M83’s song ‘Laser Gun’ features the bridge “got it all / got everything / got all I need”. The modern conservator has to instead battle to preserve a collection for indefinitely long periods of time with slashed funding and minimal resources, much like building sandcastles against an oncoming tide. But they do have laser guns.
As impressive as a tour around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s subterranean conservation studios is, it is important to remember that this is one of just two conservation spaces in a West Midlands region boasting around 200 museums. In order to complete the work they do, the conservation team’s reduced workforce is very reliant on volunteers who give their time to help clean objects or polish silverware.
To add some power to the great responsibility they bear, the conservationists do have some pretty impressive technology to assist them with analysis as well as interventive and preventive conservation. The studio’s various microscopes outnumber the people who work there, and a microwave-sized XRF machine in the corner uses radiation to discern what objects are made of. In another room, a larger digital X-Ray cabinet records the insides of taxidermy onto reusable plates. It is also leased out for private work completed by archaeological trusts. An FTIR gun completes a similar job to the XRF machine but uses infrared light instead of microwaves and can be fire at paintings and textiles to analyse different pigments. The Laser Gun is not an analytical tool but is used to clean the surface of certain objects.
As well as wielding these powerful weapons of science, the conservator also has to make very difficult ethical decisions as part of their everyday job. This could concern whether it is right to change the substance an object is made of in order to extend its lifetime. Conservators are also expected to grapple with the riddle of Theseus’ Ship, a paradox which asks how many component pieces must be replaced before an object can be considered to have fundamentally changed.
On top of all of this, conservationists are also taking their expertise into public-facing areas of the museum, enriching the visitor experience by demonstrating different techniques in public workshops. Birmingham Museum has recently run these kind of projects centred on their collection of mummies and the Staffordshire Hoard.
On top of all of this the conservationist has to weather inevitable indignation and outrage when they make decisions like adding a handle to a pot, or changing the colour of an object so that it doesn’t rust away completely. It can’t be an easy job. But they do have Laser Guns.