Conservation at Mr Straw's House
Mr Straw’s House is a great property to work at, the first of its kind in the National Trust it has become a leading light in how to manage small domestic historic houses with heritage attractions all around the world using its operation models. I have been privileged enough to work and help at Mr Straw’s House many times over my twelve year career with the National Trust and when the full time opportunity came along to join the property I jumped at it. Working alongside a brand new team and with extra hours and responsibilities assigned to the House Steward role it was a time where I would be able to use my years of knowledge and really make a difference to a National Trust collection.
The House Steward role is very varied, even more so with such a small team of staff you have to be able to turn your hand to anything. During the open season I care for the hosue by cleaning the visitor route daily and the wider collection monthly. I also monitor the agents of deterioration such as relative humidity, light levels, pest and mould damage as well as physical wear and tear. Wear and tear on the house is one of our biggest challenges with the number of visitors we recieve in a day there is a constant flow through a property that was only designed for a small family. During the winder clean we do much more, emptying rooms, drawers and wardrobes, stripping beds and pulling out furniture. This is our chance to inspect the whole collection as well as all fixtures and fittings, to achieve this I work closely with the team and many of our dedicated volunteers.
The cleaning techniques we use are adopted throughout the National Trust and other heritage organisations. For large flat areas we use lint free cloths, so as not to leave any bits behind as a conventional yellow duster would. The cloth is folded into a pad by turning all the corners inwards and then repeating until a soft pad is formed to fit into the palm of your hand. This stops any rough edges helping avoid scratching and snagging. For more delicate objects with carved or inlaid decoration we would use a series of natural brushes, either pony hair for soft materials such as gilt and silver or hogs hair for more robust surfaces such as wood or glazed ceramics. Sometimes you would have to use multiple cleaning techniques on one object depending on its finishes. All dusting is conducted into a vacuum cleaner or folded into the cloth when finished as we wish to remove it from the environment rather than throwing it into the atmosphere. We never use polishes as these can affect the objects around the one you are cleaning and can, over time, change the finish of a piece. We occasionally will add museum grade waxes to some objects, but would assess this on an individual basis.
With such careful cleaning and monitoring we are able to practice preventative conservation, stopping an object deteriorating to the point of restoration need, rather than remedial conservaiton where invasive works are carried out. Recently we had remedial work carried out on the drapes covering the bookcases in William Jnrs bedroom. He prized his book collection highly and used the drapes to avoid sun damage to the spines. The drapes had been protecting the books but had in themselves become fragile overtime. It is rare for us to replicate or replace any of the items in the collection, however the Egyptian patterned carpet was one such item to allow visitors through this extraordinary family home.