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Organics conservation

organics conservation studio

The work of this section is characterised by the wide range of object and material types we deal with in National Museums Liverpool's collections. They include textiles, wood, plant fibre, ivory, horn, bone, fur, feathers, leather, plastics, rubber, and more. The objects originate from all parts of the world and date from ancient prehistory to the present time.

We ensure that the objects on display and those in storage are kept in stable, clean environments, condition checking them and carrying out any necessary treatment to conserve them.

We prepare objects to go out on loan to exhibitions in the UK and abroad. We ensure each object is robust enough to travel and work with the handling and transport team to ensure they are adequately protected in transit. We also condition check and monitor objects on loan to  National Museums Liverpool for exhibitions in our venues.

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Conserving a Chinese sewing chest

In this video conservator Eleanor Baumber examines a Chinese sewing box and explains what conservation treatment was needed before it went on display in the  Museum of Liverpool in 2011.


Hello, my name is Ellie. I work here in the Organics Department in the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool. Organic materials can really be anything that was once part of a living thing, so perhaps leather, ivory, even things like plastics and rubber. Today I'd like to show you a Chinese sewing box which we currently have in for conservation.

We think that the box dates from the mid 1800s. It's Chinese and we think it was made in the province of Canton. It has a strong Liverpool link as it was bought by a shipmaster called Robert Thompson. He worked for the Blue Funnel Ship Company. They were a shipping company in Liverpool who ran trading ships from Liverpool to Asia. It was quite commonplace for people like Captain Robert Thompson who was the commander of a ship to bring home objects for private reasons. We believe in 1870 he bought the table for his wife.

There are three main problems with the box. The first is that the surface is covered with quite a lot of surface dirt. The second problem is that in some places the lacquer has cracked and has lifted and these areas are quite vulnerable. The final problem is that some of the lacquer has actually fallen away leaving large losses where the wooden substrate underneath has become visible.

There will be three main stages of conservation treatment. The first stage will be to remove the surface dirt. We will do this by trialling a range of cleaning solvents. We have got to bear in mind that the lacquer is quite vulnerable, so we have to be careful not to use anything that is too aggressive. We will look for something that will effectively remove the surface dirt without damaging the lacquer. The second stage will be to secure some of the lifting lacquer and we will do this by using a conservation grade adhesive that creates a sympathetic but suitable result which will hopefully be reversible as well. The final stage will be to infill some of the large losses of lacquer on top of the box. Some of those areas are quite distracting and take away from the overall appearance. So again, using a carefully chosen range of conservation grade materials we'll look to create some infills that replicate the original appearance of the lacquer. We will carefully record that so that for future reference we will know where we've made any changes.

Reversibility is a key value of conservation. We never know when better techniques and better materials will be available to us in the future. And although we test the materials that we use today very carefully we simply can't predict how they will degrade, just like the objects themselves, in 20, 50, maybe 100 years time. So we always look to do things in the most sympathetic and reversible way possible.

The fantastic thing about the conservation project of the sewing table is that after it's finished it will go on display in the new Museum of Liverpool which opens this summer 2011.

There is a lot of work to be done on the box and we think it's going to take somewhere in the region of 80 hours of work.

For the most important part of the treatment what I'm going to do now it to apply my gloves as without these acid soils from my hands could transfer onto the lacquer and that can cause irreversible damage.