Frances Cooper, Senior Conservation Technician, writes:
In March 2020 the University of Leeds Special Collections and Galleries shut its doors and staff switched from the 1930s Brotherton Library to the 21st century virtual workplace of Microsoft Teams. The prospect of carrying out conservation and collections care work remotely was quite daunting. Our main priority in the first weeks of lockdown was to ensure the collections were safe by remotely monitoring the environmental conditions in our stores and galleries.
Most of our spaces are monitored by remote sensors that send temperature, relative humidity and light readings to a computer database. We worked with the IT team to set up access to our environmental data from home. If there was an incident such as a water leak or a problem with the air handling system, we could quickly alert the facilities and security teams on campus.
We drew up a list of essential checks to be carried out on the collection storage areas and galleries. This included checking for water leaks and physical damage to the buildings as well as collecting up the insect monitoring traps which are part of our integrated pest management programme. We were grateful for the help of the facilities and security staff. Working with different teams not previous involved in collections care activities has highlighted the value of advocacy and forming closer working relationships with teams outside Special Collections.
From August 2020 the Collections Care Team went back on site to carry out essential activities. I prioritised integrated pest management as I was concerned that without regular access for cleaning storage areas, pests which pose a threat to collections such as silverfish and carpet beetles might become established. We monitor pest activity using sticky traps and record the data so that preventative action can be taken before pests can damage collections. We have over 200 pest traps across Special Collections. I gathered them up and took them home to analyse the data.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that pest activity had gone down in most areas of Special Collections during lockdown. This can be attributed to the lack of human activity on site, and we are thinking about how we can reduce the risk of pests as staff return to campus. For example, the need for increased ventilation in our office spaces means that we now open windows. To reduce the risk of pests entering the building we designed and made removable window mesh covers that allow air flow but keep insect pests out; so far, they seem to be working very well.
As the University went into lockdown, we were preparing a new exhibition on the Cottingley Fairies and a new exhibition of objects from Special Collections for the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. Surprisingly, we were able to make a good amount of progress on the exhibitions remotely. We collaborated with the curatorial team on Teams to plan the layout of our exhibition cases and how the objects would be displayed.
We used our EMu collections management software to access information about the objects that had been chosen for display and to make decisions about lighting levels, how long each object could be displayed for and to plan any remedial conservation work. My collections care colleague Fred Pepper took home pieces of museum board and equipment for making display mounts. Back on campus, we worked with the Digitisation Team to capture detailed images of the objects for conservation records and the digital labels in the Treasures Gallery.
We installed the exhibitions in the Treasures Gallery in November 2020 just before the coronavirus restrictions were tightened again. Not knowing when we would be able to open the exhibitions to the public, we decided to remove many of the objects in the Treasures Gallery from their display mounts to help protect them while the gallery was closed. It was slightly disheartening to have to partially de-install the exhibition. Now, the exhibitions are open to the public and it feels amazing to have visitors in the galleries and see how well the exhibitions came together.
Almost two years after the start of the pandemic and we have adapted to a ‘new normal’ way of working. Despite the challenges we have successfully carried out two exhibition changes in the Treasures Gallery and reopened the Research Centre. While working remotely has not been ideal it has given us time to reflect on collections care activities and introduce new ways of working and collaborating.