Step into the shoes of Conservator Eleni and find out what her typical day is like.

As a new member of the conservation team at The Postal Museum, I would like to share with you the pleasure and excitement that I feel in participating in all the work taking place to safeguard TPM collections into the future.

Eleni installing a postal uniform in the gallery

I discovered the field of conservation at secondary school during a careers session where a visiting professional talked to us about their work. I will never forget the day that an archaeological conservator described in detail the recovery and conservation of a fragmented Archaic Greek statue (Kouros). It was a fascinating and gripping account of the unearthing of a historic artefact which could help unveil the mysteries of the lives of our ancestors.

Over the following years, no other work prospect came remotely close to the excitement and interest that I felt that day. At the time there was no dedicated course in conservation in Thessaloniki, Greece and so I applied to study paper conservation in London. I was very lucky to be offered a place and I have loved every single day of my training and work since.

My role here at TPM is to provide the specialist conservation knowledge for the overall preservation of our collections. I joined the team in January 2020 and in these two months I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of collection items, each one bringing together my technical knowledge and appreciation of our cultural heritage.

On a typical day I will start by checking my emails for anything that requires an urgent response and then I will set up the tools and equipment that I need for the day’s planned conservation processes. These might be the preparation of wheat starch paste to use in paper repair or cutting up board for the making of enclosures. As the practical work can often be intensive due to the repetition of movement and close hand and eye coordination, I always plan other smaller tasks to attend to throughout the day.

One of the first collection items I worked on was a Penny Black stamp sheet which was to replace the existing Penny Black sheet on show. I created a mounting system to protect the item whilst inside the display case. Conservators work closely with the archivists and the curators in checking the condition of the objects chosen to illustrate the exhibition narrative and support all the decisions required to bring together an exhibition.

I had a good glimpse of the process of object rotation in January and understood the environment and security issues involved in the museum’s exhibition program.

Eleni working on the Penny Black sheet in her studio

Other objects may require more practical conservation work in order to stabilise their condition for either storage or exhibition. Recently we were treating a range of postcards from our collection. In the photograph below you can see a thin strip of Japanese tissue that is prepared to be adhered onto the fraying edge of the embroidery panel of this unusual postcard. This will halt the damage and protect the delicate embroidered panel edge from further fraying.

Eleni treating an embroidered postcard

In the photograph that follows you can see two different stamp master dies; the one on the left (half penny postage) has its protective varnish still visible, whilst the one on the right (one penny postage) shows the surface of the die cleaned in preparation for the exhibition.

Stamp dies

I also participate in monitoring the museum’s pest management program. Protecting the collections from pests involves amongst other tasks a rolling programme of checking and renewing blunder traps positioned around the museum floor; exhibition areas, storage facilities, visitor spaces and offices. We identify the crawling insects collected in the traps and keep a log of their locations and numbers of pests found, this way we always know if an area suffers an increase of an unwanted visitor.

This knowledge is a very important prevention tool. Usual responses to an increased pest population are the thorough cleaning of the area and close monitoring for the ambient environment to understand why the pests are visiting the site. Food residues are the most common reason for pest activity.

Another weekly task is to check any new acquisitions that routinely enter the dedicated quarantine room. All new acquisitions remain in the quarantine room until a thorough assessment takes place. They will be checked in order to eliminate risks of contamination to other collection items. Items with mould stains will have to be cleaned inside a fume cupboard to ensure that all mould spores are being brushed away and safely extracted so they will not become airborne. The fume cupboard is a self-contained unit with a powerful fan which pulls the air through a filtration system continuously during the cleaning work. Throughout this detailed cleaning, all evidence of insect activity is collected and assessed to establish an appropriate action plan.

Preparing to clean mould stains

Whilst working from home I was making progress on my annual objectives such as updating the museum’s existing handling guidelines. Under the duty of care of the collections, I keep abreast of any development in paper conservation and thus I can support the museum’s work with the latest knowledge and advice.

I love the hands-on work and I am looking forward to returning to the museum. We recently started a project repairing a large book archive and creating bespoke storage enclosures for each volume.

I miss my daily walk through the galleries, during which I take great pleasure observing our visitors’ engagement with the exhibition displays; a trip to any museum is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy discovering new things about our history.

– Eleni Katsiani, Conservator

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