Student Isabel Shares Her Conservation Placement

Conservation Placements

The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) is very lucky to be able to offer placements to students who are looking to learn more about conservation.

Often the roles are very different and varied but, we asked latest PhD student Isabel to share her experience to offer you some insight into the things she worked on.

About Isabel

Hello, my name is Isabel and I’m a PhD student in Archaeology at the University of Bristol. But for six weeks in January and February 2021, I was doing a placement at the National Museum of the Royal Navy with their conservator, Morgan.

I developed an interest in conservation after I finished my undergraduate degree, when I went to work for the National Trust. After this I then volunteered for the National Maritime Museum in their conservation department before starting my PhD. So when I heard about an opportunity to do some real hands-on conservation at the NMRN, I jumped at the chance.

I was originally supposed to be helping with the conservation and cleaning of the figureheads in the newly refurbished Victory Gallery, but I ended up working on a whole variety of objects and a much larger scale project too.

Figurehead Conservation

After getting started on this carving of a cat’s head, I was presented with my first figurehead, Adelaide. She was originally from the HM Yacht Royal Adelaide and had been sitting on the back wall of the gallery for a long time, so she was pretty dusty by the time I got to her!

Her trident had also been broken at some point and a repair had been attempted with masking tape, which is not really conservator-approved. So I got to work, cleaning her with cotton swabs dipped in a sensitive detergent, removing the residue from the masking tape and finally reaffixing the trident.

Adelaide all cleaned up with a newly fixed trident

I conserved her two companions on the back wall as well, figureheads from HM Yacht Elfin (middle) and HM Yacht Alberta (bottom). As Alberta is at ground level, she had some deliberate damage from her time on display: there was chewing gum stuck to her and she had been drawn on! Luckily the pen-marks came off but removing the chewing gum unfortunately also removed the paint from that section.

Brass Polishing

I also worked on some other objects from that back wall of the gallery: some dolphin carvings from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert II and a brass footplate from HMS Orion.

Countless polishings had left residue in the groves of the footplate which had led to corrosion. I had to clean out the residue and remove the corrosion. This involved a careful balancing act: applying enough force to remove the corrosion, even from little dents and crevices in the soft brass, without removing too much of the patina. This would make the brass too shiny and new-looking, which is not what you want for an historic object.

Before and after of the Orion footplate

Conserving HMS Victory Oak

I was then given my most exciting task yet: to clean and conserve an original piece of oak from HMS Victory, complete with brass and iron fittings. This piece of wood had been ravaged by deathwatch beetle which made it very delicate and difficult to clean.

I also had to apply a protective coating to the fittings, to prevent any further corrosion (although the corrosion that was present was left in place). The product we used had a shiny finish, which is not what we wanted! So I got to carry out some little experiments, adding glass bubbles and silica to the solution to see if they could make it more matte. The silica worked well and was then applied to the fittings.

A Conservator's Role

A conservator’s work does not just involve cleaning and repairing objects. I got to go onto the ships with Morgan to collect environmental data from sensors that are placed around the decks. This is done every few months and allows the conservators to keep track on the temperature and humidity on the ships.

We also spent an hour on board HMS Warrior, applying a special solution to some iron beams to help protect them from corrosion. And I was on hand to help Morgan install her new fume hood in the lab!

My Most Unusual Job

The most unusual job I helped with during my time here was the installation of a protective backing to W.L Wyllie's Panorama of Trafalgar. Painted in front of the public in 1930 to raise funds to save Victory, it is 13 metres long and 4 metres tall. It was so big that it has a room built around it. Unfortunately this means it is not well protected from changes in temperature or humidity.

To help protect the painting, sheets of aluminium honeycomb will be installed behind it, but first the painting needed to be unwrapped and a protective layer fixed to the back. The aluminium sheets then needed to be scored and fitting installed to hold the sheets in place once installed. Finally, with some team work, the sheets needed to be installed behind the painting, which is easier said than done!

Sadly, my time here came to an end before the whole installation was finished but it was fascinating to see what solutions exist for such a seemingly impossible task!

Overall, I had a really interesting and educational time here at the NMRN: I got to work on a whole range of objects, learnt new conservation techniques and got to see what life is like day-to-day for a conservator at a museum.

Conservation at the Museum

Thanks to Isabel for an interesting account of her time with us at The National Museum of the Royal Navy on a six week conservation placement.

Roles with the NMRN are diverse and there are always some very unique things happening that our teams get involved with.

We share these opportunities on our social media channels, so keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter and the NMRN website.


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