Tuesday, May 23, 2023

A Visit with Parks Canada (part 1 of 3)

In a city filled with government buildings, this one doesn't stand out all that much, not from outside. Among other things, it contains a laboratory where children's toys are tested for their safety. But to me -- along with my colleagues Peter Carney and Mary Williamson -- this building stands alone, as it houses the most fascinating collection of materials in our world -- the artifacts brought up from HMS "Erebus" in the Canadian Arctic -- as well as the remarkable team of talented professionals who work with them, from the moment of their recovery to when -- sometimes months or even years later -- they have been fully conserved and stabilized, and may be stored or exhibited safely to generations to come.

Our host for our visit was Jonathan Moore, a veteran member of Parks's Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) who last year became the the team's manager (many will recall his precursor, Marc-André Bernier, who recently retired). Jon helped us get cleared and signed in, then guided us down seemingly endless corridors with automatically-opening doors, reminiscent (as he noted) of the opening sequence of the 60's spy spoof Get Smart!

Behind the last set of these doors, we settled in for an introductory briefing in the team's work room, which includes a large bank of drawers for horizontal storage, a couple of glass cases with resin replicas of artifacts (Franklin's and others), and a table  featuring a meticulous model of the wreck of "Erebus," with a model Parks underwater archaeologist suspended near the as-yet-unretrieved ship's bell. Here we got a preview of the day's tour, which would include meeting many of the other staff members who check in, establish conservation plans, and keep track of, a wide and growing array of artifacts that range in size from a toothpick to a cannon.

When a new artifact arrives, having been stabilized sufficiently for transport, it's assessed in terms of what its conservation protocols should be. Metal articles, for instance, may require an extended soak in various solutions in order to help remove accretions, stabilize the metal's surface, and protect it against the eventual exposure to air. Wooden or paper items, in contrast, need mainly to be dried, but it's a process that requires extraordinary care. With wood, one later step requires a special polymer which, once absorbed by the wood, will fill the cavities between its fibers and give it sufficient strength to hold together. Paper is its own special case, especially if it appears to consist of multiple sheets, which require careful timing and great care to separate as the process finishes. For those reasons, the book or "portfolio" recovered during the 2022 dive season was unavailable for us to see.

And so, after our introductory briefing, we set out for our tour of the premises. First, we'd see the work area where the UAT's suits, helmets, and equipment are stored; then the area where replicas of the artifacts are carefully prepared; after that, a visit with the book and paper conservator, and the artist whose careful sketches help record each object and the location where it has been found. Lastly, of course, that area of the building which we were keenest to see -- the rooms where conserved relics are stored. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the highlights of our visit, concluding with those much anticipated rooms -- it's my hope that my readers will get the sense of sharing in our excitement. So stay tuned!

No comments:

Post a Comment