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Frequently asked questions to conservators

furniture conservator talking to visitors

Our conservators deal with lots of enquiries from the public, including questions about the collections they care for, as well as advice on how to look after precious artefacts and memorabilia.

The answers to some general questions are below and you can also see questions to specific types of conservators in the conservation departments section of the website. For example, if you'd like advice on how to care for photographs, books or watercolour paintings, have a look at the questions to a paper conservator.

General questions

How much is it worth?
We can’t tell you! It is usually curators who provide provenance for a piece (documentation that an object is what it appears to be, where it came from and when it was made). However, conservators can (and often do) provide information that may help to authenticate or date an object through material evidence, such as manufacture and tool markings.

Is central heating bad for antiques?
Central heating can frequently cause the atmosphere to 'dry out'. Whilst in a damp building this may not be such a bad thing, in a normal building when heat 'dries out' the atmosphere it can cause the relative humidity to drop, sometimes as low as 20 - 30%. When the relative humidity is this low for a length of time, not only is it not very good for human beings, it can also cause serious damage to certain types of objects - organic materials such as wood and textiles can become brittle or shrink and develop cracks or splits. Natural glues holding objects together can also dry out. When these types of damage happen it can sometimes lead to an object breaking or falling apart completely. There are some objects however, such as metalwork that actually fair better in a lower humidity than a higher one.

Why do you not use spotlights to show off the objects in your museums? Why do you not open the curtains when it's nice and sunny outside?
Many items in museum collections are made of materials that can be badly affected by both natural and artificial light; photographs, watercolours and documents can fade, textiles and feathers can also fade and become brittle, (how many curtains have you seen where the edges that catch the sunlight have faded or begun to shred?) and wood too can change in colour becoming either lighter or darker depending upon the type of wood. Sadly when this type of damage occurs it can often be impossible to repair without significant cost and alteration to the original construction and finish of an object. Also, even for items that may be insensitive to high light levels, the heat generated by high levels of both natural and artificial light can have a negative effect upon the relative humidity of the atmosphere surrounding the object. If this happens then it can lead to further types of environmental damage to collections.

Why do you have so many things in cases?
We display our objects in cases for a number of reasons. It may be because the environmental conditions of the gallery space, (for example, relative humidity, temperature, light, dust or pollution levels) are not suitable for the type of material the object is constructed from or the object may be particularly sensitive to frequent fluctuations in environmental conditions, which the case is designed to buffer against. Alternatively the object may be cased because frequent dusting could cause it to become damaged, or it may simply be that it is a very valuable object that requires the increased security a case can provide. Whatever the reason, the use of a case frequently allows an object to be imaginatively displayed and lit, and it also of course allows visitors to get very close to objects.

Do I have silverfish because I'm not very good at housekeeping?
No - having silverfish is frequently an indication of high humidity, damp or water leakage, which is why they are commonly found in bathrooms, kitchens and basements.

How do I know I have carpet beetles and can I get rid of them?
If you live in an old house with floorboards and fireplaces and/or chimneys the chances are you will have carpet beetle, and they will be fairly impossible to get rid of. If do you have carpet beetle then you tend to see the adults on windowsills in the spring/summer months.

two beetles

Two beetles

Do carpet beetles only eat carpets?
No they will eat anything with keratin in it, eg feathers, furs, flies, dead mice and at times just plain old household dust, (because of the dead skin found in the dust!).

Why is the death watch beetle called the death watch beetle?
It got its name in the days when people used to sit at the bedside of the dying in their homes. At that time, when everything was quiet, the beetles could apparently be heard 'knocking' in the timbers of old houses.

How do I know if the woodworm I have in a piece of furniture are new or old?
If the infestation is new or the holes are fresh then there will probably be small piles of very fine 'sawdust' near to the holes. Also, if you run your finger over the hole you will be able to feel a 'burr' around the edge of the hole where the beetle has exited. Plus, if you look at the hole, the wood inside the hole will have a paler/fresh appearance whereas the old holes tend to be darker.

If I find an unusual insect at home can I bring it to you for identification?
You could bring it to us, but as we tend to focus only on museum pests at the National Conservation Centre, it might be better to take it to our Entomology Department at World Museum, who have far more knowledge and experience of identifying a wide variety of insects. You can ask at the information desk, Bug House or Clore Natural History Centre at World Museum.