The care of the collection of the Royal Armouries is fundamental to the Museum’s responsibilities.
Not only is its preservation a duty to future generations but it enables the presentation, interpretation and research of the collection.
The Conservation Department at the Royal Armouries not only cares for the collection but strives to maintain a world wide reputation as a centre of excellence for the conservation of arms and armour.
The museum collection comprises approx. 70,000 objects covering a complete range of arms, armour and related material including guns, swords, armour, artillery, and polearms.
More important to the conservator, however, are the materials from which those objects are made. The materials we encounter are as diverse as they can possibly be, including almost all known metals, leather, lacquer, textiles, feathers, bone, ivory and other animal products, wood, glass, modern materials such as plastics and rubber.
The main conservation laboratory is in Leeds but the Royal Armouries also has conservation teams at the Tower of London and Fort Nelson. Each conservator has a different specialist area that ensures a wide range of care for the collection.
To preserve in perpetuity and gain further technical knowledge of the collection that is the Royal Armouries, enabling greater public understanding and access to the collection for research, exhibitions and loans both now and in the future.
A conservator has an ideology to learn from the objects treated and may collaborate with other specialist such as scientists and curators to achieve this. Research is carried out on the materials used to treat an object and also about the object itself.
A conservator may ask; What materials is the object made from? What is original and what is a later addition? Why was the later addition added? Is that important? What date is it? What date is the paint layer? What was the original surface finish? What will happen if I use this product on it? Is there a detrimental effect immediately? Will there be a detrimental effect in 50 years time?
To answer such questions there are a range of analytical techniques that can be used. Some can be as simple as visual inspections such as with a microscope or perhaps with raking or UV light. The conservator or scientist can carry out simple experiments to test the long term effect of products used in treatments such as material testing, but more in-depth analysis can also be used.
The preferred form of analysis does no harm to the object, for example, just as with a doctor the conservator can use x-radiology to see inside of an object. This can tell us about its construction and if it has different paint layers. Also of use is X-Ray Fluorescence analysis that uses x-rays to tell us what metal elements are on an objects surface.
Not all methods of analysis are ‘non destructive’ some require a small sample to be taken from the object such as a section of paint or a strip of metal. These samples may be set in resin and polished. With paint layers this can show how often a piece was painted and what colour schemes it had.
With metal, metallographic study can show the grain structure of a metal that can tell us about the nature of an alloyed metal and also how it was formed such as through casting or forging.