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Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s In My Bag? Conservation-style.

As the conservator for the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, I have many clients around the Mall and far beyond, geographically-speaking. (See that column of Contributors over there on the right? That’s just a few of them.) When I get a call to consult on an object under consideration for accession, exhibition, or with a potential treatment in mind, I’m lucky if that person and object happen to be in my building, where I can easily examine it in my lab with all my tools and supplies at the ready. However, only three of my constituents are here, and even they have offsite storage locations where they hold collections. Also, it can become quite the involved scenario of paperwork and handling to transfer objects between museums and research units. In fact, at the National Museum of the American Indian, we may even have to ask permission of a tribal council to transfer the object out of their custody. Moving objects simply for a consultation creates undue risk and delay, so often I go to them for the initial evaluation.

So, what does a conservator-on-the-go typically need to consult onsite? Since I happen to be a fan of the Flickr group
Whats in Your Bag , I thought I’d use that model to show you. The bag itself is a cute little case rescued from the trash bin of a long-ago leather conservation research project and lined with scrap alkaline paper; also I tested some new leather treatments from this past decade on it. Now on to what's inside.
the toolkitIn individual baggies, I have pH Strips to test acidity, very thin blotter/chromatography paper for testing solubility of ink or stains, and (below the case) blotter packs for drying the areas that have been wetted for these tests with a tiny vial of deionized water.tiny vial of deionized water

I use soft brushes and erasers to test removal of pressure-sensitive adhesives (tape) or soil; not for erasing our object! Reference color bars are there to be included in digital snapshots taken in non-ideal lighting setups; with these I can apply color correction to the images later on.

reference color standards
I always include a separately boxed slide kit with to take away acceptable samples in vials or on slides for further lab tests. (Sometimes the samples can be reattached to the object if need be; more often they are fragments that have fallen off in the first place.) The kit keeps glass slides and cover slips dust-free. For tools, I have a tungsten needle, really fine tweezers, small scissors, and tiny scalpel; mounting media for slippery textile and paper fibers; a matchbook, for melting the mount medium; an extra-fine permanent marker and pencil for marking slides; and an extra pencil, you always need another one.
slide kit
even smaller vials

The Teflon floss is there because I’m really concerned about dental hygiene. Ok, I am, but this is actually for testing the removal of objects adhered with gummy adhesive tape (accidentally or otherwise. Recently, I’ve had to add fine piano wire, where the floss wouldn’t, um, cut it.

Not pictured are my digital camera, pocket microscope with light, condition exam forms. Perhaps I’ve outgrown my bag? Not really. These last items for photo documentation and recording notes can all be done now with my mobile phone, if I really want to. But sometimes a paper and pencil is still just the best thing, right?
P.S. If you wish to learn more about archives conservation, please see our companion post today over on The Bigger Picture, celebrating one year in the new Archives Lab.

Nora Lockshin, Center for Archives Conservation, Smithsonian Institution Archives.


  1. Nora,
    I liked this post a lot. People like to see what's in your bag! One interesting item I just added to my "bag" is a powerful little UV LED flashlight sold by Museum Services Corp. Very cool.

    If you would be interested in being a guest blogger for or let me know. I like your writing style.

    Scott M. Haskins
    Author, Painting Conservator

  2. I concur with Scott. Conservators who write well and with humor - perhaps this is another AIC subgroup.

    Being an objects person, my kit contains some different items. I am working on a post for the AIC WIKI.

  3. Thank you both Scott and Helen! I have been thinking about a UV flashlight also - my colleague Don Williams travels with one. I appreciate the invite, but right now blogging for SI takes up its full measure of time in addition to my usual duties. But I suggest you both contact our sculpture and metals conservator pal Connie Stromberg, who shared her perfect travelling toolbox once at a Washington Conservation Guild tips & tricks session. You should both hit her up!