Caring for the Mary Rose - a Coronavirus Case Study (2)
Professor Eleanor Schofield, Head of Conservation and Collections Care at Mary Rose Trust, shares her reflections on caring for collections in a time of crisis.
Part two – Caring for the collection
When the Mary Rose museum closed its door three weeks ago in response to the Coronavirus a new phase of activity began. As curators and conservators know, it is impossible to completely walk away from a collection, and the responsibility for caring for the collection lies with me as Head of Conservation and Collections Care. Therefore, since we closed, my main priority has been to find the most time and cost-efficient way to look after our collection. In some ways this is no different from my normal activity; it’s just that the parameters within which I can operate have changed drastically.
The Mary Rose collection is comprised of over 19,000 artefacts. There is huge variety in terms of the size of the objects, what they are made of, how they have degraded and what has been done to stabilise them. The common issue is that the conservation treatments were chosen on the assumption that the objects would be stored or displayed in a stable environment. Our collection of marine archaeological objects is particularly sensitive to temperature and relative humidity changes and therefore our museum was designed to provide comparatively tight controls. This environment is achieved through many interconnected and interdependent pieces of equipment that require significant attention from conservation staff.
When developing a plan for how we would continue to look after our collection, the news headlines played heavily on my mind. I routinely ask myself whether the measures we are putting in place are justifiable in terms of the access we require and the importance of the collection against the clear Government guidelines to protect the NHS, stay at home and save lives. One of the things that works in our favour, is that we are situated on a naval base, which is currently not accessible to the public. As such, I have concluded that going to the Mary Rose premises at this time is much less of a threat to our health and the public than going to our local supermarket.
At present, two members of our maintenance team go to the museum every day. They are the only people in the building and work at a distance from each other while they do essential work on our systems. These are not just the systems that provide the environmental control, but also the domestic services, which cannot be simply switched off. Alongside this, I go on site once a week to check three of our other locations on the naval base. An interesting positive aspect of this is that our finance manager, who has also not been furloughed, is getting to know our collection much better, as, for safety reasons, she assists me (at a safe distance!).
There is a variety of tasks to undertake on our visits. Some of these are basic security e.g. checking all the buildings, offices, fire alarms, and some relate solely to the collection e.g. emptying dehumidifiers, checking monitors and air control units. It takes about 2 hours but gives us the peace of mind that everything is secure and safe and also ensures we are compliant with our insurance policy.
Alongside the checks that take place physically on site we are fortunate that several systems can be checked remotely. I have been keeping a close eye on our temperature and humidity monitors within the museum and how the systems are performing. This is not our ideal way of operating but, on balance, it is providing an appropriate level of attention to the ongoing care of our collection and systems in these unusual circumstances.
My other focus has been on trying to reduce costs. Again, in broad terms this puts me squarely within my normal playing field, it is just that the purse strings are that bit tighter, and I am acutely aware that any saving I can make will give us a better chance of survival. As we are restricted with getting contractors on site, we have pushed some tasks to later dates. We are also looking at options for switching off some equipment. Sometimes this is straightforward, for example, heating in areas where no one is working. Other situations are more complex, and this is where the interconnectivity of systems comes into play. Initially we turned off the air handling units that create a comfortable environment in the galleries as it was felt that this was not necessary with no visitors in the building. We are now learning how much these buffer the ambient conditions to our showcases and, as such, it may be necessary to turn them back on again. We shall see.
Happily, these strategies seem to be working and in the last week we appear to be reaching a steady state. I feel fairly content with the measures we have put in place, however there is no doubt in my mind that new issues will appear. Given the speed at which we moved to this mode of operation against the backdrop of adapting everything in our everyday lives, in seems impossible that we captured everything.
I feel fortunate to be able to go on site, but in other respects it is difficult and feels surreal to be there without colleagues or visitors. It feels like a pause button has been hit and the sad part is not knowing when play will be pressed again. What I do know for sure though, is that the Mary Rose determination still runs deep and strong, and it is that which will enable us to fight this new battle and keep our unique and special story alive.
Header image Tally Sticks © Mary Rose Trust