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Icon's Student Conservator of the Year shares project highs, lows and lessons learnt

Revisiting the Icon Conservation Awards – Part I: Gemma McBader

In October 2015, Gemma McBader was awarded the Pilgrim Trust Student Conservator of the Year Award for her extraordinary work in investigating and conserving a 19th Century Ethiopian Emperor’s Shield for the Judge's Lodging Museum.

The project, which sought to establish the 115-year-old shield's provenance and analyse the use of Silver Dip on tarnished silver-gilt surfaces, was described by judges as “an impressive and complex project which had a great impact on a small museum.” 

Gemma, who studied MSc Conservation Practice at Cardiff University, established that the shield was not of the nomadic Tuareg people as previously believed, but an Ethiopian Emperor’s shield gifted to a British diplomat upon the signing of the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1897.

Here, she revisits the project and tells Icon about the highs, lows and lessons learnt.

"There were several technical challenges in the project"

One challenge was working with a range of different material and investigating how they interact and indeed deteriorate together. I started by studying the structure, chemical composition and deterioration pathways of each of the shield’s material components: metal, textile, leather and hide.


Image: The shield before and after; (c) Gemma McBader

I then looked at the interaction between neighbouring materials, and the paths through which they may have accelerated their decay, e.g. leather acidity can accelerate the shield’s metal corrosion and hydrolytic degradation of textile, in particular cotton.

"Working for a small rural museum has benefits and drawbacks"

The benefits included complete ownership of the work and seeing it through from start to finish. Also, given that it was an academic project, I was able to commit a fairly generous amount of time to research, experimentation and treatment – time being a precious resource most museum conservators and curators would love to have.

The drawbacks included a very limited budget, although I was fortunate to carry out the work using the university’s equipment and facilities. One personal drawback was that the budget did not allow me to visit the Judges Lodging Museum in Presteigne, Wales, nor meet the curator face to face until recently at an award show.

"It is extremely important for conservators to correctly document their work"

In the case of the Ethiopian shield, conservation records for other examples showed that treatments of comparable shields collectively aimed to address similar issues, giving hope for our shield’s potential aesthetic value being recovered to some extent. They also served to answer questions related to the construction, but also context and hence significance placed on the object itself. Being able to access some of these records online (through museum databases or e-mail correspondence) was hugely valuable as it wasn’t possible to visit all museums.

"Winning an Icon Conservation Award was a great accolade to me personally"

It was also a credit to the conservation MSc at Cardiff. Moreover, it gave the Judge’s Lodging Museum a good media platform and put the shield under spotlight, which is an amazing tribute to its history.

Following the Icon award, the Judge’s Lodging Museum came second in the Hudson Heritage Awards for the ‘Best New Discovery’ category featuring the Ethiopian shield, which is wonderful!

"I’d love to say there weren’t any low points but that would be a lie!"

Much of the conservation work carried out on the shield was done in-situ, which posed many risks and challenges. However, before starting treatment I devised a risk management model whereby every treatment planned had a list of associated risks, for which avoidance and management measures were identified. Despite all precautions sometimes things can go wrong. There was one heart stopping moment when Silver Dip (which was used to de-tarnish the silver-gilt filigree) slipped past the protective Melinex sheet onto the fabric underneath, but thankfully I had cleaning and testing materials immediately at hand ready for a speedy recovery.

"My highest point has got to be the discovery of the shield’s real origin, pin-pointing its provenance, age and significance"

What was thought to be an inconsequential travel memento from the Tuareg tribes turned out to be a gift of high honour from Emperor Menelik II to the British diplomat Sir James Rennell Rodd upon the signing of the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1897.

"The most interesting thing I learned while working on this project…"

If in doubt, keep digging! If the object is at odds with its supposed provenance, there is probably an exciting discovery to be had.

Visit Gemma’s winning shield at the Judge's Lodging Museum in Presteigne, Wales.

Read more from 'Revisiting the Icon Conservation Awards'
Part II: Rachel Barker ACR, Rothko Conservation Project
Part III: Sarah Hayes & Deborah Magnoler, Coffin Works Resurrection
Part IV: Ivan Steele, Steam Pinnace 199
Part V: Pieta Greaves & Deborah Cane, Staffordshire Hoard

Lead image: Gemma (left) with Georgina Nayler (Project Board and Presenter) and Jane Henderson ACR (Shortlist and Judge) at the Icon Conservation Awards; (c) Paul Hampartsoumian


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