The Royal Institution has an amazing collection of iconic objects, many of which have become relevant to the conservation world: the first ionization spectrometer, the first enzyme model and Faraday’s sample of benzene. In addition to these objects is a body of paper archive material that communicates the history of the Ri and the people who have been involved with it over the years.
The preservation of historical material depends upon several overlapping factors including a stable environment, safe handling, storage and exhibit practices, and the stabilisation of items that are physically vulnerable to use. We are currently carrying out a comprehensive survey of the book and paper archive, to assess the condition, determine what scale of conservation is needed for each series, and decide what preservation actions may be needed to further safeguard this part of the Ri’s heritage.
The survey assesses the collection condition and also documents the main causes of deterioration with the aim of making recommendations to rectify them. The survey collects specific data in a standardised form like types of damage, e.g. surface, chemical etc. and allocates a condition grade. We are using the existing museum objects damage types and condition grades as they can be integrated into the existing museum-wide documentation and make comparisons between collections of all material types. One of the conservation presumptions we are addressing in the survey is the idea that everything can be or needs to be conserved. Unlike many initial surveys, we are using a comprehensive survey rather than a sample survey because of the wide range of archive object types, e.g. correspondence, sketchbooks, typescripts, etc., and the way the collections are organised by person which is inherently diverse due to time and geography.
After the initial phase of the survey, the general condition is good showing the effect of good collection care practices by the heritage team. The main causes of deterioration in collections such as this are handling and historically poor storage, and the Ri’s collection follows this trend in that some objects can do with remedial work and special handling guidelines if future use or exhibition is intended. After surveying the priority collections, the survey will continue until approximately October 2017, with a view to identifying the key needs and ultimately preserving this crucial heritage collection.