Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Conserving industrial collections

How do these aims, concepts and practices of conservation affect industrial collections? There are considerable material challenges in the basic care of industrial objects (Storer, 1989; Dollery and Henderson, 1997; Meehan, 2000; Newey, 2000; Child, 2006). Many, such as steam engines or aircraft, are very large so there are problems of just housing them, let alone providing a suitably preventive conservation environment (Paine, 1994). It is not surprising that many of the Science Museum’s large objects are housed in former hangars on an old airfield. Assessing their materials and condition can be challenging. They are often highly complex and composite objects, constructed of a variety of substances – metals, wood, textiles, lacquers, rubbers and plastics – each with its own problems (Baker and McManus, 1992; Shashoua, 2008). They may contain other substances such as lubricants or traces of fuel, or hazardous matter such as asbestos.

There are also challenges in making working objects accessible as for many people their significance lies in their mechanism and the way they function. However, visitors are normally offered access through viewing the static object (together, of course, with explanatory labels), but just looking at them provides only partial information. An early computer or television with a blank screen can demonstrate size and shape but not what it was like in use; the appearance of a water pump gives little information about function. So how can people engage with the richness of these objects?  How feasible is it to operate industrial objects to bring them back to life, and how does this accord with conservation thinking?

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/011