Rural Object Conservation FAQs

George Monger Bsc. MA FMA FIIC ACR is an Accredited Conservator (ACR) by the Institute for Conservation (ICON) with over forty-five years’ experience working with national and local history museums. He has worked with both traditional and modern materials and is often commissioned to undertake work on unusual and difficult objects. 

George was therefore the obvious candidate to answer our conservation conundrums.  Following a Rural Museums Network seminar answering our queries, we asked George to respond to some frequently asked questions.

Click on one of the questions below to be taken to George’s response:

What’s the best way to provide safe storage for large objects outside?

The initial question referred to two large metal tractor drawn implements too large to be taken into a store and how they could be protected from the weather. This can be difficult because any covering will be degraded by the sun, rain, frost and snow, and my experience is that once covered it is easy to forget and ignore the item – out of sight and out of mind. The covering will probably not prevent deterioration or the seizing of moving components.

However, covering such objects may be the best solution to retard deterioration and I suggest the following steps be taken.

  1. Give the item a thorough clean removing old dirt, grease and oil. Re-grease moving parts where necessary.
  2. Paint or spray with clear Waxoyl – diluted 1:1 with white spirit. Make sure it gets into crevices and internal parts (remember that components such as tanks can corrode from the inside too).
  3. Loosely (but securely) cover with a tarpaulin. Check the integrity of the tarpaulin annually.
  4. Alternatively, construct a shelter over the item using scaffold poles and cover with tarpaulin sheet.

How can I create a maintenance checklist?

Many Social History, open air, rural and industrial museums have collection items which are operated. It is important that such machines are operated within their safe parameters, and indeed below its operating limits to reduce strain on historic materials and construction. Time and degradation will have taken its toll on the integrity and strength of the materials. New replacement parts may have been fitted for safety, but these will be operating with a framework of aged components.

However, before opting to operate an object there should be good compelling reasons for the operation because the wear and tear could be detrimental to original material (although the concept of what is ‘original’ could be a matter of debate; for example, should we consider the object as it is taken into the museum as ‘original’ and the parts, components and materials within the object as having to be conserved / preserved?). In some instances, the running/operation will actually help preserve an object ensuring internal lubrication and preventing a build-up of corrosion.

Any historic machine and equipment will need to be maintained to ensure safe operation, both for the operator and the object. It is advisable to prepare a written maintenance and operation manual for any object and develop a maintenance and operation logbook.

  1. If you can source an original operation handbook, use this as a basis for operator training and a maintenance checklist and programme.
  2. Prepare an operating logbook for each object. This logbook should include:
  3. the dates and times of the operation names of operator(s) or driver(s)
  4. Hours of operation
  5. A ‘before operation’ checklist
  6. Any faults or problems encountered – the logbook should include a column where the rectification of faults is noted – what was done, when, and by whom.
  7. Each item should also have documentation of weekly, monthly and annual itemised maintenance checklists, which should be signed and dated to note that the work has been done.

The Canal and River Trust heritage sector has developed instructional sheets for boat maintenance – each sheet instructs on the frequency of the maintenance work, the tools, materials and equipment required, the expected time it should take and a step-by-step instructions on how the work should be carried out. This is an idea worth considering for all operational objects.

What advice would you give for using volunteers for restoration/conservation projects?

First, it is important to remember that there can be a vast difference between a restoration and a conservation project.

Restoration to working condition usually involves taking the object beyond the needs for conservation or preservation. It is important for the museum to be clear why a machine is being restored to working condition. Restoration may require substantial replacement of parts, and may hide historical information and evidence of use.

Before a project is carried out the volunteer group should have some training in the basic tenants of museum conservation and be given clear guidelines.

There should be good research before undertaking any work, and a clear work programme developed. For example, it should not be repainted in a style which it is imagined it may have – many years ago I recall a pair of ploughing engines being purchased by a museum, one of which was partially ‘restored’ with lining out which it would never have had (although this was subsequently removed).

In summary:

  1. Be clear why the item is being restored
  2. Undertake a condition survey of the item and undertake research into the object
  3. Develop an outline work programme (this may need to be amended during the work.
  4. Arrange training in conservation/restoration for the volunteer group to help understanding of the museum requirements. Hopefully to develop critical thinking and good observation regarding historical evidence
  5. Ensure a clarity of responsibility and necessary supervision.
  6. Document – written and photographic – all the stages of the work. Include
  7. Requirements
  8. Suggested treatment/material
  9. Agreement from the supervisor (curator)
  10. Notes of what was done / used.

If the work is being carried out by a volunteer group it may be useful to have a day-to-day logbook so that the whole group can keep tabs on where they have got to in the work.

How do you treat mystery objects?

It is not always necessary to know what something is or does before cleaning (although there are instances where this may be helpful). Indeed, cleaning may help to elucidate the purpose or working of an object.

However, there may be cases where there could be hidden blades or hazardous components (asbestos, poisons), so there may be instances where PPE should be worn and the object carefully inspected before any work is carried out.

What’s the best way to deal with woodworm?

Woodworm, or common furniture beetle (anobium punctatum) is very common in rural museum collections. They are not the only wood boring beetle, however, – buildings may have death watch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum), and powder-post beetle (Lyctus brunneus) may be damaging baskets and other softwoods – to mention just two more wood borers.

The thing about wood borers is that the larvae, which do the damage, can be feeding and boring in the wood for a long time and you will only know that the wood has been infested when the adult beetle bites its way out of the wood and flies leaving the characteristic woodworm exit hole. In the words of the song ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’.

The holes therefore indicate that the object has had woodworm, but there is a chance that other wooden materials can be infected.

The life cycle, in precis, is that the beetles fly and mate, eggs are laid in end grain or crevices in the wood (and sometimes old exit holes) – not on smooth or shiny surfaces – the eggs hatch straight into the wood, the larvae feed on the wood until they are ready to form a pupae near the wood surface, and after a while the pupa develops into the beetle which bites its way out of the wood to fly and mate.

The beetles usually emerge between May and September (though there may be shifts in this period due to climate change). New exit holes appear clean and often shed frass. Old holes are dark and do not usually shed frass.

The species of wood borer can be determined by the size and shape of the exit hole and by examining the shape of the frass under a microscope.

There are a number of approaches to treatment, some of which are not practical for many museums or for some objects.

  • Commercial wood treatments (clear treatments) painted, sprayed or injected into exit holes. The active ingredient is usually Permetherin and gives some residual protection. However, these will not penetrate painted or varnished surfaces.
  • Freezing. However, the object should be taken down to at least c-23oC. for 48 to 72 hours. This will destroy any infestation but will give no protection against further infestation.
  • The Thermo-lignum treatment using heat in a controlled environment (shoving things in the oven or microwave will just cook/damage the object).
  • Anoxia treatment – removing the oxygen in a chamber for a long-enough period
  • Fumigation within a chamber with a poisonous gas.

The first treatment is more practical for most Rural Museum Network museums. However, as we can guess that objects in many rural museums will have ‘woodworm’ we cannot always be sure. If there is frass around an exit hole there is a possibility that there may be more larvae pupae developing into the beetle.

Put down pest monitoring blunder traps and check windowsills for evidence of the adult beetle (the beetles will fly to the light and may crash against the window glass). There may be exit holes, but these do not necessarily suggest that there is active infestation.