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A Condition Survey of the Ceramics Collection at the Ulster Museum

Victoria Oakley
Head of Ceramics Conservation, Conservation Department

Jim McGreevy
Keeper of Conservation, The Ulster Museum

Fig.1. The Ulster Museum. Reproduced with permission from the Ulster Museum.

Fig.1. The Ulster Museum. Reproduced with permission from the Ulster Museum. (click image for larger version)

The Ulster Museum (UM), Belfast, is a national museum charged with responsibility for, amongst other things, the preservation of objects in the fields of archaeology, ethnography, industrial archaeology, history (archives, numismatics and photographs), botany, zoology, geology, and fine and applied art. As with other national institutions, the UM is subject to scrutiny by Government Auditors. In 1989, a review by the Northern Ireland Audit Office1 contained a firm recommendation 'that the UM should take steps to quantify and cost all outstanding conservation work and set specific targets for dealing with the backlog in this important area'.

Such steps are now being taken in the form of condition surveys. Unfortunately, however, not all the media represented in the diverse collections are catered for by existing conservation staff. For instance, in ceramics (applied art) there is no specialist conservator in-house. Any proposal to employ such a person on either a temporary or permanent basis must be firmly related to identified needs. Faced with these circumstances, the UM decided to request advice and assistance from the Conservation Department at the V&A, a decision based on an awareness of its tradition of expertise, not only about ceramics2 , but also about surveys3 . This request was viewed sympathetically and arrangements made, on an appropriate cost basis, for Victoria Oakley to undertake the required survey.

The Collection

Fig.2. The Ceramics Storage Area. Reproduced with permission from the Ulster Museum.

Fig.2. The Ceramics Storage Area. Reproduced with permission from the Ulster Museum. (click image for larger version)

The collection comprises approximately 2000 objects which are grouped into four main sections. The historic section covers most areas in ceramic history with particular emphases on tin-glazed earthenware and eighteenth and nineteenth century British/European pottery and porcelain. Complementing this is a comprehensive collection of Irish and Irish-related wares dating from the late seventeenth century onwards. A small but representative selection of Oriental ceramics, ranging from the Chinese Tang period (seventh to tenth century) through to early twentieth century Japanese, is also held. Finally, there is an important and growing collection of contemporary British, Irish and European work.

The bulk of the collection is housed in a small store which was recently refurbished and fitted with a moving aisle storage system. It was recognised that such a system is not particularly appropriate for ceramics but its choice was dictated by an overriding need to maximise the use of limited space.

The Survey

It was important that the survey should be clearly defined and focused. Consequently, an initial visit was made to the UM in June 1994 in order to view the collection, meet the curators and discuss what was required. Following this, it was agreed that the survey would be carried out during August 1994 and that its aims should be as follows: to find out the condition of the collection; to highlight those objects in need of conservation, suggesting some level of priority; and to make recommendations for the general care and storage of the objects.

Despite ttie number of recent condition surveys that have been completed in the V&A Conservation Department, there is still no common approach. Different sections have independently developed their own methods, some employing simple paper records and others using various computer programs. The Ceramics Conservation section itself has used at least three different computer programs for surveys in twice as many years. For this survey it was decided to use a program developed in Microsoft Works, by Suzanne Keene whilst at the Museum of London4 . This seemed to offer a simple, quick and friendly methodology suited to the type of total survey that was required. Information recorded included the identification number, the location, a simple name, the materials involved, damage categories, condition grade, time code for treatment required and any additional comments. The now widely accepted four condition grades (good, fair, poor and unacceptable) were used. In addition, the incorporation of a time code for conservation suggested the approximate amount of time treatment could be expected to take. A combination of the condition grade and treatment time code can be very helpful in prioritising work programmes.

A total of five days were devoted to the survey, with a further two days to compile the report. Fortunately most of the objects are stored in one location which meant that access was relatively straightforward. On average just under 400 objects were examined each day. A recent school leaver on work experience provided valuable assistance with inputting data.

In order to write the report, the amassed raw survey data had to be sorted into a form which would allow clear interpretation. Using the computer, it was possible to generate data from the survey in different ways: objects were listed in the order in which they were entered, and also sorted according to their condition grade and by the anticipated treatment time. For the purposes of the report, it was important to keep the information clear and simple. Tables were included which showed statistics for the categories of damage, levels of priority for treatment of objects, and an assessment of the work that would be required. These could be linked together to give a realistic picture of how much conservation might be required on priority objects and, consequently, an indication of future requirements (such as for a contract conservator). Various simple recommendations were made to improve the storage area. These suggestions included basic preventive measures that would involve little or no outlay other than time, for example: re-assessing the use of the shelves so that lower shelves were used in preference to upper shelves; positioning delicate vulnerable objects on the shelves at a readily accessible height; and avoiding the practice of overstacking flat objects such as plates. Other recommendations included simple measures to make the mobile shelves safer: attaching restraining lips to the edge of each shelf; placing small items in padded trays and lining the shelves with polyester film.


Many of the recommendations made will cost nothing, or relatively little, to implement yet they will achieve much. Others will carry a cost in terms of staffing, materials and equipment - resources for which bids must be made. Against a backdrop of financial stringencies and competing museum priorities (including conservation), there can be no guarantee that the requisite funding will become available. However, the survey has provided a credible and justifiable basis for seeking additional resources.

Though undeniably hard work, the project proved a very rewarding experience. It offered a chance to use and assess a relatively new survey method, some aspects of which could be appropriate to future V&A surveys. In addition, the opportunity to exchange information and consolidate contacts, whilst allowing another national museum to borrow expertise, can only be a healthy process for both organizations.


1. Northern Ireland Audit Office, 'Management of the Collections held by the Ulster Museum and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum', HMSO,London 1989.
2. Buys, S. and Oakley, V., 'The Conservation and Restoration of Ceramics', Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1993.
3. Oakley, V.L., 'Vessel glass deterioration at the Victoria & Albert Museum: surveying the collection', 'The Conservator', 14, 1990, pp. 30-36.
4. Keene, S., 'Audits of care: a frameworkfor collections condition surveys', Storage, papers given at a UKIC Conference: Restoration '91, London, October 1991.pp.6-15.