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Questions to an organics conservator

conservator examining an object

Read more about the organics conservation department on this website.

What's the oldest thing you have worked on? 

I prepared many of the objects for display in World Museum’s Ancient Egypt gallery, including the coffin of Hetepti dating from 2345-2160 BC (Dynasty 6 – early First Intermediate Period). 

I also worked on the amber cabinet pictured below, which was made about 300 years ago in Gdansk. However, the amber originated from resin produced in trees about 45 million years ago. 

two views of a small cabinet covered in amber, with the doors shut and open

Amber Cabinet circa 1700

What's the biggest thing you have worked on?

We don't tend to get very big things to work on but I have conserved a Greenland kayak which was 5.2 metres long but surprisingly narrow for a well-wrapped up adult Inuit hunter to sit comfortably in.

What sort of objects/materials does an organics conservator work on?

The list is almost endless. Organic materials are derived from animal or plant constituents or have a carbon basis. I deal with any objects made from these materials which do not fall into categories dealt with by other specialist conservators.

They include wood, grasses, basketry, seeds, gourds, wax, resins, fur, feather, hair, leather and skin and horn. I also deal with semi-organic materials such as coral, ivory and bone and many modern synthetic materials including plastics and rubber. The objects are of all ages, from prehistoric to modern day and from anywhere in the world. 

I deal with everything from decorative arts to household items and wartime equipment, from ancient Egyptian grave goods to pop memorabilia. Colourful and intriguing objects from the Ethnographic collections often grace the studio and include wooden carvings, feather cloaks and stunning headdresses.

Hamat’sa Mgwaml mask

Hamat’sa Mgwaml mask, North West Coast America, 2009

How do you ensure that you are not exposed to harmful bacteria?

We routinely investigate the objects we work on and document where there may be harmful materials such as bacteria or toxins present in the collections. For example, Amazonian darts may still have viable curare poison present on their tips and World War II gas masks may contain asbestos. Such materials are stored carefully and clearly labelled to warn of the danger. We avoid handling objects unnecessarily and if there is a risk of a hazard we wear personal protective equipment, including disposable gloves, lab coats and protective goggles.

You sometimes work with human remains. Do you ever work with the medical profession on such projects?

All of the Egyptian mummies in our collections were x-rayed in the 1960s with the help of the Royal Liverpool Hospital. The hospital has more recently undertaken CT scanning of one of our mummies Padiamun, doorkeeper of the temple of Amun, dating from about 664 – 525 BC. This has revealed extensive information about the mummy without the need to unwrap it, which would cause irreparable damage. We have been able to confirm the gender and approximate age of the body, find out about medical conditons which affected Padiamun in life and look at how the body was prepared for the afterlife.

Egyptian mummy lying on a hospital scanner