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10 questions you'd (probably) only ask a conservator

As conservators prepare for this year’s Heritage Open Days, we take a look at the funny and insightful questions put to them by the public

Heritage Open Days (HoD) is England's biggest festival of history and culture with over 40,000 volunteers hosting thousands of events across the country.

This year, HoD takes places from 8th to 11th September and Icon members will be on hand to demonstrate their latest projects and talk to the public about conservation. To celebrate, we are offering a £100 National Trust Gift Cardmore information here.

To give you a taste of what's on offer, we asked participating members for common questions posed to them by the public. Here’s what they said.

1. Why’s it called a damsel?

"Glutbox, sprattle-beam and quant – there's lots of information about mills and many strange names for things," says Adam Marriott, the Heritage Engineer preparing Chesterton Windmill for HoD.

"One of the commonest questions is about the feed mechanism into the center of the mill stone. It’s a sort of cam that gently taps the feed trough to agitate the grain to flow, called a shoe. The cam is called a damsel as it would chatter all day long. It's not particularly PC these days!"

2. Does flash photography really do any damage?

Rebecca Gee of Hull Culture & Leisure Ltd says common questions asked of their curators include: Does taking a photo of an object with flash really do any damage? Why does metal goes green when it’s old? How do you put pots back together when they’re broken into loads of pieces? Why don’t you always stick things back together fully?

Visit the Collections Conservation Roadshow for answers!

3. Are you sure you mean 'preservation'?

John Fidler, former Conservation Director of English Heritage in London, will be speaking at St. Mary’s Parish Church for HoD.

John tells us: "Americans often use the term 'preservation' for what Brits call conservation. But I have to be careful in lectures around the world because 'preservation' means jam-making to some, and in Italy, 'preservativi' is a euphemism for a type of birth control product!"


John Fidler at New York's Obelisk (Image: John Fidler)

4. Does glass 'flow' over time?

The conservators at York Glaziers Trust are often asked if glass 'flows' over time, causing the thickness at the bottom of stained glass windows.

"Oftentimes, it is assumed that glass is technically a liquid and therefore starts to pool after many years stood vertically," says the team. "This is not the case, and glass would need to reach upwards of 800°C in order to become viscous and to flow in this manner. One explanation for why window glass may appear to be thicker at the bottom is not because it has changed over time, but because it always was thicker. Throughout history, many stained glass windows have been made from mouth blown glass, which can often have an uneven texture and variations in thickness. Therefore, when the window was originally constructed, a conscious decision has been made to place the thicker part of the glass at the bottom, and the 'flow' of stained glass windows is simply a myth."

Meet the team at Stoneyard Open Day during HoD.


Conservation in action (Image: York Glaziers Trust)

5. Why is it called a sink mat?

"We have a growing pile of broken glass plates for which I’ll be making sink mats," says Eleanor Harris of Herefordshire Archive & Records Centre.

"I’m dreading the inevitable question of ‘why is it called a sink mat?’ – we still haven’t found a good source for that!"

Ellie adds: "In all the tours we have done over the past year, the most common questions have been 'How do you get the map onto the wall?', 'How do you make them stay up?' and 'Do you use cellotape to repair?'

6. You can’t wash paper… can you?

Lorraine Finch who will be at Great Yarmouth Minster for HoD says: "People are always shocked that it is possible to wash paper. Many times I have had the response 'But you can't wash paper!' and 'But the ink will run/come off!' Generally, the public view conservation as a dark art (in a good way).They find it amazing what we do and the results that conservation yields."

7. Are you repainting it?

"People are always astounded at how much information about different decorative schemes can be obtained from such minute samples of paint. We will have cross-section images on display of some of the polychromy analysed as part of the St. Cuthbert’s Rederos Project," says Emma Norris of Humphries & Jones.

"It’s surprising how often when we are carrying out careful conservation cleaning to a particular object or structure, the public have asked us if we are repainting, as the cleaned original colours can appear so different once the years of accumulated dirt have been painstakingly removed!"


Emma at work on the north transept reredos (Image: St Cuthbert's PCC)

8. Did you kill it?

Lucie Mascord who will be at Lancashire Conservation Studios for HoD says: "In natural history conservation, I most often get asked 'Is it real?' and 'Did you kill it?'. It's important to reassure people and dispel myths about these things!"

Lucie adds: "Many enthusiastic collectors will ask if their cleaning methods are suitable. Many have a great technique but it is good to pass on new tips and get people away from using coke or ketchup!"

9. Why do you have a soda stream?

"The most common question we’re asked by visitors to our conservation studio is 'Why do you have a soda stream?'," says Rhian Diggins, Senior Archivist at Glamorgan Archives, part of Wales' Open Doors day on Saturday 24th September.

"The soda stream is used to make calcium bicarbonate to create de-acidification solution. Of course, we try to give a more digestible answer!"

10. How did you get into conservation?

Claire Woodhead from Hampshire Cultural Trust says: "People often tend to ask 'How did you get into conservation?' They are very good at reminding us how lucky we are to work with lovely objects!"

Will you be at Heritage Open Days? Share your experiences from HoD on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtags #loveconsv and #HODs and you could win a £100 National Trust Gift Card!

Lead mage: Matt Wreford


The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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