Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Operating working objects: challenge and controversy

The Science Museum Group’s policy (Burden and Leskard, 2013) sets out formally the factors to be considered when deciding whether to operate objects, and demonstrates the negotiations required to reach a decision.

Operating museum objects raises several issues. For an object to function fully, all the working parts and essential components need to be viable. However, some features such as rubber washers or rubber tyres may be degraded beyond use and it will be necessary to search for replacements, or for suitable modern substitutes (CCI 1997 and 2002). The same will apply to other essentials such as lubricants or fuel. Questions may arise such as whether it is acceptable to power a formerly steam driven mechanism with electricity. It will also be necessary to consider whether staff have the necessary skills to operate the mechanism safely, and whether there are the resources needed to monitor and maintain that mechanism in the longer term. Safety of both operators and audiences is a major consideration. Without effective precautions there may be serious risks to personnel in operating early machinery – such as bursting boilers or limbs caught in drive belts.

One of the main conservation concerns is the risk of damage to the materials of the original, particularly the moving parts. Although many objects will have had some, or even several, parts replaced during their working life, once in a museum the aim would normally be to retain and conserve original material, however worn. Bringing an object back to operating condition may inevitably require some modification to the fabric, and negotiation of conflicting values (Mann, 1994, a and b; Newey and Meehan, 1999; Staelens and Morris, 2010). Factors to consider may include whether it is permissible to replace moving parts, what should be done with the worn original parts, whether it is feasible to replace parts with a different, perhaps stronger or more permanent material, and what the effect might be of this new material in conjunction with the original materials and mechanism.

Preparing a working museum object for operation may run counter to the conservation concepts of retaining original material and of minimum intervention in terms of treatment. On the other hand it does accord with the idea of making an object accessible through compensating for losses (loss caused by wear on moving parts and consequent loss of function). It can be compared with the modification of other types of object to make them understandable – paintings are cleaned to remove degraded varnish or earlier restorations then retouched, decaying timber beams in ancient buildings are replaced or reinforced with metal supports. Even attaching a guard around a drive belt, where none would have existed before, can be compared with the use of protective mounts or boxes for fragile works on paper. It might be considered that exposing parts of a mechanism to continuing wear poses different and greater risks than other forms of use, but exposure of paintings to light risks continuing damage to pigments, and historic buildings, however well cared for, continue to suffer the effects of the weather.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/012