Training at Otrar Museum in Shaulder

Written by Miriam Orsini

Today is the last day of training at the museum in Shaulder. It has been two productive weeks, during which we have learned much from each others. The first week focused on training the participants on the basics of conservation of ceramic and glass, metals and wood. Each training session included a short presentation focusing on the degradation and conservation of each material, and was followed by a practical session in which we, together with the museum’s conservators, carried out treatments on artefacts from the museum’s collection.

The first week of training ceramic conservator presented us with a vessel that had been reconstructed and filled in the previous years by another conservator. The object had been reconstructed with Moment glue, which had now started degrading and yellowing. Saritay, the conservator, explained to Assem, our translator,  that he wanted to take the joints apart in order to reconstruct the vessel again with fresh glue and make new fills. As the conservators had never heard of solvent atmosphere, we decided to focus our training session on this specific exercise. As we had no idea what Moment glue was made from we carried out a solubility test and found out that, luckily, it was soluble in acetone. We took out the secret bottle of acetone and, using a polyethylene bag, we set up a solvent chamber. In a few hours, to Saritay’s delight, the joints came apart. We spent the rest of the day cleaning the ceramic fragments and reconstructing the vessel with Paraloid B72.

Meanwhile, during our presentation in the morning, we came across a ceramic vessel affected by salts. Since we knew that many artefacts present in the collection that come from Otrar’s excavation are highly affected by the salty soil, we thought it would be useful to show the conservators how to desalinate them. Since we did not have a container in which to put the ceramic, once again we had to rely on Yamila, who generously let us borrow one of her laundry baskets.

During the first week, we also worked on metals. These were particularly intense days, especially for Assem, who had to translate difficult names, such as corrosion product names, and concepts in both Russian and Kazakh. Since we offered to assist with the conservation of some objects in the collection, the metal conservator, Roza, showed us a selection of coins she works on regularly. Encouraged by us, she showed us her cleaning techniques. She uses a mixture of soda and lime to clean the coins by immersion, and then rubs them with a piece of felt to remove corrosion and residues. Given that the lab at the museum is not equipped with a fume cupboard and the staff has no access to PPE of any sort, we thought it would be a good idea to show Roza how to safely and effectively clean metals using a microscope and a scalpel. Roza, who had never been taught other cleaning methods before and who had never had a chance to use a microscope, was thrilled with the idea, and she spent the rest of the training course making the most of her newly acquired skills and of our microscope.

We spent the rest of the week giving presentations about wood and glass conservation and practising on some of the museum’s objects. We demonstrated different cleaning techniques and showed them how to use the range of supplies that we had brought in, and that we would leave behind for them to use, including smoke sponge, silica gel, acid free tissues and so on.

The second week focused on preventive conservation. The museum staff kindly agreed to let us have a look at the stores. We were introduced to three different rooms, where the ceramic, metals and organic objects were stored. Ciarán and I were very impressed with the way objects were arranged and packed in store, although I nearly fainted when we were taken to the organic store and a cloud of unpleasant smell, coming from the numerous fumigated objects, enveloped us. We spent the rest of the week giving presentation on environmental control and monitoring techniques, IPM and packing techniques. We placed moth traps around the stores and learned how to isolate and control pest infestations. Although preventive conservation is usually not as popular as interventive conservation, as it is less hands on, the days were never boring as one of the conservators in particular, Ruthia, kept fuelling us with many questions on collection and house-keeping care. We discussed how fumigation is no longer performed in the UK and we suggested buying a freezer to treat their infested objects and reduce the amount of toxic vapours in store. However, she explained to us that the museum will probably not be able to afford a freezer, so they are forced to use chemicals to eradicate pests from their objects.

The last day of training the conservator treated us to a luxury tea break. They ushered us to their office where a table was set for us with all sorts of goods ready to be eaten. We tried every single dish on the table and kept going back to the most moreish ones, trying hard not to think that lunch was in one hour and that Yamila would expect us to eat it, while chatting about our various countries and traditions.

In the afternoon we went back to the museum to say goodbye to the conservators and give them the certificates that we had prepared for them. We were welcomed in the same room where we had our breakfast. Before we presented them with their certificates we gave them the left over supplies and the tool kits that we had promised to leave at the beginning of the course. They were delighted with them and happy to know that the conservation companies we contacted back in the UK were able to ship to Kazakhstan. Saritay’s smile broadened when he learned that he could indeed have access to more Paraloid B72!

Finally we gave them their well deserved certificates and took pictures of this special moment. We felt proud of them and incredibly honoured to have had the opportunity to work with them. Despite being renowned among my HwB colleagues for being quite emotional when the time to say goodbye comes, I managed not to break down this time! Instead, we embraced and wished each other good luck, hoping to meet again soon. As we returned to the dig house we took a chance to thank Assem for all her hard work translating for us while attending the course. She also revealed that as a result of taking part in the course she was now very interested in conservation and planned to apply for a master’s degree in conservation next year at UCL Qatar. As we talked about future plans and opportunities, once again I had that feeling that sticks with me at the end of every HwB project, that it truly does provide life-changing experiences!