Conservation in Action

Conservation at Ickworth Housekeeping

Every January one of the National Trust’s many properties plays host to the Housekeeping Study course, this event sees staff members from house teams up and down the country gathering to learn conservation best practice and benefiting from the knowledge and skills of Conservators. Elea Walker, Conservation Assistant at Ickworth tells us all about her recent training.

What is the Housekeeping Study course?  Who goes on it?

Housekeeping is all about how we manage and protect our historic buildings and collections, aiming to strike the right balance between their conservation needs and the access we provide to our visitors. The conservation practices we use are constantly evolving, which is part of what makes the Housekeeping Study course so useful and interesting – no matter how long you’ve been in your role, there is always more to learn!

Spaces are highly sought after and attended by a wide range of staff, from Conservation Assistants like me, to House Stewards, General Managers and even new Conservators themselves. However, it’s not just National Trust staff who attend the course, we are sometimes joined by colleagues from other historic institutions such as Historic Royal Palaces and privately managed houses.

Where was the course?

This year it was the turn of Saltram, near Plymouth in Devon, to host the Housekeeping Study course. Saltram’s elegant Georgian façade was built around a much earlier building, and the house contains beautiful examples of complete rooms created for the family by Robert Adam. One of these rooms is the Saloon, which in the past couple of years has been extensively conserved; a birdcage scaffold was built within the room itself in order for conservators to complete work to the delicate ceiling, while beneath this scaffold a team of textile specialists conserved the Saloon’s important Axminster carpet.

During our visit, however, many of Saltram’s rooms, including the Saloon, looked a little different than you might find them on a regular visit. Spaces all over the house became temporary classrooms where we examined dust, cleaned ceramics, studied textiles, mopped the floor and practiced rolling carpets, just to name a few. 

What type of classes were there?

First up on the agenda each morning we had a couple of sessions about the ‘Agents of Deterioration’. During the course we covered light, dust, pests, mould, relative humidity and mechanical damage. Because these are forces which can cause major damage to our delicate historic collections it is important that we learn how to monitor and control them. If you’ve visited a historic house and noticed that blinds are kept down on some of the windows then you’ve already encountered one of the ways that we manage the amount of light which falls on our objects.

We also attended sessions about how to care for stone floors, wooden floors and carpets. You can imagine how important it is to look after these areas properly, as they receive a lot of foot traffic in our properties! In the afternoons we moved on to classes about some of the most common materials that are found in our historic collections: metalwork, textiles, ceramics, plaster/stone, books/paper and wooden furniture. All the classes we attended during the course had practical elements to let us try out different techniques and improve our understanding of the materials themselves. I often work with the textiles in our collection here at Ickworth, and enjoyed practicing how to distinguish between different fabrics, as well as tamping carpets.

What have you learnt that will be useful at Ickworth?

I’ve been a Conservation Assistant here at Ickworth for over a year and I went into this course having already developed a good general understanding of housekeeping techniques and preventative conservation on the job. I hoped that this course would fill in any gaps and enhance all of this practical knowledge I’d accrued. I was not disappointed! There were so many new ideas being shared and I found this opportunity to meet members of staff from all over the country and learn from specialist conservators really valuable.

I found the session on caring for metalwork really useful as it highlighted for me areas where some change to our current copper cleaning regime in the Servants’ Quarters could improve the condition of our metals. Also in the session on carpets and rugs we practiced the easiest way of rolling up carpets, which will definitely come in useful given the size of our carpets in the State Rooms!

In general though, the ways in which we look after our historic houses and collections aren’t static, they evolve all the time as we learn how to better respond to the problems we face while caring for our special places. Similarly, all the new things I learned on this course will enhance, not overhaul, the way we work, keeping Ickworth moving forward as we conserve the past.