Caring for collections: from teacups to tapestries

A conservator working on a decorated plate at Cragside, Northumberland

With over 200 historic houses and a million objects in our collections, the National Trust has a significant challenge in caring for all its historic contents and interiors.

In the past, country house owners would have employed a significant number of housekeeping staff. For example, at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, around 30 people were employed in the house in the late nineteenth century. Today there are six members of staff and a small team of volunteers.
To introduce new members of staff to preventive conservation (also called housekeeping) the National Trust runs an annual Housekeeping Study Days course, held in a different property each year.
The course covers a huge range of materials and types of object, from teacups to tapestries, and provides an introduction to conservation cleaning, planning and monitoring.

Learning about 'agents of deterioration'

In 2015 we descended on Polesden Lacey in Surrey. Twenty tutors covered fifteen subjects over three and a half days. The challenge for the trainees is to remember the huge quantity of information they receive!
First six main ‘agents of deterioration’ are explored: relative humidity, light, pests, dust, mechanical damage and mould. Staff learn how to manage these factors effectively, to slow down deterioration to an acceptable and sustainable level.
Then they get down on their knees for some hands-on activity, waxing and polishing floors and rolling and beating carpets. After that they enjoy the taking down and moving of paintings, up and down stairs.

Cleaning our six most common collections

The longest and most detailed lessons cover the six most common types of material and collections: books and paper; ceramics; textiles; metals; furniture; stone & plaster. The sessions include trying out cleaning techniques.
Staff learn what happens when objects are overcleaned, or when wrong methods are used, for example, how easy it can be to scratch metal surfaces in a matter of seconds - definitely something to avoid.
In the stone and plaster session, staff learn how to clean up all sorts of materials which could accidentally be spilled onto historic stone floors, such as mud, oil, red wine and make-up.
After a demonstration and once kitted up with aprons and gloves, the delegates are let loose on the mess. They have great fun cleaning it up, ensuring the stone is completely clean and stain free at the end.
At the end of the course, the newly-trained and house-proud staff go back to their properties, putting everything they have learned into practice in order to take care of our precious collections and warmly to welcome all our visitors once again.