First Day of Teaching

By Miriam Orsini

The next day was our first day of teaching at the museum. It was 3:15 when we decided to go look for our participants at the museum, since they had not turned up yet, and we started fearing that we had made a bad impression on them and they had stood us up.  We were very relieved to learn that they hadn’t fled, but we just had a bad translation misunderstanding and they were in fact waiting for us in the museum’s ceramic lab which is where we had agreed, this time without any mistranslations, we would be doing the training for its duration.

First of all, they took us for a tour of the lab. Well, not really a tour since the lab is quite small and all of us filled the room, making it impossible to move. The ceramic lab is filled with beautiful objects! To a UK conservator this may look more like a workshop than a lab as we understand it in the UK. No white, sterile surfaces to be seen, no lab coats hanging at the door, no microscope or fancy equipment, no computers, no fume cupboards, no solvents cupboards... In fact, in Kazakhstan things work differently from where we are from, and we were eager to find out more! 

So the first half an hour went by with Ciarán and me asking lots of questions about Kazakh conservation.

This is what we learned:

First of all, there is no formal training in Kazakhstan for aspiring conservators. In essence, conservation in the country is still very much in an embryonic phase, as it was in our countries in the past. However, this should not lead to think that Kazakh conservators are unskilled. Quite the opposite in fact. As they showed us their on going conservation projects, mostly on ceramics and coins, we soon realised that their skills were so advanced that the sight of their ceramic fills made me and Ciarán think that perhaps it was us who needed to be trained by them. The idea of learning from each other got me and Ciarán very excited, as we saw the opportunity for a true exchange of information. They told us that they had attended many training sessions in conservation that were organised in the region by different international organisations, and that they had learned to conserve objects from international experts from Japan and Russia. Well, that put us under some pressure!

As we showed the first slide of our first presentation “What is conservation?” the tour guide acting as our translator looked at us puzzled and confused, and told us that perhaps there was no need to explain to conservators what conservation is. However, we managed to convince him that we were sure an interesting debate would generate from this and so he, still very puzzled, begun to translate.

And so, as the Kazakh conservators began to explain what conservation was for them, and as we gave our definition of conservation, soon the conversation turned into an amusing realisation that we had very different views. This was extremely interesting for us, and hopefully for them. In Kazakhstan conservation is to be intended as something in between ‘our’ idea of conservation and ‘our’ idea of restoration. We learned that we share many similar conservation processes and concepts, but that the materials that are used in Kazakhstan are very different from what we use, with some exceptions. We all laughed when the ceramic conservator presented us with a water bottle filled with milky looking liquid and told us that this was what he used for ceramica (ceramics). And so after a few exchanges with the translator, ever so lost in translation, holding a phone with google translate on it, somebody said the magic word.. PË-VË-A! Yes, this was PVA!! They use it to strength their ceramic fills. After all things here are not so different from where we are from! We also learned that they use a type of powdery glue, that they mix with acetone and which was left over by conservators from one of the UNESCO projects and that looks very similar to our Paraloid B72.

They showed us many examples of ceramic reconstruction and gap filling and we explained to them that, although in the UK we do not tend to fill every gap on a reconstructed vessel, we also used plastiline as a moulding material and gypsum (plaster of Paris) as gap filling material. They also showed us some reconstructed ceramics, and expressed us their frustration in the yellow marks left by the ageing glue, a type of Super glue called Moment that they use copiously, on the beautifully put together vessels. And it was at this point that we mentioned Paraloid B72, and little we knew that this would be the centre of the second hour of training. Questions about the magic glue, that doesn’t yellow and can be removed, started to rain down on us and after a few attempts to move the conversation back to Handling and Health and Safety, the subject of our second presentation, we gave up and found ourselves singing the praises of Paraloid B72.

Then they asked us, 'What do you mix Paraloid with?' and we replied, ‘Acetone!’. After a few minutes of confusion, as here they call Acetone what we call White Spirit, their joy at having found the perfect glue that is going to make their pots look great, slowly disappeared. In Kazakhstan Acetone was banned during the Soviet period and no longer available since. A secret bottle, donated by one of the UNESCO conservator to one of the conservators at Otrar museum miraculously made its appearance in the lab, and we were told that we could use it to show them how to mix Paraloid. So we did.

We felt really sorry at their disappointment, but we felt a little better when they smiled at the new that we will leave our supplies, including Paraloid, to them. Availability of supplies outside Europe is always a sad note for HWB volunteers. We promote many materials that in some countries simply are a long way from being made available, and this is a problem that we cannot overcome on our own. Hopefully things will slowly change in this part of the world and conservation materials will become more readily available.

In the meantime we will do our best to find replacement materials to keep our wonderful Kazakh conservators smiling! 

In the meantime, our archaeologists’ team keeps working hard on site. Nothing stops them from digging, not even a sand storm!

Sand storm on site, by John Fisher

Sand storm on site, by John Fisher