s an excellent question and one to which I wish there were a more comfortable answer. Or, at least, a more definite one. The truth is that it isn’t one size fits all. Not all of our specimens ended up here in the same way and for many we can only guess. The Grant Museum holds one of the UK’s oldest zoological collections and attitudes and practices have certainly changed over the last 200 years, though the ethical debates continue.

(more…)

The Museum is Where the People Are – vote for us now

Jenny M Wedgbury29 April 2015

PURE EVIL - Roberto Rossellini's Nighmare

Roberto Rossellini’s Nightmare, Pure Evil

VOTE NOW http://bit.ly/connectpureevil

Old master prints, drawings of flayed bodies, mysterious things in glass jars, extinct animal skeletons, glittery minerals and rocks, amulets and charms from ancient Egypt: UCL Museums and Collections are a treasure trove of the awe inspiring and unusual. But we don’t just think of ourselves as being a collection of objects fixed to one space and place, we believe that the Museum is where the people are and we want to take the spirit of our collections off site for the Museums at Night event on 30 and 31 October. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week 128

Emma-Louise Nicholls24 March 2014

Here at the Grant Museum we love all species of animal. We are not racist, sexist, size-ist, species-ist, or any such ist at all. It was not us that named this animal, but if it had been us who gave it this particular common name, it would have been through love and appreciation, and not meant in a derogatory way. For there is nothing wrong with being how this animal is described in its common name. Nothing at all. In fact, I can relate. Ok, caveat over, this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week 127

Emma-Louise Nicholls17 March 2014

We have some great skeletons at the Grant Museum, all of which are dinosaurs, if you listen to five year old children. Actually we don’t have any large dinosaur skeletons, but that doesn’t stop children gleefully shouting “Mummy, mummy, a dinosaur”.  One such big skeleton, not a dinosaur, but related, is this week’s Specimen of the Week… (more…)

On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Hill Years

Emma-Louise Nicholls13 March 2014

‘The Thirteen’

The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall.

Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections. This mini-series will look at each of The Thirteen in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here.

Number Six: James Peter Hill (1906-1921) (more…)

On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Minchin Years

Emma-Louise Nicholls6 March 2014

‘The Thirteen’

The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall.

Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections. This mini-series will look at each of The Thirteen in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here.

Number Five: Edward Alfred Minchin (1899-1906) (more…)