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The battle against dust

Not all the conservation work carried out at the Royal Armouries is undertaken in the lab. Within the galleries of the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, we have a number of objects on open display, including detailed dioramas, individual objects, and treasures of the collection such as the Elephant Armour in the Oriental Gallery and the Gothic Armour in the War Gallery. In this blog post, we speak to Rebecca Hayton, a preventive conservator at our museum in Leeds, about the threat of dust to open display items.

The impact dust can have on our objects

As with your priceless mantelpiece ornaments, the objects in the museum on open display are prone to the accumulation of dust and dirt which, if left undisturbed, could cause irreversible damage and have a dramatic impact on the wider collection. Not only does dust leave an unpleasant grey layer on the objects, it can also be a contributor to their deterioration.

Accumulated dust on an object on open display

Macro shot of dust accumulating on a museum exhibit

Why is dust a risk?

Dust attracts moisture which can promote the corrosion of metal objects. This highlights the need for an effective cleaning programme and efficient environmental monitoring. Additionally, dust attracts and harbours pests which in the right environmental conditions and with the correct food source, could turn into a costly infestation affecting the museum collection (a topic we will come onto at a later date).

This is the reason why we have an open display cleaning programme, regulating the cleaning of open display objects; preventing the accumulation of dust, lowering the risk of damage and prompting conservators to conduct regular condition assessments.

Before I began my pitched battle with dust, I conducted an assessment of the open displays and their surrounding areas. This observational exercise allowed me to carry out condition assessments of the objects while identifying accessibility of the displays, working out the treatment, materials and staff required, as well as locations of electrical points and times when cleaning can be conducted. Together with my observations and information gathered about other activities in the museum, I was able to prioritise.

The removal of dust

We use a variety of equipment to ensure all dust is removed from the object safely: soft brushes to remove the dust from the surface of the object, and a special vacuum to eliminate the dust from the atmosphere. Not your average domestic cleaning method I know, but best practice for the objects. Removal of this dust not only makes the objects on open display look more aesthetically pleasing from a visitor’s perspective, it also lowers the risk of objects deteriorating and becoming food sources for little beasties.

The removal of historic dust has provided me with the opportunity to carry out dust research. Although in its primary stages, this research will involve the collection and analysis of dust particles collected from different areas of the museum. Not only will this allow me to determine how quickly dust is accumulating, therefore allowing a more accurate schedule for the cleaning programme, but I will also be able to identify the type of dust in the atmosphere and how this might be damaging for the collection. So watch this space.

What can you do to help preserve this collection for the nation?

For us as humans, touch is an important way to gain information about the world around us and that includes making tangible connections to the past through historic objects. Unfortunately, it is this desire to touch and interact that is making it increasingly difficult to preserve the collection for future generations. Although metals may look to be in a stable condition, they are vulnerable to corrosion caused by sudden changes in relative humidity and temperature combined with other aspects including moisture, dust and dirt introduced to the surface through touching.

Touching an object introduces dirt and oils from the skin to its surface – the same reason a crime scene has fingerprints. So although it looks like we in the museum are preventing you from physical experiences with ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ signs, we are in fact inviting you to contribute to the preservation of the collection.

Two conservators using a soft brush to clean dust from the embossed panels on an armour for an elephant

Dusting the Elephant Armour. © Charlotte Graham Photography

Read our conservation series to learn more about our conservation team and the important work they do to keep our objects safe.

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