The Royal Armouries collection comprises approximately 75,000 objects, covering a complete range of arms, armour and related material, including guns, swords, armour, artillery, and polearms.
The maintenance and preservation of these objects is a critical role within the museum. Dr Lauren McGhee, Conservator for the museum, tells us a little more about some recent changes to the conservation laboratory in Leeds, and the important work carried out there.
Preserving our collection
The preservation of the collection is one of the Royal Armouries’ fundamental responsibilities to the nation and future generations. It is also vital to the presentation, interpretation and research of the collection. The Royal Armouries has conservators at its three sites: Leeds, the Tower of London and Fort Nelson.
What we do
The Conservation team at Leeds comprises two Object Conservators who carry out physical treatments on objects such as removing dirt or corrosion, as well as a Preventative Conservator, who cares for the collection by monitoring and controlling environmental factors (e.g. relative humidity, temperature, light levels, pollutants and pests).
In the Autumn of 2017, it was decided that the conservation laboratory at Leeds was in need of a bit of a re-vamp. This was no mean feat, involving removing large numbers of objects, furniture and shelving so that the walls and floor could be painted. However, now that the work is complete it seems the perfect opportunity to showcase the new space and to explain a bit about what we do as a department.
The main laboratory is now a bright and spacious area to work in with double workbenches for the two objects conservators as well as a bench for our current student placement from Durham University.
Each bench has localised extraction (the yellow ‘trunks’ that you can see in the photographs) which allows us to work with solvents and adhesives. We also keep a vast array of tools, materials and equipment in the mobile storage units under the long shelving. These include specialist gunsmith’s tools for the disassembly of firearms and also the equipment and wire that we use to make new rings to stabilise mail objects. Each new ring is stamped with a tiny ‘RA’ so that it can be distinguished from the originals.
We also have an adjacent room where we can carry out messier (and noisier) tasks such as the re-leathering and re-riveting of armours as well as air abrasion of archaeological metalwork. Re-leathering/re-riveting is only carried out when the stability of the object is at risk due to the irreparable deterioration of older replacement leathers (those added in the 1960s being particularly vulnerable).
The laboratory houses a large fume cupboard which is used principally for decanting chemicals such as solvents into smaller dispensers that are suitable for use on the bench. However, we also use it for tasks where effective, prolonged extraction is essential such as dyeing new fabric that can be used to stabilise objects with textile components.
We also have a furnace and an oven which allows us to test materials before they are brought into contact with objects. This is particularly important when preparing for a new exhibition, allowing us to determine whether paints, adhesives and other products are suitable for use in cases and in the galleries.
Other important aspects of a conservator’s job include photography, written documentation and scientific analysis. To facilitate this we have a small photography studio, a range of digital microscopes and a walk-in X-ray facility. We are also fortunate enough to have the technician’s workshop adjacent to the laboratory. Our two display technicians make custom mounts for objects in-house and we collaborate closely on exhibitions, loans and new displays.
The coming year will be a busy and varied one for the team but we feel extremely privileged to be responsible for the conservation of the National Collection of Arms and Armour. If you are interested in hearing more about our work please do look out for upcoming blog posts which will focus in more detail on specific objects and projects.
To find out more about the conservation team and the work they do, visit our website.