At the National Collections Centre, our cutting-edge collection management facility is filling up fast with around 300,000 objects from the Science Museum Group Collection.
We need specialised skills, and a variety of tools and equipment to care for and safely move these items as part of our work. Working with objects is not just about knowing the materials they are made of and the hazards they may contain, but also having an in-depth knowledge of logistics and how to best store them to prevent deterioration.
Not all of the larger items we work with are heavy. Even textiles can be on a large scale in our collection.
To prepare for its display in the Science Museum, back in 2019 we checked the condition of the massive parachute which safely carried Tim Peake and his astronaut colleagues back to Earth from the International Space Station.
Because the parachute is the size of two tennis courts, we needed a gantry to attached it to and a huge space to check the condition of the material.
Working at the National Collections Centre as a conservator is not just about white lab coats and shiny labs. We train for years, often at college, university and in museums, and also develop specialisms within conservation. More recently, apprenticeship schemes have been introduced as a route into the profession. But we need additional on-the-job training to use machinery for handling large objects.
We recently learned to use the huge overhead gantry crane in our new conservation lab, which will allow us to lift objects weighing up to 5 tonnes (5,000kg) and move them along the length of the lab. Operating the gantry requires the use of additional equipment like lifting straps and shackles.
We always prepare in advance for each move of a large object, producing a method statement describing what we will do and a risk assessment to ensure the safety of people and objects.
The new gantry will make it easier to conserve large items and make photography slightly less challenging. We use a hand-held controller to operate the gantry – which is much easier than the mechanical system used in our old lab (where we worked on the parachute).
The gantry is really helpful for moving and suspending large objects we are working with, but it can’t do everything. Another piece of indispensable equipment – and something you might not expect to find in a museum store – is a forklift truck.
We use a variety of forklifts, from narrow trucks that can operate in tight spaces to bigger vehicles which can carry larger objects or reach further distances. We select the forklift to match the object, depending on its size and weight, where it is going and how far the forklift needs to reach to pick it up.
When completing conservation work on very large paintings, we have used custom-built scaffolding and a forklift to store the object appropriately.
Being able to assess individual situations and weigh up the risks associated with moving an object is all part of the job. To operate the forklifts, we must hold the appropriate licence (like a driving licence) and undertake regular refresher training to ensure we operate them safely.
Some of our larger objects are stored on pallets (which are then placed on strong metal shelves) so we can more easily store, access and move them.
To move the pallets we use the Reach forklift truck. This forklift can easily lift objects onto pallets which weigh up to 2 tonnes. However, this forklift has its limits as the higher and heavier the object is lifted the more unstable the forklift becomes.
Our largest forklift has wider and longer forks and can lift objects weighing up to 7 tonnes or objects which are very tall. Our narrowest forklift fits between the tight isles of moveable racking in one of our stores, but because of its unusual shape it is more challenging to operate.
We’ve also recently taken delivery of a JCB electric forklift, which is perfect for the stores and better for the environment. The JCB has joined several electric forklifts already in use inside our buildings, which ensure a fume-free environment for our objects and colleagues.
Working as a conservator really highlights the diversity of the Science Museum Group Collection and the different skills and equipment required to care for the objects. Conservation work is often about problem solving and planning, so even if we are holding a model car or using a gantry to move a full-size car, the approach we take can be surprisingly similar.