Weekly Witter: The future of our heritage – under the microscope

Andrew Bush – Adviser on Paper Conservation for the National Trust finds that there is more than meets the eye down his microscope.

One of the favourite tools of my trade is a trusted digital microscope, not much bigger than a fat cigar but capable of up to 200 times magnification. It’s a very portable piece of kit, which is a good thing as I travel all over examining collections in any of the 200 or so historic properties on my patch. Although I have had it for a couple of years now, I am only just beginning to realise its wider potential use, of which more later.

A typical use for the microscope is to help me examine the condition of some of the Trust’s 1,400 portrait miniatures, many dating from the 18th century. The majority of these are painted in watercolours, with a very fine brush on wafer thin sheets of ivory. The ivory is so thin, and translucent, that it can be painted on the reverse to give subtle toning to the face as seen from the front. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was placed behind to give added luminosity.

As far as conservation and stability is concerned, the marriage of ivory and water based paints is not a happy one. It is the inability of the watercolour to keep a grip on the smooth surface of the ivory together with the shrinkage and expansion of this thin organic support that leads to flaking and splitting. This, along with keeping an eye out for mould growth, is the purpose of my visit…..At least I used to think that this was the purpose of my conservation assessments, things have changed.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)  The Artist's Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)
The Artist’s Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

When I am carrying out a survey, I am usually with our collections in our showrooms and often the house will be open to visitors. If I am looking at something particularly delicate, or if distractions are to be avoided, I might be tucked away in a quiet corner, but increasingly I am working in front of the public, discussing what I am doing with anyone interested. It is this interaction with the visitors that I believe could potentially have just as much significance for the future well being of our collections, as any observations and recommendations for care or remedial treatment that I make in my reports. It is not only in raising awareness of the need for conservation, but showing that there are career opportunities in conservation. This is where my digital microscope has such a powerful role, it acts as a magnet to nearly every young visitor, and hopefully, who knows, for some of them it will be a way marker on a route to a career in conservation. Until I was at University I had absolutely no idea that a career as a conservator was possible, hopefully through the powers of microscopy others might cotton on faster than I did.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Protecting the past, ensuring the future: NT green energy

Last week I visited Croft Castle to consider how we will swap from the existing oil heating for the castle and visitor facilities in the stable yard to a wood fuel system. This is exciting in its own right, as not only will we get the benefit of swapping to a renewable fuel (wood chip), which we can produce from our own estates, but it will also remove the risk of storing oil in this sensitive environment. But what made this visit particularly exciting was that it marked the start of a new journey for the Trust, where we are taking a planned approach to making a significant investment in renewable energy, to help us meet our energy policy commitment that, after a 20% reduction in total energy demand, 50% of the remaining heat and power will come from renewables.

“In looking after special places for ever, we believe strongly in the need to reduce our energy consumption, wean ourselves off fossil fuels and, where possible, generate our own renewable energy.”

Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation

Energy is, of course, essential to our operations, and we spend almost £6 million a year on electricity, oil and gas. By cutting our energy consumption and generating more of our heat and power from renewable sources we will have more to spend on conservation at our properties, and on countryside and wildlife. We will also be a more resilient and adaptable organisation, better placed to face the future whatever challenges come our way.

“We’ve installed over 150 renewable energy systems over the last few years”

Turbine opening event 025

The Archimedean screw on the River Wandle in London

We’ve installed over 150 renewable energy systems over the last few years – everything from small log boilers to district wood chip heating systems, and from photovoltaic panels in fields and on roofs to hydro power systems (the latest to be switched on is the only Archimedean screw on the River Wandle in London). Some of these have worked brilliantly – Wales’ PV outperformed its specified output by a considerable margin – and some less so – Nostell Priory is struggling to make its 300kw wood pellet boiler perform at anything like its best. But we will be using these lessons learnt to ensure future renewable installations deliver all the benefits we demand of them. And we are being demanding! The wide ranging benefits expected include, of course, reducing our dependency on fossil fuel and cutting our carbon emissions, but we also have criteria focussed on investment return, the impact on significance and setting, and the ability the project has to further our conservation performance – through enhanced woodland management for example.

We are using the initial phase of the programme to test out our delivery mechanisms before we hopefully embark on the full programme which will get us to our 2020 target.

So as the country worries about whether there is enough gas to keep us going over this cold snap, it feels exactly right that we should be looking to the resources on our estates to ensure that we can (carefully) keep the heat and lights on!

  • Lizzy Carlyle is Head of Environmental Practices at the National Trust, working to ensure properties, and the organisation as a whole, improve their environmental performance, be it in energy or water use, and waste production, minimise pollution risk, and make best use of their natural resources.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
  • The installation of green energy systems like wind power can be controversial, to see the Trusts position on wind turbines please see here.