By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology
If you have a passion for ethnographic objects and wish to acquire experience in the field of museum conservation, you perhaps need look no further than the departmental Material Culture Collection. While you may have noticed the exhibits that welcome visitors to the foyer, you should be aware that they are only a fraction of its treasures. Tucked away in the basement are thousands of neatly catalogued pieces, ranging from Prehistoric times to the present.
Delphine Mercier is the Collection’s curator – collection management and care. Educated at the École du Louvre and at Université Paris-Sorbonne, she was head of projects at Patrimoine sans Frontières, and she previously engaged with École du Louvre and other schools as Art History teacher.
Volunteer Maria Solomou (MA Principles of Conservation) at the UCL Ethnography Collection
When Delphine became curator of the Material Culture Collection, she realized that, although many items were already housed in display cases, others were still ‘homeless’ and awaiting to be assigned to a suitable mounting. Therefore, Delphine started a collaboration with students working towards an MA in ‘Principles of Conservation’ at UCL’s Department of Archaeology, a collaboration which is still alive. During the first term, the students receive practical training in museum mounting. During the second term, they hone their research skills by studying one specific item and by designing and completing the mounting for one other piece in the collection. Alongside their MA assignments, around five students also volunteer two hours per week during term two, and often during term three as well. As volunteers, they design and make boxes for the very diverse types of objects that the collection consists of.
Such boxes allow their contents to be sheltered from environmental stress factors, for instance fluctuations in temperature and humidity rate. Containers can also be purposefully designed to avoid damage to the object. In particular, they allow conservators, researchers or students to inspect objects without handling them, and therefore to detect any conservation problem before it becomes severe.
UCL Ethnography Collection
Each year the team, headed by Delphine and one project-manager student, focuses on a particular material (leather, basketry) and the conservation challenges it poses. For instance, some bags from Papua New Guinea were chosen because they had been kept in a drawer in such bad conditions that their fibers were at risk of breakage. In order to manufacture a box for a piece that had such irregular shapes, it was necessary to proceed by trial and error, testing what was and what was not suitable for the object.
Thinking through the requirements of a case, such as the support the object needs in order to withstand mechanical pressure, is always a lengthy process, but one that also brings volunteers closer to the materiality of the specimen. This rewards them with a proximity to ethnographic pieces that is by far superior to the one enjoyed by a common museum visitor.
Slowing the deterioration of the collection and acting with reversibility in mind is important if the collection is to be available in the long term not only to UCL students, but also to schools and the broader community. In fact, besides the opportunities outlined above, the Material Cultural Collection offers other volunteers (up to 20 per year) the option to work on school and community initiatives, as well as inventory, documentation, or curation projects.
Delphine welcomes volunteers from the Department of Anthropology, who could engage with their discipline from a different perspective, while working in a professional environment and getting to know other students in a collaborative atmosphere.