Establishing a Conservation Volunteer Team at Highwic

By Christiane Pracht, Visitor Services Coordinator, Highwic and Ewelme.

How do you overcome the challenge of looking after a collection of 7,443 objects consisting of every possible medium stored in a non-climate controlled environment?

Highwic, built in 1862 for Alfred Buckland and his family, is a house museum cared for by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Highwic, entrance of Mortimer Pass, Newmarket, Auckland, open Wednesday to Sunday 10.30am to 4.30pm
Highwic, entrance of Mortimer Pass, Newmarket, Auckland, open Wednesday to Sunday 10.30am to 4.30pm

Located by a busy motorway right in the heart of Newmarket, Auckland, the Carpenter Gothic house is exposed to high levels of pollution. Like any house museum its collection items are exposed to light and UV radiation, fluctuating temperatures and a measure of pollution while being on display all year round.

Looking after the precious collection takes time, money and staffing levels beyond the reach of most smaller museums. Hence the idea was born of recruiting and training a team of specialist volunteers to look after the collection.

We started on this journey over a year ago, and after much research and preparation went out with a call for volunteers in April 2013. We placed ads online and in local papers looking for people who “have a passion for heritage and its preservation, are detail oriented and willing to work in a team”. We added that “good dexterity and an interest in, and appreciation of, fine objects are helpful”.

Once the ads were out the phone started ringing and didn’t stop for weeks. We received emails and enquiries from as far away as France! It was the most enthusiastic response we have had to any of our advertised volunteer positions to date and it took us totally by surprise.

The time commitment we ask for from our volunteers is for four hours a week for two years. We train in six-week blocks on different materials, covering everything from glass to ceramics, to basketry and leather, to mechanical objects and painted and lacquered furniture, and everything in between. At the end of the two-year programme volunteers will have learned about 16 different materials with the aim of considering each object in relation to its material, construction and condition before embarking on a cleaning process. Volunteers will have carried out cleaning with materials and methodologies, which have all been tested by conservation scientists, and recorded all information regarding condition of objects and methodology of cleaning as they go along.

Conservation volunteers at Highwic cleaning glass objects.
Conservation volunteers at Highwic cleaning glass objects.

The first two weeks of every six-week block focuses on theory. Volunteers learn the technique of cleaning different materials, learn to understand the different types of material, develop a good understanding of manufacturing processes and are then able to determine the condition of objects following a checklist.

The following four weeks focus on actual collection cleaning and applying their learning.

Condition reporting is a vital part of the program and as such volunteers are trained to use Vernon, our collection database. Moving forward, the information – including photographs taken – collected by the conservation volunteers will play a vital part in recording and tracking the condition of collection items over time.

Since the start of the program on 1 July 2013 volunteers have cleaned over 85 collection items at Highwic. This is an incredible result and an indication of the success of the program.

The two teams of conservation volunteers are led by conservator Madelaine Abey-Koch who generously volunteers her time and expertise to Highwic. Madelaine is specialised in preventive conservation having worked for the National Trust (conservator for Southern England and later Wales), English Heritage and the British Museum. We are enormously grateful to Madelaine since this programme could not take place without an experienced conservator to lead the teams. 

Conservation volunteers at Highwic learning about the construction of plain brown furniture from conservator Madelaine Abey-Koch, centre. Madelaine generously volunteers her time and services to Highwic.
Conservation volunteers at Highwic learning about the construction of plain brown furniture from conservator Madelaine Abey-Koch, centre. Madelaine generously volunteers her time and services to Highwic.

All we had at the beginning of this incredible journey was a housekeeping schedule for cleaning collection items and the wish to implement it. There was no budget allocated to this project and only the will to somehow make it happen. There were moments of anxiety, especially after placing the ads in the paper, not knowing if anyone would actually come forward, and real concerns about whether we would be able to pull it off. When the applications started to come in we were surprised not only by the number of applications we received but also the quality of applicants. We were truly overwhelmed and humbled by the response. We were also encouraged by the interest we received, and it was fantastic to see that so many people care deeply about New Zealand’s heritage and wanted to support us in our work. Regrettably numbers for the programme were limited to twelve and we ended up having to turn people away. We do hope that we expressed our gratitude sufficiently to everyone who came forward offering to help.

Conservation work in progress in Highwic’s kitchen.

Conservation work in progress in Highwic’s kitchen.
Conservation work in progress in Highwic’s kitchen.

Now that the programme is up and running it is all we have hoped for. It shows what can be achieved even by a small organisation with limited resources when everyone pulls together. As such, I hope it will serve as an example to other organisations facing similar challenges.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to get in touch and learn more about the programme please email me at cpracht@historic.org.nz.

Image credits:

All images courtesy of Highwic.