Image of old fashioned brass alarm clocks on wooden shelves.
The successful reopening of sites and the ‘waking up’ of dormant collections will rely on skilled conservation teams © Creative Commons
The successful reopening of sites and the ‘waking up’ of dormant collections will rely on skilled conservation teams © Creative Commons

‘Waking Up’ Collections: Caring for Collections in Lockdown and Preparing for Recovery

By Anni Mantyniemi of The Institute of Conservation

The closure of heritage sites and institutions was a necessary step to keep people away from public spaces and to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus. However, the decision came with serious consequences for the objects and collections housed behind closed doors.

With conservators furloughed or sent to work from home, many important day-to-day collections care tasks and the operation of vital environmental systems were no longer possible. Objects were exposed to increased rates of deterioration and decay arising from potential equipment faults and leaking pipes, which posed a menacing threat.

Without the regular presence of skilled conservation professionals to spot and act on potential hazards, disaster could have struck at any moment.

Thankfully, no news of such catastrophic events has emerged - knock on wood (preferably a piece from the handling collection). This is no doubt in part due to conservators’ ability to adapt to the challenging situation of managing collections remotely and the community’s commitment to supporting each other in the ‘new normal.’

As the professional body for conservation, Icon naturally wanted to harness and deploy the knowledge of its 2,500+ members. Throughout lockdown, we have been sharing best practice guidance, advice and resources prepared by institutions and private practitioners from around the world.

Updating and adding links to our Coronavirus collections care support hub has been a
continuous task. But it has also been incredibly encouraging as it has shown our profession’s drive to share expertise and produce resources at speed to ensure collections and objects are kept safe.

Our latest resource, produced by our Care of Collections Group, is future-facing. The ‘Waking up’ Collections: A Post-Lockdown Guide outlines how to address conservation issues that might have occurred during several months of closure and advises on preparing staff for returning to site. Written for a generalist audience, the guidance aims to benefit a wide range of institutions, even those with limited in-house conservation expertise.

But guidance can only go so far. The successful reopening of sites and ‘waking up’ of dormant collections will rely on skilled conservation teams. Surfaces will need to be sanitised and cleaned, equipment carefully turned back on, pests eradicated.

Conservation and collections care skills are more important now than ever and will be fundamental to ensuring collections can delight and engage the public to their fullest potential as we emerge from lockdown.

However, the conservation workforce will look different - employees have been furloughed and private practitioners have suffered severe economic loss. Over 90% of respondents to our Coronavirus survey reported they had suffered loss of work and 70% had seen a reduction in income. Many conservators have told us they fall between the cracks of available government support.

Icon has been supporting conservators through our advocacy work, professional development and membership services. Our Conservation: Together at Home webinar series, delivered by the volunteers running our Special Interest Groups, has reached over 9,000 people, ensuring that learning and training has continued. At the same time, our new online community platform has built connections and lifted moods.

But only the flow of new project commissions can fully revitalise the conservation sector. While institutions may be hesitant to invest in conservation given the inevitable drop in income, if they delay commissioning work, jobs will be lost, businesses will fold. And future access to necessary skilled professionals will become challenging.

Failing to invest in conservation as part of the post-lockdown recovery would be short sighted. Expenditure on conservation and collections care is ultimately an investment in long-term sustainability.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Icon is determined to work with others in our sector to demonstrate our potential contribution to rebuilding and recovery. We will use our expertise to show how cultural heritage supports the economy, the UK’s international reputation and the health and wellbeing of communities and citizens.

The iconic objects and outstanding collections held in institutions big and small, and the skilled workforce that cares for them, will be essential to making a successful case for support from government and funders.

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