Day 6. First visit to the Otrar Museum stores, first conservation workshop at the UNESCO camp.

The Otrar Museum is a two-minute walk from our camp. The building is still undergoing refurbishment and refitting, and is not currently open to the public. We have briefly met the museum conservators for the first time yesterday, and today got our proper introduction with a visit to the collection stores. As we have already learned, conservation duties at the Otrar museum are divided between the Collections Care department (‘Fonds’) and Conservation (‘Restoration’). This morning, we were shown around the stores by Fonds keeper Karlaghash, who is responsible for all registration and preventive conservation. We couldn’t have wished for a better guide! Karlaghash is very passionate about her work and runs a tight ship at the Otrar Museum. She is from Almaty and speaks fluent Russian (Russian is widely understood here, but isn’t generally used in everyday communication, like it is in the cities), so I had no problem chatting to her and translating for Natalie and UCLQ conservation student Lisa. Textiles conservator Urzia, metals conservator Nurlan, ceramics conservator Sartai and scientific researcher Gulnaz have also accompanied us to some of the stores.

The conservation lab in the Otrar Museum. From left to right: Otrar Museum conservators Sartai, Zhanuzak, Urzia, Gulnaz, Nurlan and Baurzhan, HwB volunteers Natalie and Maria, UCLQ conservation student Lisa and Institute of Archaeology researcher Ania.

The conservation lab in the Otrar Museum. From left to right: Otrar Museum conservators Sartai, Zhanuzak, Urzia, Gulnaz, Nurlan and Baurzhan, HwB volunteers Natalie and Maria, UCLQ conservation student Lisa and Institute of Archaeology researcher Ania.

On the whole, the stores at the Otrar Museum are clean and well organised. Objects are stored separately by material (ceramics, metals, textiles, wood, with separate cabinets for leather, coins and books), organised by type and accession number, and are easily accessible on long metal racking shelves. One of the main issues is the lack of environmental control, leading to both high and low RH periods throughout the year, and uncontrolled daily fluctuations. Karlaghash is well aware of the issue and is trying to get a portable thermohygrometer to start a monitoring plan. In the meantime, the museum conservators are trying to mitigate the extremes in ambient RH by airing out the stores when the weather is wet, and keeping the doors closed and the floor sprinkled with water during dry periods.

The textile store is densely packed, and has had recurring clothes moth infestations. To combat the problem, the flat textiles are wrapped in white cotton fabric together with strong-smelling herbs, which ostensibly act as an insect repellent. In addition, once a year the entire store is fumigated and the textiles are heat treated by wrapping in black plastic and leaving them out in the sun for a few hours. This may not be the IPM procedures we’re used to seeing in the UK, but the current measures appear to be quite effective. Last year, the HWB team have talked to the Otrar Museum conservators about freezer treatments, but it seems to be logistically difficult to implement here. Urzia and Karlaghash are hoping to carry out the annual heat treatments later this month, when the summer heat really kicks in, and Natalie and I have asked to help out. We will keep you updated on how that goes!

Natalie and I have also noticed that the small costume collection in store did not have cotton covers and was simply hung on unpadded hangers on a rack. Karlaghash explained that making individual covers for the costumes was on her list of things to do. We are hoping to include a practical session on padding hangers and making tie-on fabric covers in our textiles conservation workshop.

The Otrar Museum collection is still growing, with dozens, if not hundreds of new objects accessioned each year. The bulk of new objects are significant archaeological finds excavated from local sites. The large collection of archaeological ceramics has been extensively restored, using plastecine for moulding and plaster for modelling and filling. Many earthenware pots have large plaster fills, although re-modelling of lost fragments is only carried out if there is enough original material to determine the features of the object; plaster additions are usually not retouched but left white. We are hoping to show the Otrar conservators alternative filling and sticking techniques in our practical ceramics workshop, although we are aware that Paraloid B72 and microballoons fills, favoured by UK conservators, may not be suitable here due to high ambient temperature in the summer.

A key role of Kazakh museums seems to be in demonstrating and raising public awareness of national history and heritage; as a result museum practice in general tends to lean more towards revelation and interpretation, rather than material preservation. This makes sense to me, as Kazakhstan as a nation is recovering from seventy years of Soviet cultural colonialism and pro-Russian history education, which envisioned Kazakhstan as a nation of nomads with scant material culture and production skills. New Kazakh nationalism and religious revival go hand in hand with the desire to see the amazing variety and intricacy of precious objects found on ancient sites. In my opinion, this social context influences many aspects of Kazakh heritage culture, including a more interventive approach to conservation.

During lunch break, Natalie and I have organised our lab space in the UNESCO camp, and went to the local building supply shop with Institute of Archaeology students Katya and Farrukh. We managed to get more lab supplies, including brushes, masking tape, sheet polythene, and Jiffy foam (which is used in building as insulation material). We also bought some ‘acetone’ - the purity of this solvent is somewhat suspect, but part of our aim is to source materials locally, so we plan to carry out some experiments in the lab to determine its suitability. Isopropyl alcohol was more readily available from the pharmacy and we managed to find large bottles of distilled water.

On the way to the shops. Farm animals can often be seen wandering around town. These donkeys and sheep were spotted sheltering from the sun at a petrol station!

On the way to the shops. Farm animals can often be seen wandering around town. These donkeys and sheep were spotted sheltering from the sun at a petrol station!

Say ірімшік!

Say ірімшік!

In the afternoon, we came back to the museum and Karlaghash showed us some of the collection documentation. As far as I know, last year the HWB volunteers were not shown much in the way of paperwork, possibly due to the language barrier and general caution about involving outsiders in internal administrative practices. It was incredibly insightful. Natalie, Lisa and I were struck by how similar object documentation in Otrar was to the standard records in western museums. If anything, it was more consistent and comprehensive than in many UK institutions!  All objects in the museum are listed by their accession number in the main collection register, and each store has its own object list, used for object movement and regular audits. In addition, each object has a double-sided laminated card, similar to lab record sheets used by some conservation departments in the UK, which includes a photograph of the object, its title and accession number, dimensions and a brief object description and condition summary. All object photography is of high quality and carried out by another member of staff, Hamid, who used to create detailed record drawings of the objects but is now responsible for digital photography and upkeep of the image database. Since 2012, the Otrar Museum has been organising touring national exhibitions, which have been very popular. Each exhibition is documented by a full report, including loan agreements, object lists, press clippings and installation photography. We haven’t yet seen any conservation treatment reports, which apparently are kept in the conservation lab, but the rest of the documentation is well organised and easily accessible. The digitisation of collections documentation has only been started last year, and at the moment mostly consists of Word and Excel tables mirroring the museum’s paper documentation. Natalie and I are planning to include a few examples of simple digital filing systems in our documentation workshop next week.

Object record card from the Otrar Museum. When the museum first opened in 1979 the cards had to be written in Russian, but now all museum documentation is done in Kazakh.

Object record card from the Otrar Museum. When the museum first opened in 1979 the cards had to be written in Russian, but now all museum documentation is done in Kazakh.

Checking out the image database with Documentation Officer Hamid and Collections Keeper Karlaghash.

Checking out the image database with Documentation Officer Hamid and Collections Keeper Karlaghash.

As we were saying goodbye for the day, the Otrar Museum conservators asked if we could show them some treatment case studies and talk more about our work in the UK museums. We have already prepared some PowerPoint presentations, examples of conservation documentation, and samples of commonly-used conservation materials, which we are planning to take to the museum tomorrow to properly introduce ourselves. We will also discuss the proposed workshop schedule with the conservators and finalise the programme for the next three weeks.

Back at the camp, Natalie and I quickly set up for an evening conservation session with the UCLQ archaeology students, who have come back from the site. Each night after dinner we tend to have an informal lecture or workshop on topics related to archaeology, conservation, or the history of the region. Tonight was our turn to present, and we decided to give a brief practical introduction to conservation cleaning, including dry cleaning with vacs, brushes and rubberised sponges; mechanical cleaning with scalpels and abrasives; and chemical solvent cleaning with swabs and poultice. We have collected some pieces of deteriorated glass, bone, metal, ceramic and cloth from the backyard, and laid the samples out on tables, together with cleaning materials and equipment from the UK and local suppliers. We covered basic safety, ethical considerations, condition assessment, application technique and solvent chemistry, before proceeding with the practical session. Although tired after a day of digging on site, the students seemed to enjoy cleaning the samples and asked lots of questions. It was also nice to see UCLQ and Institute of Archaeology students and staff mingling together and learning something different – even Banu, the 18-year-old daughter of our camp caretaker felt brave enough to join in! We are planning to run more practical learning sessions with the students in the next few weeks, as the format seems to be working well. 

Conservation cleaning session with UCLQ and Institute of Archaeology students and staff. From left to right: Karina, Farrukh, Maria, Katia, Banu and Ania.

Conservation cleaning session with UCLQ and Institute of Archaeology students and staff. From left to right: Karina, Farrukh, Maria, Katia, Banu and Ania.