Conservation: A Holistic Approach

This week we spoke to preventive conservator and accredited member of the Institute of Conservation Mel Houston, who gives us insight into the unusual challenges she faces day to day…

How do you stop a dead butterfly from flapping its wings? Pinned in trays within cabinets, dead butterflies become dislodged by vibration, steel pins corrode through dust and damp, body structures are damaged by daylight and other insects. The butterflies topple over and wings and legs fall off. So, how can movement be stopped when the cabinets are opened?

Mel Houston is an accredited member of the Institute of Conservation and works as a preventive conservator for the National Trust for Scotland. Currently she looks after an extensive collection of moths and butterflies in Canna House on the Island of Canna in the Hebrides.


Conservation: Damage Control


“One option would have been to conserve specimen by specimen, to provide new cabinets, to re-pin every insect in the collection of thousands, and to repatriate legs, wings and heads. This is an approach a museum-based natural history conservator might take if each specimen is of significant scientific interest and access is needed to all specimens for research.

“Another option would be to maintain the collection exactly as is and minimise further damage by managing the environment to slow down the rate of deterioration. The advantage of this approach for collections displayed in historic houses is that the original context remains authentic. This is the situation in Canna House where the collection was the work of one man in the course of 60 years, and remains in the cabinets he chose and displayed with the pins he used.”


Taking the Middle Road


Mel chose a middle ground approach with the aim of improving access. “Once we had meticulously removed dust, dirt and pests from each tray, we introduced conservation heating into the room. This approach to heating ensures humidity is maintained at a level at which butterflies don’t get too dry, pins don’t get too damp and pests can’t flourish. An entomologist carried out treatments with an appropriate adhesive making good major losses to wings and heads, and I made sure that the butterflies were exposed to minimal levels of light, as that causes fading. I also put in a pest management system throughout Canna House to monitor and control any insects within the building that might eat the pinned butterflies.”


Conservation: Going Digital


Mel’s access strategy is a typically 21st century approach: to digitally record everything, to put a selection on a website, and to provide a database of every specimen in the collection for research.

She explained “preventive conservation takes a holistic approach and is at the forefront of caring for historic collections. If you can stop damage from happening you’re not only saving resources as it’s incredibly expensive to fix things, but there’s an ethical dimension too as the object has been protected from harm in the first place.”


Does your profession face the same reputational risks? Let us know in the comments!


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