On Monday I started work at the National Maritime Museum. So far it has been wonderful – everyone is very welcoming and interested in the project, and working in such a historically laden place is absolutely great. This Wednesday was the most exciting day of the week, as I was allowed to spend all day in a storage room with the medicine chests to study them. The first thing that struck me was their size or rather lack thereof. The measurements are in the catalogue, so I already knew the chests were not that big, yet seeing something with your own eyes is of course still an entirely different experience.
These medicine chests upon closer inspection looked like very practical first-aid kits, each containing about twenty to forty different material medica. Then something struck me: before coming to London I had been reading up on eighteenth- and nineteenth century English Navy medicine, and the lists of prescribed contents of ship’s surgeons’ chests I had seen seemed far more extensive than the contents of these chests. So I checked again, and indeed, in 1806 the standard Navy medicine chest contained about 62 different substances.
Does that mean the medicine chests at the NMM are not ship’s surgeons’ chests at all? It is possible, even if they were most likely used on ships. Most of them are simply too small to sustain a substantial ship’s crew with medical care for months or even years, and contain only drugs that can also be found in popular ‘companions to the medicine chest’ from the same period. Yet it is not so strange that someone boarding a ship, naval, merchant or exploratory, would invest in a personal medicine chest if he could afford it. Even if there was a surgeon aboard, there was a fair chance he would also fall ill and die at some point, and then it was most practical to have your own first-aid kit with you.
Moreover, ship’s surgeons seem to have constantly complained about being underpaid, which may have led them to use the drug supplies otherwise, and some of them were very inexperienced. All the more reason to bring your own stash. Meanwhile, I have already found some exciting leads in the archives on where these chests might be from and how they were used… to be continued!
PS: My initial plan this week was to write about the strange ceramics in huge Erlenmeyer flasks resembling wet anatomical preparations that I saw at the Naturmuseum Winterthur, but as I could not get into touch with the curator to ask who made them and how they were intended. I am still working on it, so maybe in a later blog!
Whilst undertaking my internship in the Metals Conservation studio at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, part of my duties involve regular visits to the stores. On a routine inspection of one of the sections, the discovery of these interesting objects quickly caught my attention. A pair of weighted brass and leather diving boots, with brass buckles and copper rivets is not something that one comes across every day.
Manufactured by famous London diving company Siebe Gorman in the mid-19th century, these boots would have been used for underwater diving on a soft and loose bottomed sea bed such as sand or silt.
The boots were showing signs of active corrosion products of a bright green soft waxy deposit predominantly around the areas where the copper rivets attach to the leather. This is caused by the reaction between the free fatty acids found in the leather with the copper, which forms a waxy metal salt, most commonly known in conservation as a metal soap. The brass was also covered in a green corrosion product, although this was a harder product, more firmly attached to the metal. The leather was dirty, very waxy and rigid and brittle in areas and due to its weight, the leather had collapsed and ‘set’ itself into a slumped form.
Various methods of treatment were decided on to remove the corrosion products, clean, reshape and support the slumped leather suitable for re-storage. Delicate mechanical removal of the waxy deposits was undertaken, taking care not to damage the brown coloured copper oxide layer beneath. Whilst working under a 20 x microscope mechanical removal using a scalpel was used to remove the harder corrosion products from the brass components. A temporary custom built ‘tent’ was used to house the boots for humidification to soften the leather to enable re-shaping and support.
Conservation work on the diving boots is still underway. I am continuing to stabilise the corrosion and will shortly start constructing inner supports for the leather.
Siebe Gorman Diving Boots before conservation treatment
The Conservation Skills Initiative (CSI) has been created to give recently graduated conservation students or those from the crafts field with a keen interest in conservation, experience working with skilled conservators on significant objects of the nation’s heritage at the National Maritime Museum’s Conservation Department. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme. The main purpose of this stream of funding is to ‘support organisations across the UK to create new opportunities for work-based training in the heritage sector.’
Linda Brothwell, our first metals intern under the HLF funded Conservation Skills Initiative programme.
The grant enables us to pay interns to undertake a year-long experience within the department, where they will have the opportunity to work with Senior Conservators in either metals or textile conservation. The project will deliver six one-year internships over a four-year period – four in metals and two in textile conservation.
The interns would be expected to work on objects exhibiting complex conservation issues that will stretch the individual while, at the same time, taking part in the daily routine of the studios. Part of the internship will also encompass a two-week period working with the Preventive Conservator to gain a basic understanding of the impact of the environment on the long-term stability of objects.
The textile interns will be given an unparalleled opportunity to improve and develop their textile conservation skills. The interns will be working on a range of objects that are required for the Museum’s public programme. These will include small flags requiring stitched support leading to more complex degraded flags needing adhesive support, printed and embroidered textiles which will need treatment and mounting on fabric covered boards, uniforms requiring simple support of areas of minor loss leading to more complex support of silk linings before being mounted for display, and accessories such as hats and sword belts to be treated and mounted.
The metal interns will have similarly unique opportunities to gain a solid understanding of basic metal working skills and develop conservation expertise of fine metal objects. The metal conservation studio at the NMM has excellent facilities including a well equipped metal machine workshop. The interns will be working on historic edged weapons beginning with dirks and leading on to full swords with high decoration; medals from the plain to the very detailed; and scientific instruments starting with simple terrestrial telescopes and progressing to more complex engineering models.
Detail of metal gilt locket on the scabbard (WPN1284) prior to conservation showing the extent of tarnishing and corrosion.
The sources of the intern’s objects will come from the Museum’s programme of gallery redisplay, new galleries, temporary exhibitions, loans in and out, and routine maintenance of the museum’s displayed objects
At time of writing our first intern – Linda Brothwell – has joined the metal section and has very quickly settled in amongst the edged weapons, sextants and binnacles.
This programme helps to fill a critical gap in current conservation training and is generating tremendous interest from students as well as institutions. HLF is to be congratulated for this far-sighted funding.