In the course of our daily lives cleaning is a chore. It’s the cause of marital disputes, parental rampages, and the occasional bout of food poisoning. It’s rarely exciting. But in the Collection Care Department at Auckland Museum, cleaning is elevated out of domestic drudgery. In the Conservation Lab cleaning is complicated, scientific, important and specialist. It’s cleaning, but not as you know it.
Collection Care is made up of several different focus teams and we work on extreme variances of scale.
Cleaning and pest management is part of the Relocations Team's daily considerations. They are always on the look-out for any sign of insect activity on objects, which is often indicated by frass. (Frass is a fancy word for the excrement of insect larvae and looks, to the untrained eye, like dust or dirt).
Our Collection is stored under environmentally controlled conditions so that the temperature and humidity is repressive of pest life cycles. Several mounted taxidermy specimens are being brush-vacuumed before being packed for storage. Dust on taxidermy is a special kind of dust to be wary of. Depending on the age of the specimen and the condition of the mount, the dust can be toxic.
Contract Conservator Conor Tulloch has been cleaning Kiwi specimens, which are leaching fat deposits from underneath the scaly skin of their legs. He has been working under a fume hood so that he doesn’t breathe any contaminants or chemicals as he works.
Our Conservator Karin Konold is in the Conservation Lab vacuuming dust off of the legs of ants, the wings of flies, and the bodies of beetles. She is cleaning entomology assemblages compiled by E D Pritchard who arranged his collections in cigarette tins between 1938-1984.
Karin is poised over a Leica microscope with a minuscule natural fibre brush in one hand and pencil-thin vacuum wand in the other, working cautiously not to disturb fragile limbs. A combination of dry cleaning and damp cleaning addresses the surface dirt on the tin's paper linings, the corroding tins, and the dirty specimens themselves.
The dirt of the specimens has been a subject of investigation for Karin: is this dust from display, remnants of pesticide, leaching anatomy, degrading glue, or simply dirt from the daily life of a bug living in its natural habitat?
As Karin works she controls her breathing: ensuring her shallow breaths above the tiny specimens do not disturb any loose parts. It’s cleaning – but not as you know it.
Microscopic cleaning. Above are Before and After Treatment photos of paper on which the specimens were glued)
It’s not just specimens from the Natural Science's collection receiving delicate cleaning though. Recently a wedding dress made of paper thin parachute silk was washed in preparation for display. This process involved the bespoke construction of a giant shallow bath so that the dress could be safely washed flat without creases or additional stress on the fabric. The dress was then washed with a carefully controlled detergent and gently agitated with sponges. It was then rinsed with multiple baths of distilled water, using the same sponging method.
After a day of this cleansing treatment, the dress was lifted on a soft mesh screen by a team of ten people. As fans gently pulled air down through the mesh, Conservators softly blotted excess pools of water with microfibre cloths. The air was left to lift the rest of the moisture away.
Whilst still slightly damp it was gently arranged on a custom-sized mannequin to finish its drying process. It was washing, but not as you know it.
Conservators are very careful to ensure that any cleaning they undertake does not damage artefacts in any way. They test materials so that they understand the chemistry of both artefacts and cleaning materials.
Felicity Bolton, one of our Conservators, has recently been sampling the dust in galleries to find out what it's made up of. She is particularly interested in monitoring airborne concrete dust which is produced during gallery renovations, because concrete dust is acidic and can damage what it settles on.
Lastly, the Collection Care Managers continue with their relentless weekly, monthly and six monthly store cleaning duties... an unglamorous and almost invisible aspect of their collection care role.
They unpack and rearrange supplies, recycle and dispose of detritus, they vacuum the floor, remove trip hazards and renew the sticky floor mats which clean the soles of people's shoes as they enter stores.
This cleaning is domestic and familiar, but in the most pragmatic way is at the frontier of collection care by preventing incidents, minimising dust in stores and making environments inhospitable to pests.
Post by: Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.