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1 March 2013

Conservation for the Public – Hoard Family Day

1. The Classroom at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery set up for the conservation activity.

The ethos: learning and entertainment

Museums have so much more to offer than the precious objects they house. As a continuing commitment to offer the public insight and alternative learning opportunities, especially to younger visitors, the Hoard Conservation Team participated in a Family Open day, held on 20 February 2013.

The conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard started in the studio at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 2010 and since then hundreds of objects have been conserved. During this process, our attitude was always one of openness with the public, and our regular tours, events and blog posts bear testimony to this. However, the requirement on this special event was to inform while entertaining very young members of the public, during a very busy and rather rainy half term day.

Observing through the microscope

A number of activities were devised that would allow the conservators to introduce their role: in order to create a reasonably realistic studio (image 1) two of our microscopes were put in the museum’s classroom. From these examination stations the children were guided to observe a number of organic and inorganic objects and materials (image 3.).

Natalie Harding and Ciaran Lavelle, two English Heritage funded conservators currently working on the hoard, led on this activity by prompting answers from the children, encouraging them to take the time to acknowledge how different a surface can look at high magnification and helping them to understand structures and components. Detail like the minute links in a chain, the veins in a leaf and the weave in a sample of textile were pointed at and explained. The exercise aimed at both creating a sense of wonderment and explaining that our profession as conservators involves looking at objects very closely, in order to understand their morphology and condition.

2. Natalie, one of the conservators, with a keen young member of the public at the microscope. The conservators encouraged the children to observe carefully what was put in front of them. Gasps of wonderment were often heard coming from that side of the bench!

3. Materials to be examined under the microscope. These included custom jewellery made of metals, stones and enamels, leafs, seeds and bark, shell, textile, stone objects and coins.

The soil blocks

Soil blocks were specially created containing bits of “treasure”, kindly provided by staff who donated unwanted objects from home. The aim here was to carefully clean all the soil away in order to unearth the objects held within it, using small tools and brushes. The idea behind the activity was to introduce the concept that objects are likely to have once looked very different from the way they do when they are on display in the museum. The words ‘archaeology’, ‘conservator’ and ‘excavation’ were explained. Instructions were given on cleaning with care, and that the process required a great deal of patience. I suspect that getting muddy may have contributed to the activity’s great popularity.

4. The two Hoard conservators, Deb and Cym, introducing the children to the world of conservation. The magnifying lens and lab coats added a touch of professional realism to the soil blocks cleaning task.

Interlace pattern drawing

Many objects in the Staffordshire Hoard are decorated with intricate filigree interlace patterns. To the lay man these patterns are often quite baffling and one can literally make neither head nor tail of them. Jamie Hall, a historic metalworker with a past in jewellery making, led the children into understanding these complex patterns by drawing them on paper. The children were then encouraged to do the same and produce a pattern to take home as a souvenir (see image 5).

5. Jamie Hall is a historic metal worker who often contributes to Hoard events: the photo shows how he taught children to recreate the intricate Anglo-Saxon interlace design on paper.

Puzzles and colouring-in

The children’s age ranged from as young as 4 or 5 to 10 or older. It was important that we offered a variety of activities that were both interesting and fun: mock photographic condition reports were made to match parts of a Hoard object with their names (see image 7). Black and white diagrams of real sword pommels, hilt plates and fittings were produced to be coloured in, as well as puzzles on Anglo-Saxon domestic life, warfare and language. The children and their parents sat around large tables (see image 6) where all material was made available to them. A number of volunteers from the events team were around to answer any queries. They also ensured that the public were aware of the variety of activities available to them on the day, both in the classroom and in the gallery.

6. The Anglo-Saxon warriors came to visit: their impressive and highly realistic attire was a hit with children and adults, who were free to take pictures of the re-enactors.

7. The mock condition check: an image of a real Hoard object with a number of details to be identified.

Thanks to the collaboration between the Conservators and the Events Team the day was a success. I am confident that we rose to the challenge and provided a glimpse into the world of museum professionals. Hopefully the microscopic observations will have instilled a new sense of curiosity in the children and the cleaning process will have cast some light on the journey of an object from burial to display case.

By Deborah L Magnoler

Staffordshire Hoard Conservator

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery