How do you track down the ephemera, outfits, guitars, and key-tars of seven decades of music - then safely bring these to the Museum for seven months of display in Volume?
Tracking down a musical history
Finding the objects in Volume meant many hours talking to the musicians, collectors, performers, promoters, fans, record-label owners, producers, and hangers-on who all make up the New Zealand music community. We had plenty of help - from our Content Advisor Graham Reid, an all-star advisory group, as well as our partners Recorded Music NZ and APRA.
'Selecting objects was a combination of complete exploration (when we didn't know what types of things were out there, or who might have them), accidental finds, and targeted requests for objects we really wanted visitors to be able to see,' said Victoria Travers, Volume's exhibition developer.
Lorde's school shoes and Grammy are examples of a targeted request. I had remembered a story about her 2014 Grammy performance - that she had worn her old school shoes from Takapuna Grammar. I thought at the time how savvy and grounded she is, making a wee sartorial nod to home and being a New Zealand schoolkid. It felt right for our audience, many of whom are still schoolkids, to see how she referenced not just herself, but them too on an international stage -literally.
Victoria Travers, Volume Exhibition Developer
Victoria and the team then went out to search through wardrobes, basements, and garages to find these mythical objects or stumble upon a resonant object someone might have packed away and forgot about. Many of Volume's objects came from collectors in the community - like Nigel Russell who was in The Spelling Mistakes, Car Crash Set, and The Greg Johnson Set, and has a massive collection of instruments and other music-related gear. Many of the amps, microphones, and pedals which almost fill a corner of the 1970s section of Volume belong to Nigel.
Objects mean different things to different people, and pretty much everyone in the team could name an object that found its way into their heart. For Jane Groufsky, Associate Curator Applied Arts and Design, it was a playsuit worn by The Chicks' Judy Donaldson. 'It’s so mod, so evocative of its time, but it was even cooler finding out that it was designed by the legendary Annie Bonza.'
People were really generous with their time – not just in telling us the stories of their objects, but in tolerating our many requests for quotes, photos, and signatures on paperwork.
Jane Groufsky, Associate Curator Applied Arts and Design
Overall, our search resulted in just over 180 objects from 70 lenders. Once we decided on the objects we wanted to include in the exhibition, we formalised the arrangement, then sent out a loan agreement to the lenders.
Objects arriving at the Museum
The next step was to get the objects into the Museum. Conservator Siobhan O'Donovan took on the role of contacting lenders to arrange a time and place to pick up the object.
My favourite pick-up was definitely at Ryan Monga's place – he opened his front door wearing the jacket, pants, and hat that I remembered from the cover of Ardijah's debut album. It was so great. I love that album, especially 'Time Makes a Wine'.
Siobhan O'Donovan, Conservator
'In the end, I felt so privileged to be trusted with what are treasured memories for people. One lender made me promise I wasn’t going to lose his objects because he just didn’t have many mementos from his years as a musician. A couple of people had tears in their eyes. A lot of people laughed when I put on gloves before handling their things because they didn’t see their object as being precious like that,' says Siobhan.
Once the objects reach the Museum, be it from a private lender or fellow institution, each one is labelled and a conservator undertakes a thorough condition check. They take photographs from every angle and look out for signs of decay, mould, or any hint of pests like borer or silverfish. Each object is given a condition rating - from 1, indicating good condition, to 4, meaning the object is almost disintegrating. It then gets wrapped in plastic to await the next step: conservation treatment.
Selecting the right treatment
When a museum talks about conserving objects, it's not necessarily about cleaning the objects, and definitely not making them look like new. We want to display the objects as they are while making sure their condition doesn’t deteriorate while in our care. This includes eliminating any hitch-hiking pests - which pose a major threat to all objects within the Museum's walls.
'The most common method for making sure that objects are free from pests is to freeze them on arrival at the Museum. Once they're safe we can bring them into the conservation lab for any further treatment,' says conservator Ian Langston.
But freezing was off the cards for many of the objects in Volume.
'Composite objects - so things like instruments and electronics which are made of different materials - react in different ways to changes in temperature and humidity. If you had something wooden with a plastic cover on it, the wood could expand and the plastic could break or pop off. A change in temperature could also cause strings to snap on a guitar. We also couldn't be certain what many objects were made of, especially on the inside,' explains Ian.
So while items like posters were frozen, and others may have survived the freezer, Ian and the conservation team decided to put most of the objects into an anoxic chamber - a sealed environment where no pest can survive.
The anoxic chamber
The anoxic process is the alternative to freezing - it's essentially pest fumigation, although we are not actually fumigating in the traditional sense of where you are spraying with a chemical. We put the objects in a sealed environment, the chamber, and pump nitrogen in, which forces oxygen out over a period of time. The normal content of oxygen in the air is 21%, and the inside the chamber it will go down to 0.1%. So anoxic means no oxygen. That's what we are aiming for, to ensure nothing can be living in that environment.
Ian Langston, Conservtor
The chamber has several components which sit outside it and are essential to the overall operation. There's a nitrogen generator, dehumidification unit, control unit, and a miniature 'bubble' where nitrogen and humidity levels can be adjusted before the air passes into the larger bubble - which contains the objects.
The use of a second chamber to help control the humidity levels (and therefore avoid damage caused by sudden changes in humidity) is what makes this set up a particularly innovative anoxic chamber - devised in-house by Ged Wiren. Check out the timelapse to see the conservation team taking the objects out of the chamber.
The final touches
A few objects required a bit more care after the anoxic treatment or freezing. There were some musty, creased, and crumpled textiles which needed 'ironing without ironing'.
'Actually applying a steam iron onto a historical object is potentially bad - as materials age, they become a lot less stable,' explains Ian. Instead, a conservator applies hot steam to the garment without actually touching it while it's hanging on a mannequin. This introduces moisture to the textile and puffs up the material, which then eases back into place with a few less creases.
Mould removal was also crucial. While mould shouldn't grow in the Museum due to the humidity-controlled environment, the inactive mould spores can still spread through the air - potentially landing on other objects in the exhibition, which then run the risk of growing mould once they are returned to lenders.
But Ian says there's another side to the conservation process.
As a conservator I spend a lot of time analysing the materials and construction of artefacts, and often the more closely you examine an object the more intricacies you notice and the more it stokes your imagination around the stories and events that surrounded its construction. Examining the workmanship of Bill Sevesi's lap steel guitar certainly brought the object to life and left me wanting to learn more.
Displayed with care
Conservators also check the objects as they go on display - working in tandem with the display team. Learn more about the process of putting Volume on the floor in the upcoming Volume Making of Blogs.
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And check out Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa for all you need to know about the exhibition.
Post by: Auckland Museum
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