I am one of the team working on Jack the Ripper and the East End. I am an archaeological conservator but I often work on projects or exhibitions that are not archaeological. The material for this exhibition is fascinating; I’ve just finished reading the book that accompanies the exhibition so I understand more about the objects that we are installing now in the display cases.
My role has been to act as the link between the exhibition project team and the conservation and collection care staff who prepare the material for display. There are 20 of us in conservation and collection care working at the Museum of London, Museum in Docklands and our resource centre (Mortimer Wheeler House). I am one of the archaeological team; there are also conservators who work on paper, textiles and costume and decorative arts/social history material.
A quarter of the team work in collection care and object handling; they look after the objects in storage and carry out the movement of our collections between our three main locations and sometimes to other museums when objects go out on loan. The conservators also do a lot of collection care work for our stored collections and work on individual objects in our laboratories and workshops. We ensure that the objects are in good condition and carry out treatments when needed. For this exhibition, the conservators worked on a huge variety of objects from wax heads to police uniforms. The paper conservators were kept particularly busy as there are so many paper items, many of them such as police reports and files in poor condition because they were working documents.
There are nearly 200 objects going on display in about 30 cases, on the walls and on open display. Some of the display cases are new so part of my job was to work with the designer to make sure that they are the right type and size for the objects . Conservators are particularly concerned that the cases are stable and secure, dust-proof and made of good quality materials.
We also need to check on the overall conditions for the objects. For this exhibition, because there are so many original 19th century documents, light is our biggest concern. Many of the documents have writing in ink which is already faded. The light levels will need to be low to keep any further fading to a minimum. Just before the exhibition opens, we will check every case to make sure the light is within the right levels. Luckily the designer wants a dark, atmospheric look!
The most challenging part of the work has been working out how to fit all the material into the cases. Some of the cases only have a few items, say two documents relating to one of the victims. Others have many objects made of many different materials. Each case has to be carefully planned so that everything fits and is well supported. The designer started this process many months ago working with the curator, Julia Hoffbrand.
The next step was to work from the plans and try out mockups of each case to see how the objects fitted into the cases and if they needed supports. A small team of us, a curator (Jackie Keily), our chief technician (Cliff Thomas) and others, started this process in February. It was a challenge as we had to work from photos and records of the objects since so many were coming from other museums or individuals as loans.
We are now putting the objects into cases and it’s great to see everything, some for the first time as couriers bring them from other museums and archives. Maps, prints and plans are also being hung on the walls; this has had its moments with different opinions on how high or low to place things. Luckily our collection care team (Alison Guppy and Paul More) are used to this and are very patient!
A huge amount of other work went into the exhibition before we started with the cases and objects (graphics, set construction, installing the lighting and audio-visuals). It’s all coming together now and with a few more days work (captions are on their way!), will be ready for the opening on the 15th of May.
You can see more photos from the installation of Jack the Ripper and the East End on Flickr.