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7 June 2013

Restoration to Conservation: A Blacksmith’s tale

Hello, let me introduce myself, my name is Paul Ashmore and I am currently on 6 week placement as a National Heritage Ironwork Group student at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Before becoming involved with metals conservation my background was as an Industrial Smith working mainly on preserved railways (image 1) and other related areas of industrial work!

Repairing Locomotives

Image 1: Repairing Locomotives

During my time at the museum one of my tasks was to conserve the remains of a Victorian brass gas lamp, the lamp had missing parts, a corroded green surface and was bent on several of the support arms. (Image 2).

Gas lamp before conservation

Image 2: Gas lamp before conservation

When first presented with the object I was asked by Pieta (Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Manager) how I would normally tackle the job, my reply, “to remove damaged elements reshape and solder back on”, was met with a concerned expression – my approach being of more a restoration and make it work again theme! This being very different from what Pieta had in mind as a object conservator, my time at the museum has shown me that conservation includes considering damage or deformed elements on objects as part of its history and not necessarily a bad thing.  As you can see below (image 3) the lamp was conserved in a more fitting manor as befits a museum exhibit, removing the corroded surface to reveal stable surface underneath and adding Perspex armatures to provide structural support, in place of the missing elements. Although the object will never work again, it has been conserved in a way that we can understand its form and function.

Lamp after conservation

Image 3: Lamp after conservation

I have learnt a broad range of new skills while on placement at Birmingham, colour matching was one that came in handy when working on the lamp, this I used when blending in areas of metal work where it had been attached to Perspex armatures with adhesives (thanks to object conservator Alex Cantrill for her patience and guidance).

Close-up of colour matching

Image 4: Close-up of colour matching

I also worked on several other projects within the conservation department, including a set of wooden scales, cleaning and repacking human remains and conducting a survey of the automotive collection, which showed me a wide range of objects that conservators are responsible for.

The opportunity to work on the Staffordshire Hoard was mentioned by Pieta and after a trial run working on a mock archaeological object in soil sample block, I was let loose.  This was one of the highlights of my career, being a Smith and a Mercian by birth I regarded it as a great privilege.

The hoard was very different in scale to objects I have worked on before; the need for a microscope for instance was a totally new experience and took a while to get used to, the use of thorns to clean an object seemed very strange but made perfect sense when you consider the size and how intricate the decoration of the objects being worked on!

Finished hoard object K1189

Image 5: Finished hoard object K1189

What I will take away form this experience is the differences between Restoration and Conservation.  I have been told to be a successful restorer you should first understand the principles of Conservation, these include a broad range of factors to consider such as historic and cultural importance of the object presented, the ideas of reversibility of any conservation treatment, and of minimal intervention where possible.  These factors being very different to restoration where you generally make the object whole again and return it to it’s original use, this of course being far more interventive.

I would say the main lesson I have learnt is the thought process behind decision making, how to document the process of conservation and justify the choice of treatments made.

Many thanks to the Conservation team at Birmingham for all their help and encouragement.

Paul Ashmore
National Heritage Ironwork Group student