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24 Nov 2022

The work of our Collections Care teams

Written by Lesley Scott ACR, Conservation Advisor, Edinburgh & East
Two people stand around a long desk, examining some collection items. The items are displayed on a white sheet and lit by a powerful lamp.
Collections Care staff at Gladstone’s Land undertake object condition checks on items from Newhailes.
Our historic interiors, with their wide range of curios, furniture and artwork, are enjoyed by many thousands of visitors each year. Our Collections Care teams are responsible for ensuring these spaces are shown at their finest.

Many grand houses and castles now in the care of the Trust would have relied on domestic servants and housekeepers in previous centuries to carry out day-to-day maintenance and keep contents and interiors looking immaculate. Indeed, the number of domestic servants employed by wealthy families was often used as a status symbol.

Today, it is our Collections Care staff and property teams who now take up the daily workload, supported by the Trust’s conservation and heritage specialists. Past housekeeping practices, skills, methods and wisdom have been passed down and are in part continued. However, we now undertake ‘housekeeping’ with a better understanding of the science of preservation, as we look to retain as well as maintain our interiors and grand spaces.

The housekeeping workload is extensive, and our Collections Care staff are ably assisted in their daily tasks by our Collections Care volunteers. Volunteers have always been an important part of the Trust; their dedication helps to protect Scotland’s heritage. Our volunteers undertake basic conservation cleaning or work on conservation projects as they bring their knowledge and interest in history to help keep the properties looking their best.

Everyone works together to ensure the Trust’s preventive policies and practices, which are in place to slow down ‘agents of deterioration’, are undertaken effectively at properties. These practices slow down deterioration to an acceptable and sustainable level, as well as protect the collections and interiors for future generations to enjoy.

There are many factors that can cause the deterioration of our collections, including light levels, biological pests and changes to external environments that affect our internal environments. These changes can be catastrophic (such as a flood) or subtle and gradual (such as fading from too much light).

The Collections Care teams, with their vigilance and knowledge of the collections, are our first line of defence should any change in the physical condition of objects and interiors come to light. They are always on the lookout for unreasonable levels of dust, mechanical issues and of course any accidental damage or breakages. They then report back to the central Collections teams, as well as gather evidence for preventive reporting.

We try to ensure as few collections as possible decline to a point where they need repair by remedial conservation. However, if this does become necessary, it is carried out by specialist conservators or under supervision of regional conservators.

We use scientific advancements and expert external conservators and specialists to help us understand how different materials deteriorate, and what causes and accelerates that rate of deterioration. This informs how our Collections Care teams clean and what they use to undertake that cleaning on an extremely eclectic mix of items, which includes wooden, ceramic, glass, fur, textile and metal materials.

We know from research that many modern cleaning products contain very strong chemicals, which over time can have adverse effects on objects and interiors as well as being environmentally unsuitable. Some cleaning materials can cause visible damage, such as bleaching and staining; others cause problems you don’t immediately see, such as chemical reactions.

That is why we advocate that our Collections Care teams primarily use dry cleaning methods, only using mild conservation-graded detergents when absolutely deemed necessary. The teams prefer to use low-suction vacuums and soft natural brushes when dusting.

As some of our necessary conservation work involves working at height or in very large rooms, the Collections Care teams carry out much of the more in-depth cleaning and trickier housekeeping tasks when properties are closed. This allows us to set up scaffold towers and ladders to reach chandeliers, artwork, pelmets and ceilings. The teams carefully clean these rarely accessed areas with conservation-graded cleaning materials and soft brushes, delicately removing dust and cobwebs.

In addition to daily cleans, collection checks, deep cleans, spring cleans, preparing for tours, filming, events, exhibitions and putting properties ‘to bed’, our Collections Care teams play an important role in engaging with visitors, helping people to learn more about the history of the place and the items inside that make it so special.

You can find out more about what the Collections Care teams do to help protect the Trust’s collections and interiors through our Conservation in Action events at properties. If you’re interested in volunteering in Collections Care, please see our Volunteering page for details of current opportunities.