To prepare for this program, I enrolled in the online Future Learn – A History of Royal Food and Feasting course. The course was organized by Historic Royal Palaces alongside the University of Reading. It was a really wonderful introduction to food and royalty. Hampton Court featured quite significantly in the lectures so I was very prepared for a day at the Palace exploring and listening to the experts. We had three sessions that focused on conservation and curatorial practices. The morning was dedicated to learning about preventative and treatment conservation from Kathryn Hallett and Mika Takami. I do have more of an interest in preventative conservation having had amazing mentors, Monica Cronin, Virginia Gordon, and Kate Childlow, introduce me to some of the basics.
Part of our initial discussion with Kathryn was on the ten agents of deterioration. Before delving into what these are it is important to note that the role of preventative conservation is to minimise the risks that fall under the following ten categories.
1. Direct physical force – this includes damage by visitors and staff from handling or touching objects
2. Thieves and Vandals – theft of objects is self explanatory and vandals include those that deface objects with political or other messages
5. Pests – moths are particularly terrible when it comes to textile conservation
6. Contaminants – this includes dust that can become problematic if left to harden on an object
7. Light and Radiation
8. Inappropriate Temperature
10. Disassociation – when an object is disassociated from its archival or other information
Out of all ten, the key risks for Hampton Court are direct physical force and light/humidity. Considering their prized objects are textiles, specifically tapestries, maintaining stable environmental conditions are of top priority. To give you an idea of how marvelous these tapestries are, Henry VIII once spent the same amount of money on a tapestry that he would a war ship. Needless to say they are impressive objects and tell their own wonderful stories.
Our activity for this section was to note the risks in the Queens Gallery to the tapestries. In groups of four we examined the room and documented what efforts were already underway to prevent damage. The following were highlights:
1. Natural light was being controlled by large blackout curtains, window UV filters, and mesh curtains
2. Humidity monitors were documenting fluctuations in the room throughout the day
3. There were bug traps in the fireplace
4. Perplex glass had been placed over parts of the tapestry that could be accidentally bumped or touched
Our next session reinforced a lot of what we had learnt in the first session, but, provided us with a slightly different activity. We had actual hands-on experience conserving an 18th century piece of fabric. It is safe to say that I don’t think I have the patience required for that kind of work. Yet again, my respect for conservators has been pushed to new heights.
In the afternoon we had Polly Putnam talk about her role as curator. She basically summarised the role in three words: research, protection, and communication. Or in other words, know what you’re looking at, protect it, and communicate its significance or purpose to your audience. One of the things I have enjoyed most about this program is how each professional provides us with an overview of how their background and career path. Polly provided us not only with her personal background, but also, a general idea of the steps it takes to become a curator. Obviously there is no hard and fast rule and there are different paths and individual can take. It was nice to have some idea of expectations etc.
Our final activity for the day was creating an object label of 30 words for a Hoover Vacuum cleaner. This belonged to Lady Manning, a resident of one of the Grace and Favour apartments in the palace. She passed away during the 1990s and many of her possessions are now in the collection of Historic Royal Palaces. Grace and Favour apartments were provided by the Crown to those who were deemed worthy. Lady Manning’s husband fought valiantly in both World Wars. When she became a widow, she was allocated an apartment.
Our object label tried to capture this social history context of the vacuum:
“They don’t make things like they used to! This trusty vacuum was used by Lady Manning continuously for almost 60 years while she resides in the Grace and Favour apartments.”
It was particularly satisfying that our label was exactly 30 words. We did receive one last piece of advice that I will use to conclude this blog post. There is a difference between ‘dumbing something down’ and simplifying it. If you can’t read an object label in a David Attenborough voice and think, does this sound like something he’d say, scrap it. The line between too obvious and too complicated is very fine and it’s important that work goes into striking a balance!