My name is Coco and I have just completed a work placement at Attingham Park, working with the conservation team. I have just graduated from university where I studied the History of Art and I am now looking to gain some practical skills of working with historic buildings and collections.
On a normal day as a conservation volunteer, I help to open the house before hoovering and dusting, using both everyday and specialist equipment, including pony hair and hog’s hair brushes. It is hugely important that the house is cleaned daily like this since dust and dirt can absorb moisture from the air and calcify, making it hard to remove.
A lizard skin inkwell cleaned by Coco
At Attingham, I also learnt how to check the amount of moisture in the air (the RH, or Relative Humidity) and temperature, as well as monitor the light levels (visible and UV) in the rooms where the collection was displayed and stored. To do this, I used a hand-held environmental monitor, taking readings near especially valuable and fragile items. It is essential the humidity and temperature levels in a room are kept stable – if conditions become too damp then objects will more quickly decay, but if they are too hot and dry then wood and plasterwork will shrink and crack. It is equally as important that the Trust monitors the amount, and intensity, of light that items are exposed to. If not controlled, light can leach the colour from textiles, watercolours, marquetry furniture and other sensitive objects, as well as weaken the fibres of fabrics.
This month, I assisted in updating the property’s inventory of artworks and objects in various rooms. This involved handling and (if necessary) cleaning objects and making a note of their number and condition status, later to be uploaded onto the Collections Management System [link to NT collections webpage]. It is important that the inventory is checked yearly at Attingham to ensure the house keeps its status as an accredited museum. Holly (a Conservation Assistant) and I carried out this job as Conservation in Action. This meant we spoke to visitors about the objects we were handling, some of which were very rare and precious.
We unlocked the semainier in the Sultana Room, a chest with seven clothes drawers (one for each day of the week plus, unusually, and extra drawer in Attingham’s semainier). The semainier contained hundreds of objects wrapped in acid-free tissue paper. Some of the most interesting included an almanac bound in shagreen (the skin of a stingray), locks of human hair wrapped in paper, and a miniature inkwell in a case of green lizard skin.
We also unwrapped Elizabeth I’s Great Seal, attached to a local document dated 1594. On one side, she is depicted enthroned; on the other, on horseback.
One of my favourite objects was a mourning locket featuring a memorial urn of woven hair, trimmed with gold and pearls and set in an avenue of trees.
I was also given the job of condition checking and dusting the vast shell collection, which is housed in a cupboard in the Boudoir. The collection consists of thousands of different varieties of shell—cowrie, conch, marlin spike, mitre, helmet, turbo, concus, volute, and so on—kept in a total of 18 drawers, some of which are carefully arranged in colourful, geometric patterns.
In one drawer, two seahorses are positioned in the centre of a group of sea urchin and limpet shells. On the surrounding shelves, there are larger shells, including a giant conch and even an ostrich egg!
The collection is thought to have belonged to Sophia, who married the Second Lord Berwick in 1812, although this is only one theory. Others believe it was the First Lady Berwick, or even her mother, who owned the collection. In this period, shells were sourced from across the world—namely from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indo-Pacific—and brought back by sailors and naturalists to be sold in dealers’ shops. It would be here that Lady Berwick acquired her collection. Holly has written a very interesting article for the Attingham Mansion blog which is definitely worth a read, if you’re interested in learning more about contemporary shell-collecting practices. Please click here to see it.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Attingham so far. Volunteering here has helped me to understand how the National Trust works as a conservation charity. As a conservation volunteer, you get the chance to perform multiple roles — you are responsible not only for caring for and safeguarding an important, historic collection, but also for bringing it to life for the benefit of everyone.
If you would like to find out more about volunteering opportunities at Attingham, please click here.