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The workshop PHYSICAL ENCOUNTERS: WHAT DO WE MEAN BY CONDITION? took place on Monday 30 March 2009 and was led by the research cluster Principal Investigator Elizabeth Pye

The workshop abstracts are reproduced below. See also the workshop report by Elizabeth Pye. 

(PDF of Programme)


(PDF of Abstracts)

Joel Taylor

Joel Taylor, UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage

Introduction to condition demonstration

‘Condition’ is often defined by observable indicators of change to heritage objects, such as corrosion. It is a general term that incorporates various concepts and is not necessarily used or understood clearly. There are different interpretations of the meaning and importance of these concepts and indicators, so ‘condition’ can be perceived in various ways.  This talk discussed a practical session, held on the day, where delegates assessed the condition of heritage objects. Techniques to measure variation in assessment were used to discuss the extent of, and possible reasons for, difference in the way people perceive ‘condition’.

Joel Taylor recently completed a PhD about condition surveys, and has published various articles about condition, subjectivity in the condition survey process and looking at causes and effects of deterioration. He is currently Course Director for the Sustainable Heritage MSc at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage, University College London.

Suzanne Kuchler

Susanne Kuechler, UCL Anthropology

The materiality and potential of an object  

This paper examined the role of materials and materials-based technologies in artefacts; it surveyed approaches to uncover the sensory modalities which the materiality of artefacts harbours as potential, and situated such approaches in an analysis which regarded artefacts as bodily prostheses and as means to distribute personhood on extended spatio-temporal networks. This talk concluded with a consideration of the material-specific aging of artefacts as intentionally situated, and thus as resources of information about the ‘vehicular’ capacity of artefacts whose potential to elicit and transmit ideas has been all too often restricted to considerations of form.

Susanne Kuechler has conducted long-term research in the Pacific and has written widely on art, material culture and design, both in relation to Oceania and also in relation to specific materials and material technologies, their uptake and impact on society.

Jonathan Ashley Smith

Jonathan Ashley-Smith, Royal College of Art

What is condition?

There are several reasons for reporting on the condition of a museum object. The motive for recording the condition determines the meaning of the word, leading to several different interpretations. Although it may be desirable to think of an absolute definition of the current state of  an object, it is difficult to avoid relative interpretations relating to suitability or fitness for a given purpose.

Jonathan Ashley-Smith is an independent teacher, researcher and consultant in the area of collections risk. He is Visiting Professor in the Conservation Department at the Royal College of Art.  Author of
Risk Assessment for Object Conservation, he was formerly Head of Conservation at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Frances Halahan

Frances Halahan, Halahan Associates

Condition and management decisions

This presentation provided a brief look at how assessing the condition of objects can be used to make management decisions relating to the care and use of a collection. It looked at how condition may be assessed, at additional information that is needed alongside condition assessments and showed some condition assessment ‘tools’ or programmes. The advantages and disadvantages of condition assessment were discussed.

Frances Halahan trained as a conservator at UCL Institute of Archaeology, she has extensive conservation teaching experience at both West Dean College, and at City and Guilds of London Art School, and now heads a group of consultants specialising in collection surveys, conservation planning and exhibition work.

Ylva Dahnsjo

Ylva Dahnsjő, The National Trust

What is acceptable condition

The National Trust provides direct and virtual access to historic and natural environments. Collections are therefore shown in context, whether real or constructed. This presentation examined the parameters for acceptable condition and how they inform remedial and preventive conservation decisions for objects and interiors.

Ylva Dahnsjő has a MA in Mediaeval English from King’s College London. After several years as a university lecturer, she trained as a rare book conservator at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (University of the Arts). She was Chief Conservator of the Book & Paper  Conservation Studio, University of Dundee for 13 years,  and is currently Territory Conservator South of the National Trust.  (Formerly: Chair of SSCR, President of ECCO, Trustee of Dundee Rep Theatre, Member of  Funding Panel for Wellcome Trust).

Deborah Novotny

Deborah Novotny, The British Library

Surrogacy at the British Library

The British Library has a long history of providing surrogates for use to its users. The library has filmed for over 50 years and has extensive reserves of microfilm. This short presentation will give an overview of microfilm production, the priorities for filming - why newspapers? the move towards digital production and the hybrid solution that the library is currently pursuing.

Deborah Novotny is Head of Preservation at the British Library, in which role she has responsibility for many of the activities which support the care of the collections: salvage planning, collection handling, preservation priority setting and surrogacy. Deborah joined the library in 1989 where she managed a new book conservation studio specialising in the conservation of important heritage items. Previously Deborah worked in the private sector and ran her own business in book and archive conservation.

David Howell

David Howell, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Digitisation and the demand to see ‘real’ objects

Digitisation of collections within libraries with special collections has some fundamental differences to digitisation in museums. Some material within a library will be of interest simply for the words it contains and in an ideal world this material can be made available digitally without the need to resort to the physical object.  This talk highlighted examples of information discovered in the Bodleian Library that may never have come to light without the Google digitisation of nineteenth century material.

Other material within a library may contain widely available text, but it is the object itself that is of main interest, and a different approach to digitisation is required; expensive high grade digitisation. There are several projects at the Bodleian where this type of exercise is being carried out.

In either case digitisation may actually increase the demands on the physical collection. Mass low-level digitisation increases the knowledge that information exists but often the data is not complete and requires further investigation. Making high quality surrogates can give greater access to virtual material, but often scholars still need to have access to the material object, and objects are still required for exhibitions.

Digitisation makes library material more accessible than has previously been possible, which must be a massive advance in the libraries education mission. However it would be dangerous to be complacent and ignore the fact that the process may actually cause an increase in attrition to our collections.

David Howell is Head of Conservation and Collection Care at Oxford University Library Service based in the Bodleian Library which he joined in 2004. A graduate in Chemistry and English Medieval Studies he was previously the conservation scientist for Historic Royal Palaces for over 20 years.

David Prytherch

David Prytherch, Birmingham City University

Touching ghosts in museums: how real is a virtual object?

The main points of this presentation were: 

  • Why virtual objects might contribute to a useful strategy for conservation
  • What is haptics - Human Haptics and Machine Haptics
  • How might a virtual simulation work?
  • Haptic Interfaces - pros and cons
  • Current Interfaces
  • Possibilities for Museums
  • Economic 3D scanning
  • 3D Scanning workflow
  • Results of Pilot study investigating visitor response to touching virtual museum objects
  • An interesting and useful perceptual anomaly - The power of the brain

David Prytherch is Senior Research Fellow in Haptics and Computer Interface Design at Birmingham Institute of Art & Design. His research interests include Haptic (tacit) learning and teaching, haptics in skill development and implications in activity satisfaction and motivation and issues of tool use and material embodiment with regard to computer interface systems development.

Irit Narkiss and Helena Tomlin

Irit Narkiss and Helena Tomlin,The Manchester Museum

10 year olds crack the ‘Catch-22’

Using the recent project ‘The Museum of Me’ as a case study, this talk explored the process of engaging children with the real-life dilemmas of museum professionals.  A class of Year 5 children from Manchester worked with Manchester Museum staff to explore how they might interpret, display and care for objects in their own classroom; these included the children’s own prized objects, and artefacts made with a group of artists. The presentation analysed what frameworks and resources were required to develop skills to successfully resolve the dilemmas created by the access/conservation Catch-22.

Helena Tomlin joined The Manchester Museum as Curator of Learning in 2006.  She has a degree in Art History from The Courtauld Institute and an MA in Fine Art.  As a practicing artist and educator her work crosses different fields of enquiry.  After twenty years of leading teams of educators in museums and galleries, she now researches the ways that children learn within the museum environment.

Irit Narkiss (ACR) started out as an archaeologist and later studied conservation at UCL Institute of Archaeology.  After much project work and teaching she studied for an MA in Museum Management at Nottingham Trent University.  She joined The Manchester Museum as Conservator of Objects & Access in 2004 and investigates new ways of engaging visitors with museum objects.

Andrew Lamb

Andrew Lamb, Bate Collection, University of Oxford

Why do we play historical musical instruments when we have perfectly good modern ones?

This talk explored why there is a demand from musicians and researchers to play historical musical instruments in public collections.  Currently the presumption is that these objects should only be played in very special circumstances and not simply to hear ‘what they sound like’.  However, despite recent technological advances, there is still no universal method of describing or quantifying the first-hand experience of playing an instrument.  So what does the visiting researcher get from the experience?

Trained as a musical instrument conservator, Andy Lamb now works with one of the foremost collections of European orchestral instruments in the world.  Having also worked as a semi-professional musician he has gained unique insights into the needs of all areas of the wider museum constituency.

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan, Bristol Museums

Towards a Touch Policy for Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives

The main points of this presentation were:

  • We are making a new museum which will tell the story of Bristol and its people for the last 1,000 years
  • This has provided the opportunity for a discussion about a touch policy for the new museum and the wider service
  • Why do we need a touch policy?
  • What form has the discussion taken?
  • What have been the results?
  • What happens next?

Paul Sullivan has been working in the Museum Service in Bristol since 2006. For 12 years before this he was an Access Officer at Bristol University, providing training and support for staff, students and external organisations. He has been blind since birth and is a graduate of Birmingham University.

Julie Dawson

Julie Dawson, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

The close-up look

’Meet the Antiquities’, an informal gallery programme of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Department of Antiquities, was described and discussed. The aim of the programme is to offer individual visitors a close encounter with an object. Often, this is a piece that is under study or treatment by the curator or conservator who is hosting the session. Detailed visual examination, discussion and the handling of associated materials are all encouraged, but the visitor is not permitted to touch the object.

Julie Dawson trained as an archaeological conservator and has worked in Scandinavia, the Far East and Egypt. She is Senior Assistant Keeper (Conservation) at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Her particular areas of interest are the technology and conservation of ancient Egyptian material.

Francesca Monti

Francesca Monti, University College London

Collections for people

Francesca Monti discussed, on behalf of Suzanne Keene, some findings from the ‘Collections for People’ research project (UCL). Drawing from the results of a survey of 181 museums in England and Wales, the talk focused on how much stored collections are currently used by members of the public, the way in which they are used, and what promotes access and what hinders it.

Francesca Monti has a BA in Egyptian Archaeology and a postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies. She has a keen interest in the visitor-object encounter, and in the expressive potentials of objects, with emphasis on inconspicuous objects from Egyptology and archaeological collections. She is currently applying for funds for post-doctoral research while working as a museum consultant.

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