Tag Archives: conservation

Mail Coach Guard Moses Nobbs is ready for his close-up

Our conservation team is very busy getting objects ready to be moved and, in some cases, displayed in The Postal Museum and Mail Rail galleries. Conservators Jackie and Barbara need the best equipment to help repair and preserve objects, such as a long overdue microscope.

Today we received a very nice surprise – the delivery of a brand new microscope! We wanted to replace the old machine that had been in service in the studio since the iron-age with a modern machine and thanks to a lot of gently persuasive requests our wish was finally granted.

The machine was immediately put to good use on an object that had been in the studio awaiting treatment.

The object is a painting of Moses James Nobbs, ‘The Last of the Mail Coach Guards’ painted c.1890 by H.E.Brown and is described as a watercolour on paper. The image shows a man with white beard and whiskers wearing a black top hat, a red coat with gold double buttons and black collar and cuffs.

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Undergoing treatment using our new micrscope

When we first received this painting and assessed it, no particular damage to the paint layer was detected. Once the surface had been put under the magnifying lens of the microscope we were able to discover an area of micro-cracks that could potentially lead to the paint layer flacking off. Indeed this had already happened in some small parts of the painting.

Armed with this new knowledge we decided to proceed with a treatment of the paint layer to be performed under magnification, an operation that was made possible thanks to the real-time video feed of the microscope.

Close-up showing the cracks in the painting

Close-up showing the cracks in the painting

The new microscope proved popular with other members of staff at BPMA too, with many coming over to the studio to check things like dirt on their fingers, what hair really looks like and what creatures live on common surfaces… The youngest visitor, a 9 years old with lots of probing scientific questions really enjoyed the close up inspection of the bench surface!

As we move closer to opening The Postal Museum look out for more conservation updates from Jackie and Barbara, giving you a sneak peek at the objects that will be going on display and the preparations taking place in the galleries themselves.

-Barbara Borghese, Conservator

Behind the scenes; conservation in progress

Do you ever wonder what is happening to sticky tape? The answer is usually “No” and for a good reason. We all believe that it will remain nice and sticky for eternity! Especially nowadays when we have so many choices of self-adhesive tape or pressure sensitive tape with excellent qualities too; there are transparent, matte, colour, black, white, brown, red, archival ones, linen ones and so many more. The point is that we don’t think twice when it comes to applying it because we are confident about its short term effect and result. Well, I will try to change your mind a bit and show you how a well-intended attempt to stick together broken glass plate negatives turned into a painstaking nightmare.

In the mid-19th century, photographic negatives began to use glass as a support. Glass provided a sharper negative and a more detailed positive print, and soon replaced paper negatives. Like photographic prints, glass negatives are composite objects, consisting of a glass support, a binder, and an image-forming or recording substance. At the BPMA we store approximately 2500 glass plate negatives dated from 1930s to the 1950s with a variety of topics from day to day postal operations. 89 of them are damaged, with broken and/or missing parts. A common practice of preserving a broken glass plate negatives was to sandwich it between either one or two new glass plates and apply a tape around their perimeter to secure them. The quality and type of tape used varied but one thing was certain; the intention of the ‘restorer’ could only be described as a noble attempt to save what was broken.

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Taped Glass Plate negatives

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always have the result we hoped for. So when the need arose to remove the tape, I faced a big challenge. The adhesive of the tape had permeated the emulsion layer of the glass plate negative, it had cross-linked as we say in conservation (a chemical process of bonding one polymer chain to another). This new type of bonding creates irreversible damage as it discolours and fades the image but mostly because it weakens the emulsion layer and makes it prone to flaking, putting the image at risk. Any mechanical attempt to remove it went downhill so the next idea was to use an aqueous and a chemical treatments which mean the introduction of liquid either water or solvent. I used a microscope to avoid any unnecessary contact between emulsion and water –these two things do not like each other very much.
All geared up with a microscope, a portable air extraction unit, solvent and water, apron, I have started the process of slowly moistening the tape and carefully removing it with a dentist’s spatula.

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

During removal. residues from adhesive stuck on surface

To remove tape from one glass plate negative of 80 x 100cm in dimension I have estimated it took from 14 to 20 hours. On the other hand, I have timed how long it took to apply a sticky tape on one glass plate negative mock-up of the same dimension and it took between 1-2 minutes. Pretty amazing don’t you think! Consequently in a collection of 89 damaged and taped glass plate negatives it took 3 hours to apply the tape and it would take 1780 hours to remove it, which is 254 working days! Makes you wonder why conservation sometimes can take so long!

After Removal of tape

After Removal of tape

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise to all lovely collectors out there who value and protect their collections that if you think a quick fix might solve your problem, please think twice. Besides if you are unsure about a procedure please contact a conservator who will be able to advise you and guide you to a suitable solution. In the long term, it will be a less costly and time consuming operation and it will save your precious collection for future generations to enjoy.

Before and After Conservation

Before and After Conservation

Katerina Laina ACR, MSc
Assistant Paper Conservator

Mail Rail Conservation Project – Documentary Film

For the past year the BPMA have been engaged on a project to conserve the rail cars in its collection acquired from the Post Office underground railway, Mail Rail. This project has proved really exciting and has been followed keenly by a number of people. Back in April 2012 the BPMA held an open day at the Museum Store which gave visitors the opportunity to come and see the work being done and meet the conservator working on the project and the BPMA curators.

Throughout the main part of the project the BPMA commissioned a production company to document the process and create a short film that helps explain the work done. This film is now being made available for the first time via the BPMA’s YouTube channel.

Making the Mail Rail film.

Making the Mail Rail film.

As well as documenting the conservation work the film also offers a glimpse of the Railway as it once was, including black and white footage of the Railway from the 1930s and clips from the BPMA collection. These more modern clips show the Railway in 2005, after its closure. It is the last filmed footage captured of the trains being moved using the electric network. The BPMA holds much more of this footage that it hopes can be used in future projects or films.

Also in the documentary record are BPMA members of staff and the contracted conservator talking about the work being done and interviews with members of the public who attended the special open day at the Museum Store.

The conservation work on two of the trains is now complete but there remains more to do and the final phase of the project is to conserve the 1927 car held by the BPMA. This car is the only surviving example in this form of the original cars used when the network opened in 1927. It is the intention with this car to conserve as it is today and not to attempt to return it to the appearance it was in during its operational life.

1927 Mail Rail car.

1927 Mail Rail car.

Once this work is underway more details as to the progress will be published online.

The project to conserve the trains was funded by grants from the Arts Council England PRISM Fund, the Association of Independent Museums/Pilgrims Trust Conservation Scheme and donations from the Friends of the BPMA. The film was made for the BPMA by Voytek Ltd, a London based production company.

– Chris Taft, Senior Curator

Mail Rail Trains Conservation Project

Our project to conserve two of the Mail Rail trains in our collection is now almost complete; the photographs accompanying this blog give some idea of the work done. Today we present an interview with one of the volunteers, Don Bell, who has helped complete this work and who has been trained up by George Monger, the conservator employed to do this work.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

The 1930s train prior to the conservation work, showing lots of surface grease.

Why did you get involved with the BPMA as a volunteer?

I used to work for Royal Mail as a Delivery Office Manager (DOM) and originally became aware of the Museum when working as a DOM in Tottenham where the old Museum store used to be. I was asked to get some Posties together to pose with pillar boxes from the collection to promote the 2002 Pillar Box stamps issue.

As DOM at Winchmore Hill I also became involved in volunteering and charity work further, including the setting up of a local fundraising charity.

I have also always been interested in the museum and vehicles in particular.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

Don Bell working on one of the train units.

What does your role as a volunteer involve?

Cleaning and preparing the Mail Rail vehicles and applying a layer of wax to the trains to act as a protective barrier. I also help care for few of the other vehicles in the collection supporting the work of the BPMA curators at the Museum Store.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

The 1980s train is being worked on with assistance from Don Bell.

Have you learnt anything particularly surprising or interesting?

It was surprising to see the different colours of paint underneath the top coat on the Mail Rail trains, these coming from different eras, including paintwork for the film Hudson Hawk on one of the trains. [Mail Rail trains were re-painted as underground Vatican mail trains for the film]

When you volunteer you go in different directions, I am interested in the vehicles and would rather get my hands dirty than volunteer in admin – with this project, anything I can learn about conservation is a plus.

George [The Conservator employed by BPMA on this project] opened my eyes – he explained that the covers over the electric units would have got very hot in the vehicles working life and the paint bubbled. My original instinct was to clean it all off but George explained that you should preserve what’s left – not everything has to be pristine but rather should reflect the vehicles as they were.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

Detail of a break wheel of one of the trains after cleaning.

What is your involvement in the Mail Rail story?

I can remember helping out from time to time as overtime at the W1 Delivery Office, sometimes you got called down to help out and then would get roped into helping load the trains.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

The 1930s train after the conservation work has taken place and a special conservation-approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent further corrosion.

What is your favourite object?

All of the Post Office vehicles, having worked in deliveries for all of my working life starting as a Telegram Messenger and continuing for 40 years.

I think there is so much potential if you could take the vehicles out on the road! The Mobile Post Office would be great for fundraising and advertising the Museum.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA's Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

A filmed record was made during the conservation process in the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex.

Interview by Claire English

The BPMA would like to thank The PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, administered by Arts Council England, and the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Grant Scheme for kindly donating towards the Mail Rail conservation project.

If you are interested in volunteering for BPMA please visit the Volunteers page on our website for further information.

Mail Rail Conservation Project Update

Some of you may remember from previous blogs, beginning with coverage of the retrieval of two of the trains from the Post Office Underground Railway tunnels below Mount Pleasant, that the BPMA are currently working on an exciting project to restore our three ‘Mail Rail’ train carriages.

We are pleased to report that conservation work on the first of the Mail Rail trains held by the BPMA is now almost complete. The whole train has been be closely inspected, cleaned where relevant and treated with a special wax to prevent any further deterioration.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

Train prior to the majority of the conservation work taking place showing lots of the surface grease.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A special conservation approved Renaissance Wax has been applied to all surfaces to protect them and prevent future corrosion.

A similar programme will now be commenced on the 1980s train. Like the 1930 train this will be worked on from one end to the other with much of the surface grime and grease being removed to allow the vehicle to be displayed safely. The surfaces however will not be restored to an as new condition and the trains will continue to reflect their working history.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The Post Office Railway was renamed Mail Rail in 1987 and some of the trains were branded accordingly such as the 1980 train held by the BPMA.

The next challenge is to consider how we tackle the final train in the Store, the original 1927 rail car. This rail car is much smaller than the others and raises some interesting questions. Up until now we have very much been conserving, rather than restoring the trains. However with this train it has been heavily restored in the past with some original features removed. There is also a question as to the correct colour this train should be painted. Presently it is green but in early use it was probably a grey colour. In order to decide what level of work to do on the train we must first undertake some further research.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

The 1927 four-wheeled car is now going to be given a full assessment and research undertaken to help determine the best course of action with this and whether to undertake a full restoration or simply conserve what is there.

This is where the benefit of the BPMA holding the Royal Mail Archive alongside the museum collection becomes invaluable. Over the coming weeks we will be using documents in the Archive to try and gather as much information about these trains as possible. Once we have been through the research we can consider what approach to take, whether to restore the trains to something like it was in the past, or to simply conserve what we now have, much as we have done with the other two trains.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

The Post Office Railway train has motive units at each end and were connected by a central main body that would have carried the mail.

Once this research phase is complete we shall have a much clearer ideas of the best approach to take and will understand better the time-scales.

We would like to thank supporters of this project, Arts Council England through the PRISM Fund, the AiM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme, and a number of individuals who help to make this work possible.

Chris Taft – Senior Curator

Join the Mail Rail Mailing List and be the first to know what’s going on underground! Contact our Fundraising & Development Officer, Claire English: claire.english@postalheritage.org.uk.

Supported using public funding by Arts Council England

De-installation of the Empire Mail Exhibition

by Miriam Hay

As someone doing three weeks work experience at The British Postal Museum & Archive, I was given the opportunity to attend the first two days of the de-installation of the recent Empire Mail exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. It was a unique chance to see behind the scenes of the BPMA at the work that goes into such an event, much of which will go unnoticed by the public if all goes to plan.

Conservator at work

Conservator at work

The speed with which the exhibition began to be disassembled was quite surprising – by the time I arrived at 10am on Monday it appeared to be the second week at work, rather than only an hour’s worth. Some objects like the telegraph table and blue air mail box had already been removed, and tables for the wrapping of objects and the conservators had been set up instead.

The Morris Minor van is carefully pushed out of the Guildhall

The Morris Minor van is carefully pushed out of the Guildhall

The GPO Morris Minor van which took centre stage in the exhibition was dispatched that morning, steered slowly out through the narrow entrances with a member of BPMA staff at the wheel.  Its accompanying motorcycle followed early the next day. Even after nearly eighty years since their construction the engines had been leaking oil into the drip trays underneath, serving as a reminder that these are not just static and unchanging museum pieces, but were once working machines.

Some pieces featured in the display were to be transported a little further than others: the stamps from the Royal Philatelic Collection are to be returned to their home in St James’s Palace. The large printing press, which had to be carefully lifted back onto its pallet base before having its crate built around it, would be collected and taken back to Holland.

The printing press is lifted back onto its pallet base

The printing press is lifted back onto its pallet base

A lot of thought has to go into displaying all the objects, for example using glass that is both low reflective for easier viewing, and UV filtering to protect the artefacts inside. As much effort has to be spent on removing them, with conservators checking the condition of each object against the original paperwork. Some of the stamps shown were extremely valuable and great care had to be taken in de-installing them.

The pillar boxes have left the building

The pillar boxes have left the building

One of the most time consuming jobs, surprisingly, was removing and packing the information panels, graphics and captions. Attached to the walls with Velcro (another surprise!), they were quick to tear down, being careful not to be squashed by some of the larger ones, but most had to then be individually wrapped in several layers of plastic packaging. While overhead other visitors were viewing the art in the gallery above that opened out onto the exhibition space, we made our way through several enormous rolls of bubble wrap and tape, packaging up frames and the legs from display cases as well.

I certainly will not be able to go to another exhibition now without picturing all the hard work put into it, both before and after, or without trying to peer behind the information panels to see what was used to attach them!

Two new ways to get involved with the BPMA!

by Deborah Turton, Head of Access & Development

A significant part of the British Postal Museum & Archive’s work is ensuring the ongoing preservation of the collections we hold. Our Archive alone fills over two and half miles of shelving, containing items including leather-bound minutes of Post Office business, staff records, postal maps, Post Office architectural plans, plus things you wouldn’t expect – such as telegrams from the sinking Titanic and evidence from the Great Train Robbery – all demonstrating the wealth of Britain’s postal heritage.

To enable postal enthusiasts to get more involved in our work and to gain an insight into our ongoing preservation and conservation programmes we are today launching our BPMA virtual gifts scheme. The aim of the scheme is to better demonstrate what is involved in maintaining our collections and to give our audiences the opportunity to play a part in making that work happen. Our first gifts focus on two current preservation priorities: stamp artwork and GPO posters.

Preserving stamp artwork

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Stuart from the Cataloguing team scans unadopted artwork from the 1994 Greetings stamps

Behind every stamp issued lies a range of early stage, final and un-adopted designs, trials, and essays: precious yet often delicate pieces of original art. The BPMA has an ongoing stamp artwork programme dedicated to preservation mounting, digitally scanning, and cataloguing this unique artwork. A £25 philatelic virtual gift will not only be a unique gift for philatelists, but will help support our efforts to preserve this material for generations to come.

Preserving posters

Tom Eckersley poster fridge magnet

Please pack parcels very carefully, designed by Tom Eckersley

The BPMA is undertaking a similar programme of work for our collection of over 6,000 posters. From the 1930s onwards the Post Office became a leader in the field of poster design, commissioning some of Britain’s leading artists and designers: Tom Eckersley, Jan Lewitt and Edward McKnight Kauffer to name but a few. Publicity campaigns used posters to communicate now familiar messages including ‘Post Early’, ‘Pack Your Parcels Carefully’, and ‘Always Remember To Use Your Postcode’.

Many of our posters are fantastic examples of Twentieth-Century graphic design and deserve to be better known. To achieve this, the BPMA needs to ensure they are protected against future wear and tear and to create digital scanned reproductions that can be used to promote awareness of the posters through educational outreach and commercial licensing. A virtual poster gift of just £30 covers the cost of protectively housing a poster and the production of a high resolution digital scan of one of these much loved items.

A small ‘Thank you’

Each BPMA virtual gift comes with a greetings card to which the sender can add a personal message. Also included is a small thank-you in the form of either a free fridge magnet based on a Tom Eckersley poster design or a BPMA Commemorative cover – plus the knowledge that the gift is supporting Britain’s postal heritage for generations to come.

BPMA eBay for charity

eBay for Charity

eBay for Charity

Another way for enthusiasts to get involved is through the new BPMA eBay for charity page. We know that a lot of philatelic collectors trade on eBay so we are hoping they will think of the BPMA when they do so. Anyone selling items on eBay can choose to donate a percentage of the final selling value to a charity of their choice. Plus supporting charities entitles sellers to a free credit on their basic insertion and final value fees. Buyers also have the option of making a donation to their favourite charity at the checkout.

All BPMA eBay for Charity listings will also get a blue and yellow ‘eBay for Charity’ ribbon logo alongside the item in search results and the BPMA’s mission statement and logo will appear in the listing – all highlighting the seller’s personal commitment to preserving and promoting access to Britain’s postal heritage. Listings will also get extra visibility through the eBay for Charity pages. The eBay for charity web pages explain how it all works and list the full range of good causes the scheme supports.

We are always looking for new ways to involve people in our work preserving and celebrating Britain’s postal heritage and are always pleased to hear from those keen to support our work. Further ways to get more involved with the BPMA are included in the Support us section of our website.