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Preserving the past for the future

Mark Nesbitt
12 January 2010
Blog team: 
How student conservators help care for Kew's collections

This is the time of the year when we show student conservators around the Economic Botany Collection. It’s partly an opportunity to show them the wide range of plant-based materials used in historic artefacts, and it’s also a chance to tempt a few into choosing items from the Collection for their student project.

Student projects benefit both sides: our objects get careful attention from enthusiastic students, working under close supervision by leading experts; students get to work on ethnographic artefacts that are well documented, often of satisfyingly complex construction, and which have real historical and cultural significance.

In modern object conservation, understanding the object is as important as any physical intervention. Without knowing how something is made, and how it was used, there is a risk of removing “damage” that is in fact evidence of use. Better still, it’s often possible to identify the source community for an object, allowing contact to be re-established and consultation on conservation treatments to take place. As a result, not only does Kew gain an object that is in better physical shape, ready for display, and safely packed for centuries to come, but we also benefit from lasting insights into the meaning of the object to its makers, and its subsequent history.

An example of student work

Last year, Emily Brennan, an undergraduate conservation student at University of the Arts, Camberwell, took on this lacebark bonnet from Jamaica (Catalogue No. 44939). It arrived at Kew in the 1930s as a shapeless mass with little background information.

As you can see from the above image, this was a complex project as the bonnet had lost its original shape, there were extensive areas of soiling, the lacebark (a natural lace from Lagetta lagetto) was brittle, and the vermilion dye in the silk is highly fugitive (susceptible to movement in water).

Emily surface-cleaned and humidified the bonnet, used netting and stitching to support fragile parts, and reshaped the wire making up the bonnet’s framework to reinstate the true form of the bonnet. By consulting costume historians, Emily was able to show the bonnet must have been made in about 1850. Lacebark was a hugely important plant to Jamaica’s black communities, used both for indigenous clothing and for in a thriving souvenir industry, but the craft seems to have died out in the 1950s. The finished result can be seen in the image below.

This project helped Emily secure a well-served first class degree, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers Prize, and funding to travel to Jamaica to further research lacebark through oral history.

Other projects by students

Other projects at Camberwell included a bark rain-vest from British Columbia and a tree-fern mask from Vanuatu, while at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology Libby McCormick worked on a fascinating incised Maori gourd from the North Island of New Zealand. Sadly one long collaboration has come to an end with the closure of the Textile Conservation Centre in Winchester. Its students worked on well over 100 pieces in the Collection, and we’ll really miss their contribution. Some ex-TCC students now teach at Camberwell, so the connection continues.

This year three of the final-year students at Camberwell have chosen Kew projects: Jessica is interested in feathers, and will work on a stunning head-dress brought back from the Amazon by one of Kew’s recent directors, Sir Ghillean Prance, and a set of 12 poison arrows (seen in image below) collected in the Amazon a hundred years earlier by Richard Spruce. Vania has chosen a group of papyrus artefacts from ancient Egypt, including a fast-disintegrating papyrus sheet (it looks blank but might reveal writing under UV light) and some head-rests, while another student will treat a group of Japanese fans, some unopened since being collected in the 19th century. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they find out.

A note on terminology: conservators care for things; in contrast, conservationists care for living organisms. The two professions require very different training!




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