Internship with the National Trust: a year as a conservation assistant

The last month has been a whirlwind! On passing my Graduate Diploma in Conservation of Furniture and Related Objects, give or take a week, I had moved to Wales to start an internship with the National Trust at Powis Castle, in Welshpool. Powis is a magnificent medieval castle in mid/north Wales, just over the boarder from Shrewsbury. It was built circa 1200, by Welsh princes, and in 1587 Powis was sold to Sir Edward Herbert, the second son of William Herbert, the 1st Earl of Pembroke. The descendants of the family, 500 years on, still possess private apartments in the castle to this very day.

So you can imagine the family history that encompasses the castle and its collection. From the extensive family portraits, to a very rare Pietra Dure table with its top and wooden base (a great rarity) still united, to the magnificent collection of Eastern artifacts that are housed in the "Clive Museum." These were brought back from India by "Clive of India" (1725-74) and the collection was added to by his son, including a gold jewel-encrusted tiger's head finial from the rail of Tipu Sultan's throne. Not to mention the furniture(!) of which pieces are attributed to Chippendale, Ince & Mayhew and William Kent.

Some of my favourite pieces in the collection at Powis...

I am discovering the ways a property works and what really goes on behind the scenes. I have always been interested in the preventative conservation; this is why I decided to apply for the "trainee conservation assistant" internship (1 year), to allow me to appreciate the diversities within conservation.

I have joined the team at a time of great change as the Trust is now employing a new opening policy, which is called "364." This is exactly what it says on the tin. The castle (to an extent) is open every day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year… except Christmas Day.

When a property is open to the public there are environmental factors that need to be monitored to ensure the collection is properly cared for. This has become even more important and challenging now the castle will be open more often.

There are nine agents of deterioration recognized by the Trust; these are:

  • Theft
  • Fire
  • Loss
  • Water
  • Chemical
  • Biological
  • Light
  • Wrong relative humidity
  • Wrong temperature

All of these agents are considered on a day-to-day basis. Monitoring is paramount to ensure the longevity of the collection, whether it is checking pest traps, daily cleaning or adjusting the blinds throughout the castle to manage the light levels.

Behind the scenes

The house team is quite small. The team who are involved with conservation:

  • The House Steward
  • 2x Assistant House Stewards
  • 2x Conservation Assistants
  • 3x Long Term Volunteers (of which I am one).

Everyday the castle is given what is called a "through clean;" this happens in the morning before the castle opens. This involves the whole of the house team and takes us just over 2 hours. The clean follows the visitor route; this entails hovering the druggets (carpets that are laid over historic carpets for protection) and dusting of all flat stable surfaces in each and every room: even the rooms which are open, but visitors can only partially enter, have to be dusted entirely. This is because of the dispersion of particles that occurs by having constant through traffic in the property.

On a Monday we "deep" hoover and on a Tuesday we "deep" dust. The deep dust means the use of pony hair brushes to remove dust from the surfaces of objects which are more delicate and cannot withstand daily dusting. The deep hoover is to ensure any cobwebs from windows are removed and any debris that has fallen down chimneys is cleared. The reason for the deep clean is not only to keep the castle looking at its best for visitors, but also to protect the collection. Dust deposition can be very damaging to objects, especially those that have delicate substrates.

Another task I have been given is "Interpretation," which is composing information to give the visitors more knowledge about the items and interiors in the castle. My current project is to spruce the case guide in the Clive Museum. All of the objects in the museum are in this guide, which means that I am learning a lot about the collection! I have also had the opportunity to attend an Integrated Pest Management (IMP) course run by Bob Child. Following the course, Ellen (another intern) and I visited to Benthall Hall to lend our willing hands to the regional conservator. One of our tasks was to check and relocate pest traps, which meant we could implement what we had learnt. I am hoping that I will be able to shadow a furniture conservator, as and when they visit Powis. I fully intend to use the contacts the Trust has and with any luck arrange some visits to workshops, so I can continue improving my practical skills. I would also like the opportunity to visit other properties the trust is involved with, and also see how they work.

In the month I have been here the conflict between visitor attraction and conservation access has constantly played on my mind. As I have come into this straight from being in a workshop, I am finding the question of access to rooms very fascinating. Ideally the Trust would like to open rooms entirely, without having roped off areas, but this depends on finding a balance. The thought is to allow access up to a point, but how much can an object or interior take without damage being caused...? Surely we should be trying to prevent harm all together not pushing it to the limits... but creating an enjoyable experience for the visitors is very high priority.

The collection at Powis is incredibly wonderful and for it not to be shared with people would be a tragedy. It is great not only for the visual pleasure, but also to aid in the cultural education of visitors, and of course to earn its keep---but the damaged that is being caused through the extended opening times and daily cleaning is irreversible. This does throw up the similar sort of ethical questions I encounter with interventive conservation... "Should I, shouldn't I?" While I am working as a conservation assistant I know what I am doing is both aiding and hindering conservation and in the relative time span of the collection I am almost like a speck of dust! Whereas being at the bench I felt like I was really making a noticeable difference to the life of an item.

Saying that, I have been here such a short time… I am still settling in and what I will learn in the coming year will definitely be interesting and highly beneficial. Even though I am desperately missing being at the bench, I know the knowledge I gain here will be invaluable!