Ceramic Conservation

Manchester Museum - Collection Bites: Out of the Blue

Recently conserved Romano-Egyptian pot - Manchester Museum (The University of Manchester). Image by Irit Narkiss

A few weeks ago I went to a talk by Irit Narkiss, a conservator at Manchester Museum. Irit's talk was about her investigative conservation of a faïence Romano-Egyptian pot.

Irit's talk was one of a series of talks at Manchester Museum called 'Collection Bites'.

Irit explained that a museum's responsibility is not to restore, but to conserve and prevent further degradation to an object. It is important that you can tell which parts are original and which parts are repairs, and the reason behind this is that it helps people visualise the piece as a whole. It may be difficult when there are many pieces missing from an object, but it is important that any repairs done don't trick people into thinking it is a complete piece. The repairs must stand out enough to be obvious. Irit explained it is not restoration but conservation, a very important distinction.


Egyptian Faïence

Egyptian faïence is a clay-like substance but it is made up from Silica (crushed quartz or sand), Potash (plant ash), and Limestone. Clay is not normally used in making Egyptian faïence, however it may have been mixed in to help make larger items such as the pot in question. The additions of copper and cobalt gives the traditional turquoise or blue colours to the faïence.

The original pot Irit was working on had most of the rim missing and part of one of the handles. It had previously been restored by someone before it became part of the Manchester Museum collection, however, the original restoration was rather crude and badly done.


Investigative Conservation

Irit explained the process of investigative conservation which began with research into the history of the pot and looking for similar pieces to compare. This was followed by careful examination of the pot to try and work out if it was possible and how best to remove the old repairs without damaging the original object. Next, tests were done with different materials and finishes which could be used to recreate the missing parts. The new pieces would have to be sympathetic to the original but importantly, could be removed at a later date if need be without damaging the original piece. Being able to remove the reconstructed parts is quite important because there is the possibility that in the future new information may come to light which may change current views on the object and its appearance.

All the way through the process images are taken to record the conservation work. Throughout the process a conservator will always be investigating the piece they are working on to ascertain its material properties, the method of production, and any clues to its use and role within a culture. Irit explained how she was able to take a small sample and send it away for analysis in an electron microscope to find out more about the chemical make-up and structure of the faïence.

I found the talk to be fascinating and very informative, and it helped to explain the conservator's role within a museum environment. As a potter myself, this is an area which I know very little about although I have spent many hours studying old pots in museum collections. I always find it frustrating that I can't handle an object and interact with it so that I can better understand its form and finish and maybe glean more of its hidden nuances. However, I understand that a museum's prerogative is to conserve an object for future generations and that being displayed in controlled conditions along with minimal handling is the safest way to do this.


Buckley Jug

Buckley Blackware Jug in the collection of Deiniol Williams

Following on from the talk, I began thinking about an old Buckley black-ware jug which belonged to my Mamgu (my Welsh grandmother).  It will have been made along with thousands more at some point in the 1800's. There are a few around if you know where to look but many didn't survive as they were viewed as utensils and not the 'best crockery', and hence weren't cared for in the same way. This particular pot, though being earthenware and porous, has absorbed salt into the body through years of use which is now leaching out and forming crystals and consequently causing parts of the glaze to fall off. If left to carry on, all the glaze will eventually fall off including parts of the ceramic body itself.

Now this object isn't of great monetary worth (or so I believe), but it is worth a lot to me as it's an emotional link to my family and also a link to the old Buckley potteries of North Wales.

It is now at a critical point whereby if I leave it any longer, large areas of glaze are going to fall off. As you can see the jug it is already showing some serious signs of degradation. I shall have to do some research to find out what the best course of action is, and to find out if it's even possible to save it from its inevitable fate.

If I am able to save it from further damage I shall let you know.