Conservation in Action: A Conversation with David Morris

From locomotives to looms, mines to mills and factories to freighters our global industrial and transport history is hugely important. It is a crucial part of our cultural heritage, reflecting the technological advancements, economic developments and social transformation of societies around the world. We spoke to David Morris AMA, the Principal Conservator at the Fleet Air Arm Museum and West Dean’s Conservation of Transport and Industrial Collections course tutor about the importance of preserving industrial heritage, the future of the area and some of his most memorable projects!

Why is it important to preserve industrial and transport items?

Historic transport and Industrial objects are a very interesting area of cultural heritage. There is a vast range of objects from small hand held tools and pieces of industrial machinery all the way up to cars, motorcycles, aircraft, steam driven machines, bicycles, tractors, commercial vehicles, water craft…the list is huge.

What is fascinating for me is that they all have a connection with people’s daily lives. They are all interesting objects, but for me become far more interesting when you ‘add people’. How the objects were designed, tested and used, whether that was an object used for work or pleasure. Even what colours tools, machines and objects were painted to make them attractive, saleable or functional can be a fascinating part of their design and history.

Unlike other collections, industrial artifacts are often exposed to harsh environmental conditions, subject to mechanical wear, and sometimes constructed from materials prone to decay. What specific challenges do artifacts from the transport and industrial sectors present in terms of preservation and conservation?

All of these objects need their own particular considered approach depending on what you want to achieve. Does it need preserving in totally original condition? Is the object housed outside? Do you want to use or demonstrate it? All of these situations or requirements come with many levels of thinking and approach.

You have more than 40 years’ experience working in conservation and restoration, have there been any particularly memorable projects?

There are many projects that I have either been involved with or seen in the last 40 plus years that could form quite a long list. If I had to single out a small selection I think the ‘Tornado’ steam train project is one that stands out. It is a massive achievement and shows what is possible to do if you want to demonstrate what an historic railway locomotive looks and sounds like in operation, without putting an original historic example at risk. Also, the Corsair fighter aircraft paint archaeology project here at the Fleet Air Arm Museum. A five year conservation programme which saw the painstaking inch-by-inch removal of a 1960s layer of paint (over the entire surface of the aircraft) to reveal and preserve the totally original 1945 paint finish that existed beneath. 

Looking to the future, what are the emerging trends and challenges in the preservation of historic transport and industrial items?

That is a really interesting question. Firstly the trends and changes. For hundreds of years people have saved, preserved or collected favorite items. However, when these items are operable (machines, vehicles etc) there has been a strong trend towards repainting them and making them work again. There is a growing trend these days towards maybe stopping and thinking about how truly original, rare or possibly unique the object is, and that maybe it needs to be kept in its original state. This approach and current trend is putting a much better balance into the world of historic industrial and transport objects with many objects being retained and preserved in very original condition as a result.

One area that is of growing concern is the skills set that are required to understand and maintain many transport and industrial collections and objects. We live in a very replaceable and throw-away world and the age range of people currently involved in mechanical heritage collecting and preservation is typically quite high, so attracting younger people into the world of mechanical heritage objects and giving them opportunities to develop or learn new skills to take on these collections in the future is very important and is clearly one of the challenges for the future.

You are course tutor for West Dean’s Conservation of Transport and Industrial Collections course. How has this course been designed to address the unique needs of conserving transport and industrial collections?

For many years there were few (if any) formal courses or study environments that dealt with historic industrial, mechanical and transport objects. Some Universities began to create museum studies schools, but overall there have been very few other opportunities, particularly for more accessible and affordable short courses, particularly focused on Transport and Industrial objects

Many people are introduced to conservation, restoration and preservation when they join a museum, collection or establishment but the underpinning ethics and ‘object critical thinking’ often varies or can sometimes be missed completely, so the West Dean Course grew out of a need to fill that gap, and provide a range of lecturers and experts in their field that could deliver the important baseline ethics and thinking in one concentrated package, and at a truly inspiring place to learn.

The course covers the skills and knowledge essential for safeguarding our industrial heritage, who is the course particularly relevant for?  

We have had a wide range of people on the course over the years from private collectors, Junior curators and conservation technicians to people in more senior positions, and even Museum Directors, all of whom have found the course insightful and useful!

One Museum Director once said that they basically knew most of what the course was delivering, but that the course had made them realise how out of touch they had become with their particular collection. So we hope the course has something to offer everyone on every level.

What can people expect during the course?

The course is a series of lectures and discussions particularly looking at the background and underpinning ethics of conservation, restoration and large mechanical object handling, punctuated with chances to see some of the different conservation workshops at West Dean.

There will be sessions led by material specialists looking at leather, rubber/plastic, paper, metal and environmental considerations, as well as an off-site field visit to the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum to look at and consider the various challenges of large objects that have to be housed in an external environment. All of which will provide the basis for many discussions, debates and Q&A sessions throughout the course.