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Conservation « The Polar Museum: news blog


Welcome home!

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Note: I intended to publish this last week, but events on Friday overtook us and this post was put on hold. Still, it’s better late than never!

Monday was a bit of a red letter day at the Polar Museum, as it saw the return of many of our objects from a very long touring exhibition, Race to the End of the Earth. Since opening in 2010, the exhibition has had tens of thousands of visitors in five venues. In a journey almost as epic as Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, our objects travelled from Cambridge to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, then on to the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Museum of Idaho, the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, and finally back to Cambridge, where we welcomed them back this week.

Normally it’s a safe bet that what comes back to your museum after a loan is the same as what left it … but not in this case.¹ This touring exhibition had slightly different displays at each museum, so each time it moved to a new venue, some objects came back to us and others went out on tour. Sometimes this was because of practical constraints at a particular venue, but other times it was for conservation reasons. Display for long periods can be damaging to museum objects (which is why we have a programme of regular rotation for the most sensitive objects in our collections). Touring exhibitions can cause additional wear and tear, either through prolonged exposure to light, or just from the handling, packing and mounting that is necessary for an exhibition, so it is common for fragile objects to be swapped in and out so they can be “rested”. Like people, objects sometimes benefit from a long lie-down in a darkened room!

A unexpected complication from all this swapping was that our objects went out and came back in different crates. We discovered after unloading that the new crates would not fit through this door (which has access to the lift down to our basement store)!

backdoor   lift

Luckily, we managed to muster enough strong chaps to carry the crates up the front steps of the Institute and into our temporary gallery, where we roped off an area for unpacking and condition checking:

overview   photography

(These pictures are for anyone who has ever wanted to see inside a shipping crate. They contain a lot of foam to ensure that the objects inside have a smooth plane/boat/lorry ride. This crate only contained three modest-sized boxes of objects, and the rest was polyethylene foam!)


I was excited to see that one of the boxes inside contained knitwear belonging to Edward Mackenzie, a stoker on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. I became interested in these mittens and their construction while documenting them before they went on tour, and concluded that they were made from a stitch called fisherman’s rib. I knitted a swatch of fisherman’s rib, to see if it would look similar – and it did!²


I was reminded of all this while condition-checking the mittens, an essential part of any museum loans procedure. Before an object goes on loan to another museum, it is thoroughly photographed and has its condition documented in detail. It is checked when it arrives at the exhibition venue, and again when it leaves and arrives back home. Having good records allows us to spot any changes in condition during transit or display (fortunately, this is very rare), and to work out where in the process they have happened.

The pictures below show both old-style and new-style condition reports:

check   ipad

In the first picture, I am comparing McKenzie’s mittens with the photographs and notes that I made when they first went on tour in 2013. Paper records like this are good because you can write on them easily, and because you can have a single set of documentation that accompanies an object throughout its tour and is then archived. We usually use paper condition reports at the Polar Museum (albeit print-outs of digital reports).

This time, however, we were brought into the 21st century! Jenn, a registrar at AMHN, has accompanied the touring exhibition over the last few years and has been the person responsible for shipping, unpacking, documenting and installing all the objects in all its venues. To save her from lugging around a suitcase of paperwork everywhere she goes, she keeps all the loan documentation on an iPad. The digital condition reports can be annotated and even signed just like paper copies (although this is a bit tricky while wearing gloves). Once she gets back to New York, Jenn can e-mail us the annotated digital report, and we can print it out to be filed with our more traditional ones.

Once all the documentation has been done, the objects go into quarantine (in case they have picked up any nasty bugs on their travels), before going back into storage for a well-deserved rest.


[1] pun intended!
[2] I have recently found the swatch that I made, and will post an update soon…



Weathering the storm: always be prepared!

Monday, July 20th, 2015

At 7.30 on Friday morning, I got the phone call that no conservator wants: there had been a flood in our basement storage areas and please could I come in as quickly as possible. I went immediately to the station, only to find that the trains between Cambridge and Ely were delayed because of waterlogged track:


While I was waiting for my train to arrive, I looked at the news online, to try to find out how bad things might be. There had been a very sudden thunderstorm on Thursday night, and my Twitter feed was full of pictures of giant hailstones, flooded tunnels and dramatic lightning strikes. The local newspaper was reporting closed schools and cancelled operations at Addenbrooke’s hospital. What would I find when I arrived at the Polar Museum???

Actually, there was no sign at all from the front of the building that there had even been a storm:


Inside was a different matter, however:


A drain had blocked at the bottom of a staircase and there was water throughout the whole of the basement. The museum stores are in this area, as well as some of the Library’s reserve shelving and the Institute’s own administrative paperwork. At its deepest, the water was about 8cm – this might not sound like much but is enough potentially to cause a lot of damage.

Luckily, we were well prepared! After a previous flood in the basement, we had made sure that none of our objects were stored directly on the ground. You can see in the picture below that the wooden blocks supporting these objects have got wet, but that the water didn’t reach the objects themselves.


Having objects and storage units raised up like this also helps with drying out areas after a flood. During a flood, the water gets underneath everything, and it can be difficult to get it out from underneath cupboards and shelves. If rooms are not dried out quickly, the humidity goes up, and there is a risk of mould growth or even structural damage to objects.

The plan chests in the photo below (which contain maps belonging to the Library’s collections) have been raised up on wooden battens, and this ensured that the water didn’t reach any of the drawers. The battens have holes cut in the bottom to allow water to flow out from underneath the chests; it continued to seep out for hours after we had dried the floor!


We were also well prepared in terms of equipment and training. The grey “sausages” that you can see in this picture are absorbent “booms” that you can use to block and divert flows of water. They won’t contain a full-scale flood, but can often be enough to prevent water from going into a room.


In our basement, we have a large yellow “disaster box” that contains essential materials for salvaging objects in an emergency:


Luckily, we didn’t need to salvage any objects after this flood. We have been working on our emergency plan and disaster preparedness over the last few months, so when our team got the phone call to say that there had been a flood, everyone knew what to do. Because we were well prepared, the response to this incident went smoothly and there was no damage to the historic collections. By the time the Institute opened at 9am, everything was under control and we had stopped to have a well deserved breakfast of coffee and croissants!


Of course, the clean-up effort didn’t stop there: the rest of the day was spent mopping up water, cleaning dirty floors and moving objects so we could dry out wet areas. We also had to monitor the environment in the affected areas, to make sure that it returned to normal as quickly as possible. I’ll write more about how we did this in another blog post!




Scott zapped by X-rays

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

In 2013 the Polar Museum was given a plaster maquette of Scott, made in 1915 by his wife, the sculptor Kathleen Scott.  A maquette is a working model for a piece where the final version will be made in another, more expensive material.  In this case, the plaster maquette is about 2 feet tall, and it was used as the basis for two life-sized statues of Scott, a bronze one in London and a marble one in Christchurch New Zealand.


The maquette is rather fragile and in a couple of places the surface is cracked or has popped off revealing metalwork beneath.  We were keen to find out more about how much metal is inside the sculpture and what sort of condition it is in.  So recently we took the maquette over to the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI) in Whittlesford, where they have a special X-ray set-up for examining objects and works of art.

The HKI is in an impossibly beautiful mill house surrounded by gorgeous gardens:


In this glamorous setting we set about zapping the maquette with X-rays.  The whole process was ably overseen by Chris Titmuss, who specialises in imaging techniques for analysing artworks, and the lovely HKI paintings conservation students Michaela (left) and Amiel helped in capturing the images:


The sculpture was laid underneath the X-ray machine – in this picture the machine is the grey cylinder thing suspended on a frame above, and the maquette is on the floor, protected by a fully supportive rigid vacuum cushion.  The X-ray film is underneath the statue where it can’t be seen:


We had to use a very powerful X-ray beam to penetrate the plaster – in fact it was so strong we had to fire the machine off remotely from two rooms away to avoid being zapped ourselves!  Here is Chris next to the controls of the machine, safely away from the radiation beam:


We fired 150 kiloVolts at the sculpture for two minutes to get the images, and had to do this several times to get pictures of the whole sculpture because each film plate was smaller than the statue. When the different images were spliced together this was the result:

Xray composite

There are three quite thick pieces of metal in the legs and the outstretched arm (the pale bands), and they are corroding slightly at the edges in places – this is what has caused the surface to crack where the metal is quite close to the surface.  The metal pieces have slightly shaped ends and look as though they were re-used from something else.  Interestingly there is another support in the top half of the maquette, but this is made of wood and not metal.  On the X-ray it looks like a darker grey stripe up the centre of the head and chest.  In detail you can even see fine stripes where the wood grain is showing:

head detail

Seeing the supports inside the sculpture gives a better understanding of how Kathleen Scott was working when she made this image of her husband.  The maquette is actually a plaster cast of an earlier model, probably made from clay. This would have been destroyed in the process of casting.  The plaster cast was made in sections and the metal and wooden struts were inserted when the pieces were put together before the plaster dried.  This process has to happen quickly because plaster hardens pretty fast.  The slightly random selection of wood and metal scraps for the supports underlines that this was a working model and not intended as a finished piece in its own right.  The final life-size versions don’t have the same energetic, free style as the maquette, which is the closest thing we have to Kathleen’s vision of her husband a short time after he died.







A big thank you to all our volunteers!

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

This week is National Volunteers’ Week – an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution of millions of volunteers across the UK – so we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the work that our volunteers at the Polar Museum do and to say an enormous thank you to them! Like many museums, The Polar Museum relies on its team of volunteers to carry out many of its day to day activities.

It’s fair to say that without our front of house volunteers, we wouldn’t have a museum open to the public! The front of house volunteers are the first people visitors encounter when they enter the museum – they welcome visitors to the museum, explain what visitors can see in the galleries, answer any questions visitors may have and help out in the museum shop.

Our education events volunteers are essential to running events at the museum. We run educational events for over 5000 people of all ages each year, and we wouldn’t be able to cater for anywhere near those numbers if we didn’t have volunteers doing everything from stewarding and assisting visitors to running activities themselves.

Volunteers also help out with research into the collections – one of our volunteers is currently researching the relatively unknown Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52 in order to create a summary of the exhibition and biographies of the expedition members for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

In the past we’ve also had conservation volunteers who have helped to re-house the Inuit and Siberian archaeological and ethnographic material in the museum store.

But it’s not just in the museum where you can find volunteers! Over the years volunteers in the Archives have carried out a number of projects, from transcribing polar diaries to listing hut plans. Current volunteers are assisting in a complete review of the collections, which involves looking at the original documents and comparing them to their catalogue entries ready for our new database. And in the Library, volunteers are sorting the polar press clippings into categories and cataloguing the map collections.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering in the Museum email; for volunteering in the Archives email; and for volunteering in the Library email

I still haven’t had the chance to meet all of our volunteers, but I really do want to say a huge thank you for the brilliant work that you do – we really really really appreciate it!


Shock news

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

We have noticed some vibration in one of our display cases, which causes lighter objects to shuffle around a little on display.  We have tried sticking the objects down with earthquake wax (which helps with this issue in earthquake zones) but  it’s messy and doesn’t get to the bottom of the problem.  Looking more closely, it turns out that the display drawers under the case are so heavy that they cause vibration when they are shut too vigorously.

We really want to keep the drawers for showing objects from the archives, so we are trying to find a solution.  It might seem obvious that we should get soft drawer-closers like a lot of us have in our kitchen units, but unfortunately this technology is not readily available for museum cabinets, where the drawers are too heavy for the mechanism and also have to be very secure.

While looking for a solution to the vibration, I decided to see if I could measure exactly how much of a problem it is. Luckily, Richard Farleigh at the Fitzwilliam Museum has a nifty gadget for measuring shocks, which he has kindly lent us:

photo 1

The gadget is called a “Shockwatch” and it is designed for packing cases when museum objects go travelling on loan. The device measures vibration during a journey and then the information can be downloaded. So if someone drops a packing case and damages your priceless artefact they won’t be able to pretend they don’t know anything about it!

The Shockwatch needs to be programmed to start monitoring vibration, and this is done with a series of little buttons. First you have to clip them into a special USB device, then apply them to the red bug in the correct place and wait for a special light signal. Between each manoeuvre you have to enter some information on the computer. And if you use the buttons in the wrong order then all the data is lost. It is like an electronic equivalent of a mythical treasure chest, where you need three druids with special keys saying incantations in the correct order under a full moon before you can open the casket…

Despite the curious setup process I am excited to see the results of monitoring. I hope we will be able to see the effect of any solutions we come up with for the vibration problem.  We have installed the red Shockwatch bug behind the information panel in the problem case and will be checking it in a couple of weeks:





Getting ready for our big days

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

This week it finally happens – the event that Christina and I, along with colleagues from the other University of Cambridge Museums have been planning and organising for over a year. We are holding an international conservation conference called “Subliming Surfaces: Volatile Binding Media in Conservation”. If that sounds rather specialist – well it is! But for conservators in pretty much every specialty volatile binding media are very exciting. They are amazing chemicals which can be applied to objects and then sublime like dry ice on their own, leaving no trace. As we spend a lot of time trying to find materials for treating objects which have the least possible impact on the original material, this just sounds like magic.
Of course the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Volatile binding media (or VBM) have been around for 20 years and conservators have come up with dozens of ingenious uses for them, and have also learned some of their shortcomings. We will spend 2 days celebrating 20 years of VBM by discussing them in depth with our colleagues from around the world – I’m really looking forward to it.
In the run-up to the conference it is all hands to the pump. Colleagues from the other museums have been roped into stuffing delegate folders:

The day after the conference we are also holding a workshop day, where Christina and I will give 36 conservators the chance to play with VBM. I have been making samples at home. These look like meringues but are actually plaster tokens:

And these are painted wooden samples for spraying, squirting, painting and drawing on:

Even my husband has been put to work sanding the wood samples:

It promises to be a very intense and rewarding three days!



Conservation Conversations

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

During Science week the Polar Museum joined in with Conservation Conversations, a drop-in event at the Fitzwilliam Museum where the public are invited to pull up a chair and meet an object.  Conservators from lots of the University museums set up a sort of farmers market of stalls, showing objects and projects relating to the Science Week theme of Light.

Light is an important part of life at the Poles – for half the year there isn’t any, and then for the other half there is rather too much!  Sunburn of the retina, often known as “snow blindness”, can be a real problem for people living at the poles, and that is why goggles are so important.  We took along a selection of goggles for the public to look at close up:



These include a pair that were worn by Scott on the Discovery expedition, a pair made from caribou antler, a couple of weird prototypes, a pair that were modified to improve them but were actually ruined,  a pair that looked great but were utterly useless in protecting the eyes and a pair with a special detachable lens for seeing tracer fire in very bright conditions.  Can you tell which is which?

We set up our stall in the glamorous surroundings of the Fitzwilliam.  Here is Christina talking about Inuit goggles under the watchful eye of Elizabeth I in the background:


People enjoy seeing the objects close up, without glass in the way, and there are often all kinds of great stories to go with the objects which you couldn’t fit onto a museum label.  But also the public  have their own interesting stories and ideas that are connected somehow with the objects, so you can have lots of fascinating conversations.  It is definitely a really enjoyable event to do.

Conservation Conversations happens regularly at the Science Festival, so look out for it next time.





The mystery of “The Black Goggles”

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

While working through all the objects with Antarctic associations, we came across these:


They are described in the catalogue as “goggles” but they are definitely odd. The shape is completely unlike any other goggles we have ever seen, and they don’t look practical to wear. Even more unusually, the lenses are clearly magnifiers. All the rest of the Western style goggles in the collection (and we have over 70 pairs) have flat lenses with no prescription. Actually it makes you wonder what explorers with poor vision did before contact lenses, because you couldn’t fit glasses underneath snow goggles. Presumably they often couldn’t see very well outdoors.

Intrigued, we decided to ask an expert about the lenses in our black “goggles”. Are they prescription lenses, or are they meant for something else?  Luckily we have an expert very close at hand, namely Andrea Clamp from Clamp Optometrists in Regent Street.  She came over to the museum to examine the “goggles” with some specialist equipment. First she used a lens measure to work out the curvature of the lenses:

photo (2)

This showed that they are both identical, and are curved on the inside and outside to a similar degree (“biconvex lenses”). Then Andrea placed the lenses into a focimeter to work out their power and focal length:

photo (1)

This showed that the lenses both have a focal length of about 25cm and would magnify anything that distance away to about twice it’s natural size.  Andrea was impressed by the quality of the lenses, which have no distortions whatsoever.  The company which made the “goggles” was Dallmeyer, who were famous for camera lenses.

To an optometrist like Andrea it is quite clear that the “goggles” are not prescription goggles for an individual.  Instead it looks as though the “goggles” are intended as magnifiers to help with a particular task.  So the question is, what are they for?  Theories we are investigating include that they are an accessory for photography, part of a stereoscopic viewing system or maybe viewers for cartographers….  If you know what they are, please let us know!

There is a chance to get up close and personal with more of our goggle collection this weekend at Conservation Conversations, a Science Week event at the Fitzwilliam Museum on Saturday and Sunday, 2-4pm.  It is a drop-in session with no need to book.  Just come along and have a chat with us – we will be delighted to meet you.



Light relief, part 3: screen test

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

In last month’s conservation blog, I included some rather scary graphs that showed how light was reflecting off buildings opposite the museum and shining directly into our Arctic clothing showcase. Our solution was simple but not very elegant: put a curtain over the case to block out the sun’s rays!

The curtain is effective but also has some drawbacks: it needs someone to put it on every evening and take it off in the mornings before the visitors arrive; it can only be used when the museum is closed; and it looks more functional than stylish. We felt that it was time for a better solution.

When the museum was refurbished in 2010, the glass sliding doors into the main gallery were covered with vinyl transfers depicting the Nesham Glacier in Canada. This was partly because it is a very striking (and Polar-related) image, and partly because it provided a very effective way of blocking light into the gallery. You can see the image in all its glory below (click on it to see a larger version):

Nesham Glacier

Unfortunately, the design doesn’t stretch quite to the edges of the doors, and there are gaps around the sides where light can come in. We are now looking for ways to block this without spoiling the beauty of the doors. My first thought was to match one of the mid tones in the image and print extra vinyl strips to go either side. Unfortunately for us, legislation has been introduced since 2010 to reduce volatile organic compounds in paints, varnishes and stains – the new inks are better for human and environmental health but make it very difficult to match the colours on our doors exactly. We printed a sample with the new inks, but it had brown tones instead of the original’s greenish tint.

Algar Signcraft, who printed the original image for us, kindly gave us lots of sample colours to see if we could find a good match. I put these samples on the gallery doors and so we could do some testing:


Our conservation intern, Ellie, used a light meter to investigate how effective the different films were at blocking light and UV. She found that, unsurprisingly, the darker the film, the more light it cut out. The Nesham glacier picture itself only cut out about 25% of the light, but it was very good at diffusing it so there were no direct shafts of sunlight hitting the showcases behind it. She also found that the colour of the three grey films at the bottom varied dramatically depending on whether it was sunny or overcast outside. All of the films performed well enough for our purposes, but they were very difference in appearance and it was difficult to decide which one would look best.

I invited some of my colleagues from the museum to come and adjudicate:


After a lot of discussion, we agreed unanimously that the best film was the one in the middle (the white, frosted one) – phew! Now that we’ve made a decision, I’m going to order some vinyl strips for this door and we can see how well they perform in “real life”. Hopefully this will solve the case of the mysterious reflection and we can finally retire our rather unglamorous showcase curtain!



Light relief, part 2: the case of the mysterious reflection

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In a previous post, I talked about some of the ways that we conservators monitor the amount of light coming into our galleries. That post showed a typical week’s light and UV data from a showcase:


This data comes from our Arctic clothing case and shows what we are looking for ideally: low(ish) light levels generally, no light during the two days that the museum is closed, and no UV at all.

Sometimes, however, your data looks a bit more like this:


This is a graph of light and UV data from the same Arctic clothing case in August 2012. The light levels in this case are far from perfect: the light (the green line) is too high overall and there is some UV (the purple line) registering on one of the days. The thing that really concerned me, however, was the sudden spikes that happen each day in the early evening. For half an hour only, the light levels shoot up so high that they are literally off the scale.

To see what’s going on, we can look at the data for just a single day, Sunday 5 August 2012 (click on the image below to see a larger version):


Our transmitters are set to monitor every half hour, and between 6.30pm and 7pm, you can see the light levels jump from 131 lux to 1245 lux … and then at 7.30pm drop down again to 176 lux.

After a bit of investigation, we realised the (unwitting) culprits: our neighbours on Lensfield Road! As the sun sets, it gets low enough to hit the windows of the three-storey buildings opposite the museum. One of these windows is in exactly the right position to reflect a shaft of light through the museum windows and into the Arctic clothing showcase. This only happens between late May and late August, and only in the early evenings. On 5 August (the day shown in the graph above), the sun typically sets at 7.40pm, which is why the spikes in light levels were seen about half an hour before that.

Sometimes, simple solutions are the best. I made a curtain from blackout lining material, and we put it over the showcase when the museum closes at 4pm. The reflections from the buildings opposite all happen after opening hours, so it doesn’t matter that we’ve hidden some of our nicest objects behind a curtain! We’ve been doing this for two years now: here you can see Willow taking the curtain down just before the museum opens in the morning (you can also see the transmitter that measures light at the bottom of the case).

Willow and curtain

The graphs below show data from August 2012 (left) and August 2014 (right). It’s still not perfect, but you can see that it’s a lot better than it was. However, remembering to put up and take down the curtain is not always convenient, so we’re currently looking into other ways to block light from coming into the gallery and hitting this showcase – I’ll write about some of these next time!

light_riley_aug12 light_riley_aug14