Friday, 5 December 2014

Conserving Condoms: Modern Materials in Medical Archives

This week’s blog reviews the conservation symposium organised by LHSA and held at Edinburgh University last week….

Last Friday, LHSA and the CRC hosted “Conserving Condoms: Modern Materials in Medical Archives” at Edinburgh University. The event consisted of lectures, workshops and advice clinics that focused on the conservation of modern material, and grant application to the Wellcome Trust for conservation work. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust’s small grants scheme and inspired by the modern objects that I have found in the HIV/AIDS collections.  While working with these collections, I have come across many plastic items that were degrading in strange ways. As I researched these objects further, I found that there was a lot of contradictory research that was sometimes difficult to understand. Since the conservation of modern materials is a relatively new field, there is a general lack of understanding and confidence when treating these items. Also, because the items are newer, they are often not treated with as much care as older items, even though they may have equal historical importance. We thought a symposium on the subject would be a great way to share knowledge, encourage debate and dispel any myths surrounding these modern materials.
Poster used to advertise the event

                The event proved to be extremely popular, with tickets selling out within a month. Students, interns and professionals came from all over the UK to find out more about this complex subject. The day kicked off with a keynote lecture by Dr Anita Quye, Lecturer in Conservation Science at the University of Glasgow. Anita’s main area of research is modern materials analysis, so she was ideally placed to start the proceedings. She defined exactly what the difference is between plastics and rubbers, and then went on to describe how these plastics can degrade and how to identify them. Anita focused on four of the most problematic plastics that are commonly found in heritage collections; cellulose acetate, PVC, polyurethane and cellulose nitrate. Inspired by the title of the symposium, Anita also gave us a fascinating insight into the conservation of condoms! Condoms are well preserved by their foil packet, as it has good vapour barrier characteristics and prevents the ingress of moisture, light and oxygen. In fact, the foil packet is made from a very similar material to Moistop Barrier Film™, which is frequently used in the storage and transport of museum objects!

Dr Anita Quye giving her keynote lecture on the conservation of modern materials

                Sniffing modern objects was the topic of the next talk by Linda Ramsay, Head of Conservation at the National Records of Scotland. She discussed ‘Heritage Smells!’ a collaborative project led by the University of Strathclyde that aimed to identify plastics by taking air samples surrounding the items. Plastics release specific volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) as they age. By capturing and analysing these VOC’s, conservators can identify the plastic and also detect any chemicals emitted by the items that are potentially harmful to humans or neighbouring objects. An interesting case study Linda highlighted was a postcard (screen print on yellow transparent PVC) by Joseph Beuys at the National Galleries of Scotland. A large amount of “sweat” was present on the surface of the artefact, which was assumed to be caused by the loss of plasticiser. Interestingly, Beuys named this piece “Flowing Honey”, which makes us wonder; did he know the plastic would sweat? Did he choose to use this material for this effect?  Or is the name just a coincidence!
After a short break, Ruth Honeybone, Archive Manage at LHSA gave a presentation about scoping for conservation work and how to put together a successful funding bid. Ruth talked about the practicalities of deciding what to treat, how to treat it and the materials and equipment needed, how long it will take, who should do the work and where and, most importantly, how much it will cost. To be able to tap into various funding schemes is key for many smaller institutions and this sharing of knowledge was extremely beneficial to many.
Ruth Honeybone discussing scoping out for conservation funding applications

Following Ruth’s explanation on how she put together a successful bid which led to the HIV/AIDS project, it was my turn to talk about the conservation of it. I chose to talk about the some of the storage solutions I had designed for problem plastics in the HIV/AIDS collections. I have talked about these in previous blogs such as “Thinking about the Box: Storage of Plastics”. I wanted to share these solutions in the hope that they could be used for all types of collections and not just modern ones.
After lunch, Sue Crossley and Amy Vickery (Grant Advisors from the Wellcome Trust) discussed the various funding streams available for conservation at the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust Research Resources grant scheme funds the preservation, conservation, cataloguing and digitisation of significant medical history collections in the UK and Republic of Ireland. There are lots of funding opportunities available and Amy and Sue were both very open and willing to answer all funding related questions. They suggest getting in touch and talking to a member of the team directly to discuss any potential projects.

Sue Crossley and Amy Vickery describing the funding streams available at the Wellcome Trust
Next it was time for the workshop section of the symposium and the group broke up to go to separate discussion groups based on their interests. Some people stayed with Anita to discuss the conservation of modern materials further, others joined Linda and Saho (Paper Conservator at National Records of Scotland) to find out more about the ‘Heritage Smells!’ project, while some joined Claire Knowles (Library Digital Development Manager) and Kirsty Lee (Digital Curator), both from Edinburgh University, to consider the challenge of digital preservation – another very modern problem in our collections. I hosted a workshop on ‘Ethics and Plastic Packaging’ which looked at the ethical issues surrounding the removal of certain packaging items from collections and how this can alter the meaning and understanding of the material.
Workshop group discussing ethics and plastic packaging

The day ended with tea, coffee, cake and advice clinics. These were informal one to one clinics where delegates could talk to the speakers directly about specific points. It was also an opportunity for the participants to discuss the topics raised throughout the day and to network. There was also the chance to have a tour of the CRC and conservation studio with Conservation Officer, Emma Davey.

Overall, the event was really well received with many positive comments and feedback from participants. I think the interest in this day points to the growing concern surrounding the conservation of modern materials and the need for further information on the subject. Hopefully, based on the success of this event, many more like it will be hosted at Edinburgh University in the future.

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