I’m Megan, Collection Technician at Tairāwhiti Museum. I am responsible for processing all objects currently housed in Wyllie Cottage before the heritage restoration begins.
With approximately two hundred and fifty objects made from materials as diverse as silk, wood, leather, iron and paper, from the size of a fountain pen to a double bed, and from something as inert as a stone to as volatile as Congoleum (Linoleum) rug, this is no small task.
Like any new object that enters the museum, each object must undergo preventative conservation treatment. It must also have a comprehensive digital record (information within this record includes the completion of a minimum of twenty different fields, including the unique object number, object type, description, materials, measurements, condition, and photographs to name a few), then needs to be re-housed, and finally, stored. Each step of the process is recorded within the digital record, including its location.
Preventative conservation basically means keeping an object in an optimum condition with a minimum amount of intervention: cleaning, treating for pests, re-housing using inert materials, and storing in an optimal environment. This is why objects within the museum are housed in acid free materials in environmentally controlled conditions (between 17° and 22° Celsius and relative humidity between 45 to 55%).
The material from which an object is made determines the type of treatment it will undergo. For metal objects in a stable condition, this can be as simple as a gentle wipe with a soft cloth. For the majority of wood, paper, and most textiles, the procedure is more intensive, including a one week lock-down in a freezer, which is the most effective, non-toxic, least invasive, low cost measure to eradicate pests (such as insects and their eggs) and mould.
My first task was to sort objects into type. I decided to start with objects made from wood, paper and textiles, as they must undergo the most comprehensive process. I’m currently working on wood objects.
Firstly they were removed from the cottage and transferred to my work station inside the museum, where they acclimatise for a day or two. Then I carefully cleaned them using a process known as brush vacuuming. Small brushes are used to gently sweep the surface of an object, with the HEPA vacuum catching any dust, dirt and mould spores (High-efficiency particulate arrestance filter that removes (from the air that passes through) 99.97% of particles that have a size of 0.3mircometers). After this process, each object is sealed in a polyethylene bag. And then the object is placed in the freezer. There is limited space in the freezer, so the processing of objects is staggered.
A major guideline to follow when using freezing to control insect pests is to expose them to temperatures that drop as low as possible, as quickly as possible, for as long as possible. A practical recommended treatment is -20°C for one week. Sealing artefacts in polyethylene bags before cooling allows them to control their own environment. In this way the object’s moisture content is not compromised. During freezing, the bag cools first and any condensate forms and freezes on it, not on the artefact, preventing damage such as cracking. A freezer capable of reaching -20°C will sufficiently lower the materials to the freezing point within four hours, which kills adult insects as well as their eggs. The temperature must remain constant.
Upon removal from the freezer the objects must then rest for at least 24 hours to reacclimatise. They are then unsealed, and given another brush vacuum. Then, they are re-housed, and, finally, put into storage.
The Medicine Chest 1972.60  has been one of my favourite objects to work with so far. It was gifted to the museum by Mrs J E Cameron of Gisborne in March 1972 and was housed in the study in Wyllie Cottage. You can see it on the top shelf of the bookcase in the photograph above. Externally the chest is not that interesting.
Upon opening however, the chest becomes more interesting: the fine crafting of the compartments for the medicine bottles, the velvet-lined lid, the brass fitting and the locking mechanism for the drawer compartment (see the long bar protruding from the front lip of the chest) and its surprise containment of poison.
Unfortunately the chest was exhibited with the lid open, near the window in the Study. The exterior and interior of the chest were extremely dirty and littered with insect carcasses. Over time the labels on the medicine bottles have deteriorated. The labels on the three bottles on the left in this image are mostly indecipherable, but between the three provided enough information to reveal they are from Archibald Macintosh, Pharmaceutical Chemist, England (Established 1838). The poison however, is from Harold Kane Chemist, 118 Gladstone Road, Gisborne (circa 1898).
After a brush vacuum, a freezing cycle, and a further brush vacuum, each labelled bottle was given a protective layer of mylar to preserve the label from further deterioration, the poison was sealed in a polyethelene bag to prevent spillage or off-gassing, rehoused inside the medicine chest, and the chest wrapped in acid free cell-aire.
Next, I’ll be working on books…
We are grateful to Eastland Community Trust for supporting this phase of the Wyllie Cottage heritage restoration project and allowing us to care and conserve the treasures housed within the cottage.