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By Rachel Rimmer on

An electric eel and a red phonebox

We take a look at the work our conservation team did with two of the more unusual objects in our Electricity exhibition, the electric eel and the red phonebox.

Installing exhibitions brings a great sense of achievement and really makes you feel part of a team. You are just one part in a machine and everyone needs to work together, playing their own part to make it all work. None of it can be achieved alone; it doesn’t work.

When you walk into the exhibition space being built, the walls and graphics going up around you and the empty showcases waiting to be filled with treasure, it all starts to feel real. You could have been working on the exhibition for years before you reach this point, but it is all behind the scenes, working from plans and designs as to how best to show off the wondrous objects but keep them safe for many years to come. Then there’s the time spent gathering the objects up, and one by one patiently cleaning, preserving and bringing to life the collection hidden in the stores, ready for their moment in the exhibition to shine, helping bring history to life. And now this is where all the different elements need tying together.

The great thing about working with the collections at the Science and Industry Museum is that they are so varied, but in return installing them into an exhibition often needs careful thinking about and planning. The variety of fragile materials that the collections are made up from, such as glass and paper, mean that they require different types of display, such as mounting for support and different levels of restricted light exposure so as not to fade images and surfaces, losing them forever.

Above: The phonebox during conservation (left), and after the exhibition opened (right). 

In Electricity: The spark of life, we have some very large objects too, such as the K6 public telephone box. This weighs nearly 1.5 tonnes and is two meters tall. It couldn’t be carried upstairs to where the exhibition space is, or even fit into a lift; instead, it had to be tele-handled up into the gallery from the outside, through the original loading doors from when the building was in use as a warehouse in the late 1800s.

Because the telephone box is so big it needed to be put in place before the set of the exhibition was built, so it was very important to wrap it and keep it safe during the exhibition build. Whereas the other objects were prepared for display in the museum conservation studio, the telephone box needed the conservation studio to come to it, and was cleaned and conserved in the middle of the exhibition space. After spending its entire working life outdoors and the last 20 years on display at the museum outside, the telephone box needed a little care and attention. There was moss growing in crevices, flaking paint and wood that had rotted away in places to deal with.

Above: The electric eel on its arrival into the museum (left), and prepared and displayed in the exhibition (right)

One of the more complicated objects to install into the exhibition was an electric eel, registered at the Natural History Museum in 1844. The eel is what is known as a wet specimen; preserved in an alcohol solution in a glass jar. The eel cannot travel in the glass jar of alcohol, as it would break, so instead it is wrapped in alcohol-soaked muslin and placed into a sealed bag for travel. The eel must also be kept cold during this time out of the alcohol.

When it was time to install the eel into the exhibition it was unwrapped, carefully inspected to check no damage or change occurred since being packed for travel. This is called ‘condition checking’, where the object is checked against a report and photographs identifying any pre-existing marks or damage. All objects must be condition checked before and after moving, as moving an object is when it is at its most vulnerable.

The eel was then arranged in the glass jar and filled with ethanol before being sealed and placed in its display case.

When the display cases are finally locked, and the glass polished one last time, it is ready for the exhibition to go live and let visitors see the end result.

Come and see the K6 telephone box and the electric eel along with many more exciting collections in the exhibition Electricity: The spark of life at the Science and Industry Museum until April 2019.

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