Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Operating objects and research

Bringing objects back into working state can be an act of research in itself. It becomes possible to work out how machines were constructed and how they behaved. In objects such as the Bowes Swan, or the early Benz motor car restored to working state at the National Museum of Wales (Perry, 2006), dismantling and repair of the mechanisms provided insight into the way they were constructed and how they were operated.

Figure 10

Composite of images of nineteenth century Benz motor car pre and post renovation and an accompanying booklet for the car

A restored 1900 Benz motor car

Writing about the motor car Chris Perry said:

The curators and conservators working on this project felt certain that by running the car and maintaining the engine in working order, the display life and potential of the car were being used far more effectively than leaving the engine rusted and seized up […] there is always an element of compromise with preserving and displaying complex vulnerable materials if they are also to remain part of a public, accessible collection (Perry, 2006, p 150).

The business of operating historic objects opens up two other areas of research. The first is the need to understand the effects on the objects. Although there has already been extensive research into the effects of light and humidity on museum objects, and of different types of packaging for transport, little is known about both short and longer term effects of touching, handling and manipulating different types of object, nor about methods of detecting, preventing or mitigating possible damage.

The second area for research is the evaluation of the experience provided to participants. So, for example, we need to know what types of object are particularly interesting in operation, and to what extent it is satisfying for visitors to watch a demonstration as opposed to enabling them to handle and operate objects themselves. We need to understand the most effective ways of organising the experience, including whether to give detailed information and guidance or to allow visitors to make their own discoveries.

A further aspect is how visitors can themselves contribute to research. Being able to handle and operate objects may prompt memories of working life, may enable individuals to demonstrate the function of objects and exercise their former working skills. The involvement of the public in research projects is becoming increasingly popular, for example Citizen Science projects such as those based at the Natural History Museum, or the use of crowd-sourcing in gathering archaeological data (Tweddle et al, 2012; Bonacchi et al, 2015). There is almost certainly a bank of valuable knowledge and experience of industrial objects which could be drawn upon.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/016