Day 13. Second workshop at the Otrar Museum

Today Natalie and I ran our second workshop with the Otrar Museum conservators, focussing on the conservation of metal objects. As before, we started the day with a huddle around my laptop for a condensed Powerpoint presentation. This was prepared the night before. Although Natalie and I have brought plenty of source materials with us (and were given some ready-made conservation Powerpoints by HwB), we felt that the presentations really needed to be tailored to the specific needs of the museum - and translated into Russian! – in order to be useful and help open up discussions around conservation practice in the UK and Kazakhstan. This has meant late nights working for the two of us, but it feels really worth it when we see the Otrar conservators taking notes, asking questions and contributing examples from their own practice as we go through the slides.

Talking metals with (l-r) Ania, Sartai, Nurlan, Urzia and Karlaghash

Talking metals with (l-r) Ania, Sartai, Nurlan, Urzia and Karlaghash

At the risk of touting my own horn, I feel that having a Russian speaker on the HwB team this year has been crucial to the project’s success so far, as communicating complex conservation concepts with just pictures and miming would’ve been of limited use at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. For me, translating has been more difficult than one might think: although Russian is my mother tongue, all my conservation education and experience has been in the UK, so learning the correct terminology in Russian has taken some background work. I was also surprised to discover that some basic distinctions we make in the classification of materials – e.g. hard-bodied vs. earthenware ceramics, wrought vs. cast iron – actually don’t exist or are different in Russian. This has added another level of complexity to our workshop prep and my communication task. However, I am very grateful for this challenge, as I feel that I can now talk about conservation in Russian without stumbling over every technical term. I have never considered applying for conservation jobs in Russian-speaking countries before, but would now feel much more confident if the right opportunity came along!

The restorers and collections care workers at the Otrar Museum haven’t had any formal training in conservation, but have had many years of experience and know the materials in their collection very well. I feel that they are not interested in general theoretical concepts or high-tech treatment methods they cannot implement. They have made it clear that they want to know about practical conservation techniques they can apply, materials they can source, and, also, real-life case studies from mine and Natalie’s work experience. So in our workshops, we’ve been trying to strike a balance between keeping things practical and accessible, and not patronising and boring our audience with really basic information. I feel that today has been particularly successful.

In the morning, we talk in detail about the preventive and interventive care of metals in the Otrar Museum collection – iron, copper, silver; archaeological, ethnographic, historical. We show pictures of relevant treatments from our portfolios, and Nurlan, Roza, Sartai, Urzia and Karlaghash ask questions and show us some metal objects in the studio, pre- and post-treatment (more on that later). Collections keeper Karlaghash is particularly interested in the storage and packaging slides, and we agree to do a packaging workshop next week.

At the request of the conservators, we have included a special section on numismatic collections, although neither of us have had much experience with the conservation of coins. But Natalie has done a bit of research, and gathered together some coin cleaning recipes from the British Museum and the like. We were interested to discover that archaeological coins are generally treated quite differently to both archaeological and historical metals. Ancient coins are mostly valued for the historical information derived from their stamping; because of this, aggressive chemical cleaning and the stripping of surface corrosion and patina can be justified if it helps reveal more of the stamped surface. From what we’ve seen of the numismatic displays in Almaty and Turkistan, coin collections in Kazakhstan are treated similarly to those in the West. However, Natalie and I have felt that in the Otrar Museum, this was taken a step further, and many of the coins were being overcleaned to the point of losing surface information in order to achieve a “bright and shiny” look. To demonstrate the effect of overly aggressive surface cleaning, we have brought an HwB microscope from the camp base for the practical session in the afternoon.

One of the more interesting outcomes of this project so far has been an exercise in attitude adjustment for Natalie and I. Working in the UK museums, we are rather used to having access to “basic” lab equipment and materials – microscope, lamps, magnifiers, tools, RH and light meters, deionised water, lab-grade solvents, silica gel, acid free tissue paper, Tyvek and other packaging materials, etc. etc. Budget is always an issue, but we generally know what materials we’ll need for which job, and where to get them (usually over the internet, from 3 or 4 established conservation suppliers). Here, it’s another story. Restorers and fonds workers are used to adapting materials they can get locally – from bazaars, building supply stores, pharmacies, general household shops. While conservation-specific online suppliers are beginning to crop up in Russia (and some things can be ordered from China), online ordering is not common in museums, and available conservation-grade materials are really expensive (at 500 tenge – equivalent to £1 – per sheet, acid-free tissue paper is unlikely to ever become the conservation staple it is in the UK!). So we had to adapt, ask questions, scout local shops, and generally think outside the box. So far, we’ve managed to find sheet polythene, Jiffy foam, acetone and white spirit in a local DIY store, bought isopropyl alcohol and cotton wool from a pharmacy, and got distilled water, cosmetic sponge, citric acid, acetic acid, bicarbonate soda and Tupperware from general-purpose shops in Shaulder. We have also made “home-made Biox” – a gel poultice of wheat starch and 5% citric acid.

But I digress. The afternoon session of today’s workshop was dedicated to practical cleaning and coating exercises on metal objects. For this purpose, we have brought a few samples from the base – rusted nails and tools, etc., as well as several newly excavated metal finds brought by the archaeological team. The conservators try out mechanical cleaning with scalpels, picks and glass fibre brushes under a microscope, chemical swab and poultice cleaning, and syringe consolidation with a dilute solution of Paraloid B-67.

Natalie presents our home-made citric acid poultice

Natalie presents our home-made citric acid poultice

All hands on deck: the practical session gets underway

All hands on deck: the practical session gets underway

Numismatics conservator Roza tries mechanical cleaning under a microscope

Numismatics conservator Roza tries mechanical cleaning under a microscope

Metals conservator Nurlan is particularly impressed with our citric-acid-and-wheat-starch poultice and asks us to show him how to make it. We set about weighing and measuring the ingredients, which prompts a general conversation about preparing percentage solutions. In the Otrar Museum, chemical cleaning solutions are usually mixed by eye, and adhesives are used straight from the tube; weighing scales and measuring cups are nowhere to be seen. I feel that this may be related to the fact that in Kazakhstan museums - from what we’ve observed so far - conservation and restoration tends to be carried out by people from an arts or crafts background, with no formal scientific training. We talk about the value of using consistent percentages for cleaning solutions, and being able to adapt dry powder adhesives to different materials and treatments by varying their dilution ratio. Nurlan helps us mix concentrated citric acid, wheat starch and distilled water in the correct proportion and we all leave the museum to go to an outdoor shed, which houses a DIY electric hob. The hob is normally used by Nurlan to melt large quantities of paraffin wax, which is used for hot-dipping structurally stable historical metal objects, such as 19th century farming tools and horse riding paraphernalia. As we set up the Bain Marie and wait for the wheat starch to cook, the conservators ask questions about our life in the UK, and joke around, promising to set up Natalie and I with jobs in the Otrar Museum and nice Kazakh husbands (Natalie stifles an exasperated post-feminist sigh). For the first time, it feels like we’re sharing a bit of friendly banter, rather than just talking about work.

What's cooking? Nurlan, Maria, Roza, Sartai and Urzia prepare some wheat starch on a hob in the shed

What's cooking? Nurlan, Maria, Roza, Sartai and Urzia prepare some wheat starch on a hob in the shed

As an aside – people tend to marry young in South Kazakhstan, and have large families (divorce is also pretty common and carries relatively little social stigma). Weddings are big business, and almost every night in Shaulder we can see at least one wedding party, complete with fireworks, limos, big meringue dress, loud music and 300+ guests. Family life is largely patriarchal – although most women work, they’re also expected to take care of the house and the kids, and be of service to their husbands’ families. One of the first questions you’re likely to get asked is “Which year were you born in?” (far more common than “How old are you?”), closely followed by “Are you married?”. Neither question is considered rude or too personal.

But, back to the topic at hand. Happy with our poultice concoction, Nurlan announces that he intends to make a few litres of it and mass-clean the metals collection; Natalie is worried that he may not be entirely joking, and emphasises the value of moderation and testing. Back in the studio, we talk about microcrystalline wax coating and try out cold and hot application on an old hammer we brought from the camp. Unlike paraffin and beeswax, microcrystalline wax is not readily available in South Kazakhstan, but can be ordered online. I agree to make a “shopping list” of useful conservation materials, and write down the websites of Russian suppliers.

Before we finish, ceramics conservator Sartai shows us his method of doing plaster fills on archaeological earthenware ceramics. To make a back mould, Sartai uses a rolled sheet of plasticine in the same way we use sheet dental wax, and shapes it around an intact rim area before moving the mould over to cover the missing section. He then adds plaster to watered-down PVA to make a relatively thick mixture, which he uses to fill the missing section. As the plaster sets, Sartai quickly shapes and smoothes it down with a flat tool fashioned from an old hacksaw blade. Within 10-15 minutes, the fill is done, and it looks neat and bubble-free. This is different to how Natalie and I would’ve done it, but we’re definitely impressed with Sartai’s productivity!

Sartai working on the ceramic pot

Sartai working on the ceramic pot

We talk a bit about adhesives for earthenware ceramics, and find out that Sartai tends to use a ready-made adhesive called Moment. I remember Moment from my childhood in Russia, as a ubiquitous UHU-style instant glue which had a very strong grip and tended to discolour with time. Needless to say, I would not recommend it for ceramics conservation, and say as much. The conservators then show us a bag of white powder adhesive called BMK-K5, which their manager has recently brought back from a work trip to Moscow. I take a small sample to test in the lab. Looking it up online, it appears to be an acrylic and kaolin (mineral clay) adhesive, soluble in acetone. This seems promising, and could be a potential alternative to Paraloid, which does not seem to be available in Kazakhstan or Russia. Natalie and I also have some doubts about the practicality of using Paraloid in the Kazakh climate, with its extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Bumpy roads and current unavailability of proper packaging and transport for museum objects also bear thinking about when considering the relative strength of structural repairs.

Back in the camp, we talk about the workshop, and Natalie expresses a concern about sharing interventive techniques – like chemical poultice cleaning – with fellow conservators who haven’t been through the same ethical and scientific training as we have. She mentions Nurlan’s earlier tongue-in-cheek comment about the mass poultice cleaning of metal objects, and worries that we may inadvertently contribute to collections damage if the techniques we show are used indiscriminately and overzealously. I see her point, but argue that we’ve done all we could to share both ethical and technical aspects of current conservation practice in the UK, and if we’ve managed to show the local conservators something they actually want and are able to implement, then it can only be a good thing.  At the end of the day, it is not our place to impose ‘our’ conservation values on other people’s heritage. Natalie and I have been having a lot of interesting discussions from the start of the project – perhaps it would be good to do a joint conference presentation about this at some point.

In the evening, we get a phone call from Aisulu, the archaeologist-come-conservator we’ve met in Turkistan on Day 9. She has spoken to her colleagues in Shymkent and Turkistan museums, and apparently everyone got really excited about the possibility of having a Heritage without Borders conservation workshop! We tentatively plan a trip to Turkistan next week and another one to Shymkent the week after. I promise to send Aisulu a list of possible themes for the day sessions. How exciting!