A Game-Changing 2 days in Stirling

Historic Environment Scotland: Monuments in Monuments 2019
Monday2 September  – Wednesday 4 September 2019 Engine Shed, Stirling

Meredith Macbeth – Conference Review

Autumn has absolutely flown by and the Monuments in Monuments 2019 Conference seems like a distant memory, but for me, the impact certainly lives on. MiM 2019 took place over three days in early September 2019. The speakers ranged from the technical to the theoretical. There were case studies and papers on policy, and a big focus on climate change and its effects on the historic environment. To catch up with friends old and new and to find out what lies in the heart of stone conservation today, all from the hub of the buzzing Engine Shed in Stirling made the experience more than beneficial. Attendees were able to explore notable sites in the Central belt which really gave the opportunity to tap into the work that is being done in Scotland. Delegates were able to choose from  Fossil Grove, Glasgow Cathedral or  Glasgow Necropolis on the first day. On the third day, delegates were able to choose between Dunblane Cathedral/Leighton Library, British Geological Survey or the South Gyle Conservation Centre. With such interesting options, it was hard to choose! And while I was unable to attend it, the ceilidh at Stirling Castle appeared to be a massive hit with more than a few bleary eyes and heads the next morning!

Monuments in Monuments 2019: the beginning of the conference.

I am fortunate enough to have a “dream position” job with Orkney Islands Council working at the extraordinary St. Magnus Cathedral – where I am the sole Stone Mason/Conservator. The job has its challenges but being able to exist within the red and white sandstone walls of St. Magnus is an absolute privilege. My tasks are quite varied from taking lime samples and helping to plan our next 10 years of work, through to changing lightbulbs and clearing drains. Every day is different and with big works on the horizon, every month and year will be different. Sourcing local stone continues to be a tough issue and working within a Council budget and bureaucracy also continues to be an opportunity for a challenge, although slightly less fun than taking samples from closed quarries.

I was given the opportunity to attend MiM 2019 and represent ICON Scotland as a representative on the Group’s “Trade Stand”. I was absolutely delighted to represent ICON Scotland and had many interesting chats with fellow members and interested parties while answering queries on the stand.

Meredith Macbeth representing ICON Scotland on the Group’s “Trade Stand”.

I found myself thinking “What a fast two years it has been since I attended the opening of the Engine Shed!”. I am always so pleased to step over the threshold as I know I will be greeted by a group of cheery folks passionate about the historic environment. Arriving at MiM 2019 was no different and more exciting as an international conference, we had the opportunity to ‘show off’ the Engine Shed and the impressive works undertaken by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

I’ve been working in conservation since 2008 and I was really struck at this conference to see the radical improvement and accessibility of technology since then. It was exciting to see technology being assimilated and used well, primarily for documentation and interpretation. It was brilliant to see and certainly encouraged me to “up my game”. The use of drones (Brian Johnston, Queen’s University) for example, time-lapse cameras, (Sarah Hamilton, HES) thermal imaging (Kinley Laidlaw) and not to mention all the 3D recording. Exciting times! Inspired by this conference, I have recently employed Orkney Sky Cam to survey our East Window, internally and externally. Having such a set of high-resolution photos and videos is so useful for planning and worth their weight in high-level gold!

I found it incredibly heartening to see the community that came together at MiM 2019 with conservation as a common interest. There were speakers from all over the world including Ethiopia, New Mexico, Switzerland, Isle of Man, Washington D.C. and Italy all sharing their cultures, work and concerns, absolutely wonderful to see new sites and ponder new challenges. Blen Gemeda’s (Oxford University) talk on medieval rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia was visually stunning and an interesting challenge. The ongoing preservation of the inscriptions at El Morro National Monument by Angelyn Bass and Katharine Williams (University of New Mexico) was intriguing, not only the history of the inscriptions themselves but the history of the conservation of the inscriptions themselves.

Another unique question which was discussed at this event was the footprint of the Conservator. Should viewers and historians be aware of conservators’ interventions within the history of the object?  It was even asked- should a conservator always intervene? This was such an alluring topic, as so many treatments of the past have been done in good faith but certainly to the determent of the object or site itself; Portland Cement has kept a good many stone conservator in employment. Paul Wooles intriguingly discussed the merit of ferrous fixings, asking if  Conservators are too quick to remove them. Yes, I thought, they can be hazardous to stonework but at the same time, they are fabulous tell-tales for moisture movement and often part of the history of the object. Ending the conference was David Harkin from HES, speaking about ‘Cultural Heritage and Climate Change’. I have seen David speak before and he is always a delight, albeit his subject matter less cheery and optimistic. He manages to explain how climate breakdown impacts our everyday lives, but also how it will impact our historic building stock. This can be useful to raise the awareness of a modern conservator. Those treatments that worked in the past may not work now – due to our changing climate.

Although I have many colleagues, I am a one-man-band when it comes to the conservation and stone care at St. Magnus Cathedral. Conservation, in general, can involve quite a bit of solo work, so for me coming together with fellow professionals for a few days in September was much needed.  I have mentioned a few examples that really inspired me, but so many other little snippets have stuck with me – Christine Bläuer’s keynote advice on how to translate the meaning of your results to the stakeholders has helped me in my work. Christa Gerdwilker’s advice to take a holistic view and be able to question your approach has helped me too. A keynote tip from Sara Croft – that we should champion our profession and the skills, knowledge and judgment that we all bring to our own jobs was massively inspirational. Also Sara’s advice about setting out on the Accreditation process – don’t hold back there, get involved.

It was a wonderful few days and I would like to thank Christa Gerdwilker and her team for pulling together such an inspirational event.

Meredith Macbeth is the Stone Mason/Conservator at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney. You can contact her at meredith.macbeth@orkney.gov.uk or on her sleepy twitter account @MeMacbeth.
Many thanks again to Christa Gerdwilker, ICON Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and the Friends of St. Magnus Cathedral for making this opportunity possible.


Managing Moths at Newhailes House

Newhailes House brings three centuries of history to life. Originally built in the 17th century, this Palladian house was owned by the influential Dalrymple family and featured prominently during the Scottish Enlightenment. The National Trust for Scotland, through the Collections Conservation team, is embarking on a 4-month integrated pest management project to manage the moths at Newhailes House.

The project will involve treating a number of objects in the property for moths as well as a deep clean of affected rooms. We’re looking for a team of volunteers to help complete the project from mid-January through the end of March 2019.

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Conservation Internship at Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

In this week’s blog, we hear from Katharine Richardson, Conservation Intern at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh…

I am currently mid-way into a 10-week internship with the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the Edinburgh University Library. Having spent the last four years working in historic houses, I was keen to gain experience in a different working environment. I’m thrilled to have been given this opportunity to work with the research collections at Edinburgh University. It has been very interesting to learn about the challenges of managing a working research collection and the conservation issues that come with it.

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‘Channelling the Insect’ – Integrated Pest Management at National Museums Scotland

Every year National Museums Scotland (NMS) runs a series of workshops that aim to share knowledge of heritage related skills across the museum community. These popular workshops are free and cover a range of topics from collections care to handling skills. I recently had to opportunity to attend a workshop on Integrated Pest Management at the National Museum Scotland hosted by Preventative Conservation Officer, Catherine Haworth.

A wide variety of professionals attended the workshop from interns and volunteers working in large institutions to collection care managers in historic houses. Some had little or no experience of preventative conservation while others had come to refresh their knowledge of pest managment.

The day began with an overview of what Integrated Pest Management (IPM) actually is. IPM aims to prevent infestation of pests before it becomes a problem by monitoring for insects and modifying the environment to discourage pest activity.

In order to monitor for pests, we firstly needed to know what types of materials are at risk. Organic materials such as wood, silk and seeds are mostly in danger of infestation. Collagen based material such as fur, feathers, wool and vellum are also particularly tasty to pests.

Now that we understood what were the vulnerable items in our collections were, we went on to look at the types of pests are attracted to these objects. Furniture beetles, carpet beetles, moths and silverfish were all described in detail along with their favourite collections snack.

Next we had a series of exercises to put this new knowledge into practise. One exercise I found particularly useful was looking at photographs of objects that had been damaged, but there were no pests to be found. We had to identify the pest by looking at the type of damage and the debris left behind. I thought this could be easily applied to a real life situation, as often the insects could be gone by the time the damage is discovered.

After a fabulous lunch, we moved on to putting IPM into practise. Firstly monitoring pests through blunder and pheromone traps was explained; when and where to place the traps, as well as how often to check them. One top tip Catherine gave us was to cut a pheromone trap in half and stick it on to a sticky trap. This not only saves time as there is only one trap to check, but it also saves money as only half a pheromone trap is being used each time. The importance of good housekeeping and reducing the risk of pest by changing the environment was also highlighted in this section.

The NMS quarantine procedure was then described. This was a fairly simple procedure, that again could be used in a range of institutions. At NMS all new collections items are placed in a freezer at -30°C for 7 days. However, a commercial freezer that goes down to -18°C could also be used for a longer period of time to have the same results. This is simple way of killing any pests, before they have the opportunity to enter the building.

No matter how careful we are, there is always the risk of infestation. So treatment of object was also discussed. Treatment often depends on the object rather than the pest itself. For example, a heat treatment couldn’t be used for a wax object. However, certain treatments are not as effective for some pests.

To put this new learning into use, we were given a practical exercise to prepare an object for quarantine. We were asked to wrap a chair with tissue paper and polypropylene sheeting in preparation for freezing. The results of the 5 groups were very different. Some wrapped the chair very tightly with tissue and sheeting, while others wrapped theirs loosely. When this was completed, we compared results, and were told the NMS method of doing this. NMS suggests wrapping the object with tissue paper tied with cotton tape and using a plastic sheet (preferably one sealed on two edges, like a tube) to cover it with as little openings as possible so there it less to tape (quicker to cover and take off again at the end!). This was very different to what my group had done with lots of separate sheets cut to the lengths of different parts of the chair and stuck with lots of tape! I thought this was a good way of demonstrating the technique as getting it wrong means I will always remember not to do it like that again! It also made us think about the practicalities of wrapping, and unwrapping it which we wouldn’t have appreciated if it was just explained in through a powerpoint presentation.

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Finally, we heard about the NMS IPM policy and had a brief introduction to how to set up our own policy. Overall, I thought that the whole day was really well put together, and the mixture of talking and practical activities worked well. The informal atmosphere encouraged discussion and we were able to compare different pest problems from all our places of work. These types of workshop offer a great opportunity to learn about subjects that may not be accessible for all institutions, especially low funded or volunteer-led organisations. This not only helps to promote and aid understanding of the conservation sector but provides better care for our shared cultural heritage.

I will leave you with one piece of sage advice gained from the day; “channel the insect”. When dealing with a pest infestation or considering an IPM policy, put yourself into the mind of the insect. Where would you hide? What would you eat? and how would you enter the store if you were a pest? This will help you create a successful IPM policy and keep calm when finding unknown creatures in your collections! However, if you are channelling the insect, just remember not to eat that tasty looking stuffed parrot at the back of the cupboard….

Emily Hick

Project Conservator

Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University