About the department

 

Microscopic examination by a 3D object conservator.
Microscopic examination by a 3D object conservator.

Historically, conservation and restoration have had a significant role in the Ashmolean Museum over the past 300 years. Conservation as a single Department is the youngest in the Museum and was only created in 1999 by amalgamating the seven conservators who had traditionally worked strictly within curatorial departments - 3D Objects in Antiquities, and Textiles and Works of Art on Paper in Eastern and Western Art respectively. Surprisingly, although it has a very significant paintings collection, the Ashmolean has never employed a painting conservator, but the Department works closely with the National Gallery and works are sent to independent specialists for treatment.

Today the Department's conservators are responsible for the care and preservation of a long established and renowned collection, and their duties include examination, analysis, documentation and treatment of works of art and artefacts in compliance with a professional Code of Ethics.

Conservators need to possess a scientific understanding, not only of environmental considerations, but also the materials used both historically and currently in the treatment of objects, as well as their technology, composition and deterioration. This knowledge, gained through training and experience in combination with practical skills, enables the conservator to assess, plan and implement conservation programmes for the Museum's collections in collaboration with curatorial colleagues. In addition to collections maintenance, special projects, and preventive conservation, the Department also plays a significant role in loans preparation.

The current Ashmolean redevelopment project has brought with it some interesting new roles for the conservators. They have devised detailed packing plans and procedures for those objects in the Museum that are to be packed up pending their redisplay in new galleries and, as preservation is a major element of their work, they will also be monitoring the environment and condition of the objects whilst in storage over the next few years. The Conservation Department is also heavily involved in developing the environmental, facilities, design, display, and storage briefs. The new building includes a new suite of laboratories; this will finally bring the Ashmolean's conservators together in a stimulating environment. There will also be a new gallery dedicated to conservation, which will put the work of the department, normally carried out behind the scenes, firmly in the public eye - very few museums and galleries have conservation displays, let alone a whole gallery. This is a great opportunity for the Department and the Museum, and we look forward to welcoming you when it opens.

History

Conservation and preservation have been a consideration at the Ashmolean Museum since1683, when it was suggested by Elias Ashmole himself that chimneys should be installed to ensure the movement of air within the Museum.

Restoration and later Conservation evolve as we gain a greater understanding of materials and techniques. Restoration in one form or another has been carried out on parts of the collection for centuries, until conservators were employed in the second half of the twentieth century. In the mid to late nineteenth century the Arundel Marbles were treated, and it would appear the approach was quite sympathetic when they were re-examined more recently. Some of the Old Master Drawings were sent off for treatment and mounting to the British Museum in 1887 and again in 1909. In 1914 and 1915 the Rembrandt prints were mounted and remained so until 2004, when they were remounted in what is now seen to be a more sympathetic manner.

There is evidence that one conservator took such pride in his work that he signed some of the objects he conserved, something that once caused more than a little embarrassment for one scholar who mistook it for an ancient inscription. The son of this same conservator, after training with his father, later departed for the Museum of Fine Art in Boston where he stayed for the rest of his career and established the Museum as a centre for conservation excellence.

Following on from the long established conservation section in the Department of Antiquities, further conservation posts were created in the Museum's Cast Gallery and in the Eastern and Western Art Departments. The Ashmolean entered the world of modern conservation practice with the appointment of academically trained conservators, and in 1999 a unitary Conservation Department was created.

In 1905 the first purpose-built conservation laboratory was established; 99 years later a purpose-built paper conservation laboratory was created, and when the current building work is complete, there will be a suite of new conservation studios for the rest of the Department.

3D Objects

WA1937.91. Virgin of Mercy during treatment.
WA1937.91. Virgin of Mercy during treatment.

The objects conservation laboratory will be replaced in the new Ashmolean development with an up-to-date open plan studio sharing a suite with textile conservation and with room for a paintings conservator. Five specialist objects conservators work on the whole breadth of three dimensional objects in the Museum collection, from Greek red figure vases to contemporary studio pottery, from Palaeolithic hand axes to Islamic sword blades, from Cycladic figures to Renaissance bronzes. The Museum's fine collection of plaster casts after the antique is also conserved from a small studio in the Cast Gallery.

Some objects pose interesting problems for display, storage and travel. A sculpture may need careful support because it is structurally weak and a particular level of humidity to prevent corrosion. Another may have been assembled from fragments with old and discoloured adhesive that distracts from the object itself. Others may have interesting stories to reveal on close examination that we can share with the public and scholars alike.

As part of our aim to minimize risk to the collections we have a preventive conservation area in the objects conservation laboratory. We monitor the temperature, humidity and light in the galleries using a radio frequency telemetric system, one of the largest in the country. We prepare and assess objects for loan to other museums as part of a busy international exhibitions programme, and we test materials and fabrics for pollutants to ensure they are safe to use in cases.

Deterioration

Textiles

EA1965.227.
EA1965.227.

The Textile Conservation Laboratory was established in 1999 when the existing Objects Conservation Laboratory in the Department of Eastern Art was adapted for the conservation of textiles. The textile conservator has responsibility for the care of the textile collections throughout the Museum. A detailed conservation survey of the Ashmolean's textile collections has been carried out. The resulting database is used for planning conservation requirements, storage projects and assessments of textiles requested for display or for loan.

The treatment and mounting of textiles required for display in temporary or permanent exhibitions forms the bulk of the interventive conservation work carried out by the textile conservator. Preventive conservation work includes the improvement of storage of the textile collections to make them more easily accessible for study and safe handling. Storage materials are upgraded to ensure they are inert and provide support for the textile. The implementation of the Ashmolean's Integrated Pest Management is another important aspect of preventive conservation for the textile collections as infestations of the clothes moth and carpet beetle can cause extensive damage.

Deterioration

Paper

Anonymous C15 woodblock print, possibly German.
Anonymous C15 woodblock print, possibly German.

In 2004 a new Paper Conservation Studio opened at the Ashmolean. The studio is a significant improvement on the space previously used and is more adaptable to the types of paper objects held in the Museum. The Paper Conservation Studio today is responsible for any works of art on paper and archives belonging to the Museum. As the Museum has such a vast array of works and archives, it is impossible to have expert knowledge in all of the materials and techniques; therefore, there will always be those that require knowledge from outside the Museum. The majority of paper conservation, however, is carried out in the Museum's own paper conservation laboratory.

As with all conservation disciplines, it is not just a knowledge of treatments that is necessary, but the ability to deal with preservation issues such as display, storage, handling and environment.

As part of an academic institution, we endeavour to make works as accessible as possible. Among the recent projects carried out by paper conservation is the conservation and rehousing of the Ruskin teaching collection, which has made the works more accessible then they previously were. As we continue to collect, there will always be works coming into the collection that need to be assessed and conserved.

Deterioration