National Museums Collection Centre

Victoria AdamsBy Victoria Adams, Assistant Curator, with thanks to Dr Kevin McLoughlin

One sunny but blustery day, with some trepidation, I prepared to open the first of five large wooden packing-crates that National Museums Scotland had just acquired from a private donor. Nearly 18 months of negotiations had finally lead to a purchase aided by the Art Fund of over 500 objects relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, including propaganda posters, paper-cuts, paintings, magazines, copies of the Little Red Book; hand- and machine-embroidered textiles; ceramics and glassware include large figurative groups, vases and other vessels; and the contents of these five crates.

Propaganda poster

An example of one of the large propaganda posters. The text reads 東方紅 which means ‘the East is Red’, with the text below reading 毛主席是我們心中的紅太陽 or ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in all our hearts’, a popular slogan of the era.

The fragile objects inside the crates had been created at the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), in the famous porcelain-making city of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, south-east China. Transported hundreds of miles overland by boat, road, rail, and finally packhorse, they were stored for safety in a police station in the remote and mountainous area of Zhongdian in north-west Yunnan, part of the area now recognised as the inspiration for the literary Shangri-La. For an undetermined reason they were never distributed to their final destinations, and, for decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, had been left forgotten and untouched until the building was destroyed in an earthquake in 1998. Rediscovered amongst the rubble, they were purchased by a collector, and were flown across continents to eventually end up with me in the museum’s quarantine room.

Some of this provenance I knew from the acquisition paperwork, but the most tangible evidence of their cultural origins was given by the original packaging inside the crates. Levering off the first crate’s lid, I found beneath crumpled brown paper a bamboo basket tied up with rope, crammed full of aged brown straw. Mixed in with the straw packaging were masonry fragments, presumably from the earthquake; also dried flower-heads; scraps of newspaper; faded Chinese characters written on ribbons; half a mouse skeleton; and what can best be described as floor sweepings. Placing the baskets side by side, I matched pairs that had altered their shape, probably during transit when they had moulded to the sides of a packhorse or pony. One had also evidently been dropped in a muddy puddle.

A typical basket, half-empty.

A typical basket, half-empty.

The worst basket, also showing evidence of being dropped in a muddy puddle.

The worst basket, also showing evidence of being dropped in a muddy puddle.

So what was inside these mysterious crates?! Delving into the straw (whilst wearing biohazard gloves and an industrial dust-mask) I excavated the first of over 100 small porcelain busts of Chairman Mao, or mini-Maos as I affectionately call them, untouched since they were packed during the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

The first Mao emerging.

The first Mao emerging.

Many Maos

Many Maos.

They are almost all identical, although there is slight variation in the thickness of porcelain, and the detail of the moulds as they gradually wore down during production. About eighteen centimetres high, they are of a consistently high quality, moulded from very fine white biscuit porcelain and coated with a matt smear glaze, which gives them a slight luminescence. Uneducated Chinese citizens were supposedly convinced that this was because each one embodied the spirit of Mao.

Two Maos vary in that one has a different plinth, and another is half-size. Otherwise they are all the same, depicting Mao in his eponymous jacket or Zhongshan suit, with his characteristic receding hairline and prominent mole on his chin. The plinth beneath has relief inscriptions reading: 毛主席万岁: ‘Long live Chairman Mao’.  Like all representations of Mao, they were produced with great care and respect. Any fault or flaw even during firing, or consequent deliberate or accidental destruction could be seen as counter-revolutionary, and the consequences for the maker could be very serious indeed, even fatal.

Along with our own British Queen, Chairman Mao is one of the most reproduced individuals in human history, represented literally billions of times in a wide range of media. During the Cultural Revolution printed material such as propaganda posters were produced in vast numbers, as were ceramic models including a variety of porcelain busts, like these examples. Officially sanctioned, they were created for distribution to official and public buildings throughout China, such as party secretaries, offices, remote schools, village police stations, etc.

Despite the distances travelled, only two were damaged on arrival, thanks to the high quality of the porcelain and the protection offered by the bamboo baskets and their padding of straw. These baskets were literally a time-capsule from that era to this, complete with smells, textures and actual dirt from the past! Museum objects themselves are often seen as tangible evidence of history; it’s rare to also get ephemeral packaging so particular to a time and a place as rice-straw harvested during the Cultural Revolution. As I unpacked the baskets I mused on the vastly different life experiences of those who had packed them about 45 years ago, of the social and political upheaval, the strict restrictions around individuality, creativity and self-expression; the Chinese intellectuals banished to undertake hard labour in the countryside; and alongside some social improvements, the subsequent poverty and suffering of the Maoist era. I really couldn’t grumble about getting a bit hot and dusty unpacking heavy boxes in a museum store!

Cleaning the Maos.

Cleaning the Maos.

Still tightly packed but now in conservation-grade packing materials.

Still tightly packed but now in conservation-grade packing materials.

Safely rehomed in the store, awaiting further conservation treatment and repacking.

Safely rehomed in the store, awaiting further conservation treatment and repacking.

Having unpacked all five crates, my task (with the assistance of Conservation intern Becky Kaczkowski and Collections Care Assistant Katherine Mercer) was to superficially clean the Maos with a museum-vac, repack them with conservation-grade packaging, relocate them from quarantine to permanent storage, and label each one individually with a unique accession number. Principal Curator Dr Kevin McLoughlin has been creating bilingual accession records in Chinese and English for the collection management system, which will one day be available online. Cataloguing, conservation and research is still on-going, and we hope to display at least some of the collection in future gallery displays.

As a taster a larger porcelain figurative group entitled ‘Looking up to Mao’ will be on display in the New to the National Collections exhibition opening in mid-September.

A guest post by Anastasia Pipi, student placement at the Department of Science & Technology

Before starting my placement at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, I had visited two or three times. One day was never enough, considering that it houses five different sections, each able to stand as a museum on its own. This is something I really enjoy about it, as a visitor and as an intern, since it offers a holistic approach with connections springing out between topics that might seem unrelated at first glance. Even sharing the morning coffee with staff from World Cultures is a great way to avoid focusing too much on your topic and forgetting about everything else!

I came here as part of my Masters in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Edinburgh. With a degree in biology and most of my work experience coming from research labs, I have to confess the museum environment seemed quite daunting, but an interesting challenge anyway. Most of my placement took place at the Department of Science and Technology (Keeper Alexander Hayward). My main supervisor was Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator of Technology and co-supervisor Alison Taubman, Principal Curator of Communications.

On my first day, I was introduced to the Science and Technology Department and also to Learning and Programmes, who gave me an overview of what they do, which was very relevant to my studies. I was taken for a tour around the current Science and Technology galleries and got familiar with some plans for refurbishment and new galleries. My first task was to do some research on 3D printing leading up to an event for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

My core task was to do research on a currently developing gallery about communications, and specifically about recent advances in computing and processing capacity. Here, my background in the life sciences came in handy, since many cutting edge applications (such as the Human Genome Project and the Human Brain Project) depend on supercomputers. I was also encouraged to develop an interactive for this gallery. Walking around the museum and observing to what extent visitors engaged with the interactives was an extremely useful exercise in the process of developing my own.

Klaus and Elsa Davidson (Curator of Technology) were kind enough to take me along to a trip to ARTEMIS Intelligent Power, a University of Edinburgh spin-off engineering company developing hydraulic power technologies. There, a possible collaboration was discussed, and we had the chance to look around, meet many employees and learn about the history and objectives of the organization. I was impressed by how many young inspired people worked there and I believe it should be an example for many workplaces. However, I was surprised by the lack of female employees. Are women so uninterested in engineering? Or are there other factors still keeping this profession male-dominated?

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

An unforgettable experience was visiting the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton. The amount of objects collected as well as the time span that is covered is truly astonishing. Additionally, seeing objects in storage gives you a good idea of the value of exhibiting and interpreting. Without labels telling stories, the objects appear naked and almost meaningless. Realising the cultural wealth ‘hidden’ in storage and how objects on exhibit are only the surface of this treasure was something unexpected.

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton.

During my placement, I also had the chance to meet the Communications team and had a chat with Communications Officer Bruce Blacklaw about various roles in the interface between the Museum and the ‘outside’ world (marketing, PR, media and press relations). We also discussed what makes a topic newsworthy and how an interesting and informing press release should look. I wrote my own press release about the Mammoth Poo Detectives workshop planned for the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was glad to know it would actually be used by the Department. I also attended a photo shoot for a newspaper feature on the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was exciting not least because of the privilege of seeing an exhibition before it was officially launched.

Finally, I had a brief discussion with Development Manager Charlotte di Corpo about fundraising and met Rose Watban, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design in the Art and Design Department, to find out about the history of some of the collections, the challenges of bringing a gallery together and the infinite possibilities for inter-departmental collaborations.

Overall, my experience as an intern at the Museum was very interesting and rewarding. Klaus and Alison ensured I had great guidance and used my time productively, but also Maureen Kerr, Departmental Administrator, made sure my placement ran smoothly. Everyone at the Department of Science and Technology was very friendly and helpful, and people from other departments were happy to give me an idea of the work they do. I have to say I enjoyed my time here, met some lovely people, and enriched my own set of skills. Last but not least, I got familiar with a workplace I knew very little about and will consider further volunteering and maybe even work experience in the museums sector.

ATLAS supercomputer

My ATLAS impression

By Maya Hoole, Volunteer with Collections Services

Day 1 of volunteering at National Museums Scotland and I had no idea what the next six weeks here would be like. I met Trevor Cowie (Scottish History and Archaeology Department) in the Arrivals Hall, and after a quick coffee we set off into the rabbit warren behind the scenes at the Museum.

In October I had met Trevor at an archaeology conference in Inverness. I was volunteering for the conference organisers, Highland Council Historic Environment Team, at the time. I was looking to get more experience and could not believe it when Trevor thought it might be possible for me to spend some time at National Museums Scotland.

Whilst the whole genre of Scottish Archaeology captivates me, I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the great ‘Atlantic roundhouses’: the Brochs of Northern and Western Scotland. So when I found out that the project chosen for me to work on was with the Broch of Gurness… well, you can imagine that I had a particularly large grin on my face.

Although the excavated finds from this well-known Orkney site have been part of the national collections for many years, the detailed published catalogue had never been converted into an electronically accessible format, making accessing the information and managing the collection difficult.

So there I was a few weeks later, ready to start. Whilst Trevor had agreed to be my Line Manager as it was an archaeological subject, I was to be supervised and guided by Jo Macrae (Collections Services). I was shown to my own desk with a laptop for me to use and presented with the sacred book that would be my life for the next few weeks: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Maya’s sacred book: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Jo had a spreadsheet set up for me ready to input the catalogue data. She showed me what to do, guiding me along as I started to figure out the system and soon had me racing through the catalogue as I got to grips with it all. Over the next few weeks I was welcomed whole-heartedly into the Collections Services team (and cannot thank you all enough for that) and got into a routine working through the catalogue.

The Broch of Gurness really is quite a site; a complex series of stone buildings embracing the solid broch tower at their heart. It is thought to have been occupied from around the 1st to 2nd century BC, and was used on and off from then onwards through the Pictish period in the 5th to 8th century AD, and again by the Vikings around the 9th to 10thcentury AD. This long and complex history meant that a whole range of artefacts were discovered at the site: stone tools, animal bones and human remains, reworked Roman glass, bronze brooches, iron knife blades, spindle whorls, pins, rings, chains, needles, querns, pounders, grinders, gaming equipment… and lots of pieces of pottery, to name but a few. And let’s not forget the remains of an Orkney Vole or a Conger Eel.

Two of the most elaborate and intriguing objects in the collection are the pair of oval (or tortoise) brooches, with highly decorative zoomorphic ornamentation, as can be seen below.

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney.

After a few weeks working away on the data, Jo and Trevor organised to take me down to the stores to have a look around. I felt like a little kid in a toy shop as every drawer held new delights. I was treated to trays full of flint arrow heads, stone axe heads, spindle whorls, pots, a log boat and we even hunted down some of the pieces from the Gurness collection that I’d been working on, including faunal remains and stone tools. I genuinely feel privileged to have had a glimpse into the vast stores of artefacts safely tucked away behind the scenes.

Scottish finds

Finds from archaeological sites in Scotland.

Stone axehead

Stone axehead.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Back in the office I finished off the data input with a good chunk of time left to spare. Jo kindly decided to show me how everything I had achieved could be integrated into the collections database. Once everything was uploaded, I went through the catalogue again and added in all of the dimensions to the 2,121 database records I had created. I only had a week left before Christmas. Jo bet me that I couldn’t get all the dimensions in before the holiday break, if I did she would eat her hat (or head, depending on who you ask). Luckily for Jo’s hat, I didn’t finish in time… However, it was a close call, as within two hours of my first day back in January, it was done!

For my final week here, I am going to be getting some more experience working in the database under the excellent supervision of Jo. So far, I have learned a great deal about working in the museum, about the things that need to be done that I had never even thought about before.

If you are interested in the Broch of Gurness collection there are a few items on display in the Early People gallery in the museum. These including: a bone die, two bone combs, a pinhead, a handled steatite bowl and an inscribed knife handle, amongst others. I have included a list of where and what you can find – so go and have a look!

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this and made it possible, I won’t forget it.






Case   no.

Label   no.

Handled Steatite bowl

Early People gallery

Fat of the Land



Decorated bone handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated antler tine used as a   handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Mount of perforated antler

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Early People Gallery

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated sheep metacarpal

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Perforated pinhead or playing piece   made of bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone



Vessel for storage, cooking or   serving

Early People gallery

Baking the Earth



Bone rib, possibly a pottery tool

Early People Gallery

Baking the Earth



Glass ball

Early People gallery

Broken Glass



Ogham-inscribed knife handle

Early People gallery

Letter of Authority



Bone die

Early People gallery

Tilling the Soil



Becky MumfordBy Becky Mumford, work placement student with the Science and Technology department

If I were to summarise my time at the National Museum of Scotland with one phrase, and I make no attempt to avoid clichés, there is much much more than meets the eye. The Science and Technology department was my base for a five week work placement, where I was hoping to achieve a general feel for what the day to day working life of a curator involved. Alison Taubman, Principle Curator of Communications and my main contact at the museum, as well as the rest of the department, quickly made me feel at home – particularly over the morning coffee/gossip!

My first week was spent generally getting a feel for the place by meeting other members of staff and departments and trying not to get lost in the rabbit warren of stairs, offices and corridors behind the scenes. I was primarily assisting the curators on plans for new Science and Technology galleries due to open in 2016 and it has been fascinating, if not slightly daunting, to see the amount of work and issues that arise when attempting such a huge project.

Moving an 18th century block instrument

Moving an 18th century block instrument.

Every Monday afternoon was spent with Dorothy Kidd at the department of Scottish History and Archaeology. Here I sorted through and archived a huge selection of photos linked to Lochee Nursery and Ancrum Road School, Dundee. Many of the photos and documents appeared to be donated by a particular family in the area – it was amazing seeing the whole family history laid out in front of me marked by births, weddings and deaths as well as a number of family holidays. They were all dated from the early 1910s to 1940s so were a fascinating insight into a way of life now very different from my own.

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee

The Staff and Children of Lochee Nursery School, Dundee.

Over the course of my time at the museum I made several trips to the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, a treasure trove of objects often bizarre and mysterious. The rooms filled with huge machinery, another with bones and another with rows and rows of bicycles were a joy just to wander around. Here I assisted by measuring and taking objects to the Photography and Conservation departments, a process much more time-consuming than I ever expected. The sheer size of not just the whole collections but some of the objects meant a lot of time was just spent moving or searching for items somewhere in the series of shelves and rooms that make up the museum stores. At one point we unearthed a beautiful original drawing of a beam engine by Boulton and Watt from 1786 not seen for years! Another day was spent assisting a crew filming an object created by the art collective Found for Durer’s whiskey – it seems the draw of the museum stores is universal.

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography

Preparing protective wrappings to take objects to photography.

One particular highlight was a departmental trip to Stanley Mills, an 18th century textile mill in Perthshire. I drove up to Stanley Mills with Alex Hayward, Klaus Staubermann and Emma Webb from Learning and Programmes to look at their impressive array of interactive exhibits for inspiration with regards to future displays. The museum did indeed have a great number and variety of interactive displays. This included a series of games to give children a feel for the concentration, quick reflexes and the tedium involved in working at the mill and interactives to divert water flows to manipulate different styles of waterwheels, ideas that we would hope to draw on as the plans for the new galleries develop. The day was topped off by a visit to Stewart Tower dairy for lunch and giant ice creams all round – if only this could happen every week!

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills

Fiona Davidson explains an interactive display at Stanley Mills.

To get as broad an overview of the different work involved in running the museum as possible I spent some of my time among other departments. On one afternoon I helped carry out visitor consultations for Scotinform to gather data and opinions on the plans for the new galleries. This was an excellent reminder that a museum is as much for public engagement as it is about collecting and preserving and research. More time was also spent in the Development and Marketing and Communications departments, helping with museum events – yet another aspect of backstage museum life I had failed to consider.

Over the past five weeks I definitely feel I’ve started to grasp the complexities of museum life and the work involved for the curators here. I thank Alison and the team for making me feel so welcome and my time so enjoyable. I now can’t wait to come and visit the museum once the new galleries are up and running!

By John Hutchinson, volunteer with the Science and Technology department

I have been a volunteer at National Museums Scotland for about five years now and work within the Science and Technology department; not at the Museum on Chambers Street but in the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton. This in itself gives a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the museum and its collections.

National Museums Collection Centre

The National Museums Collection Centre in Granton.

I thoroughly enjoy my time there and although the work, if described to an outsider, might be considered as repetitive and never ending as we are recording 19th and 20th century engineering drawings, it is far from that possible impression.

The drawings in themselves are the working ‘patterns’ that were used to create many intricate machines, some very large machines (such as a machine for putting the pattern onto lino) and to see the detail to which all were drafted is incredible. Precision, clarity and attention to detail are viewed by us on each drawing we are dealing with. I find great enjoyment and honour to be one of a very few who can see these now and understand how they came about. I think I must have had some encouragement from my father, who was an architect and created plans almost free-hand to design houses using a beautiful set of drafting pens with ink on a large drawing board.

But other than this main thrust of my current work and the S & T project to ensure the future safety and cataloguing of all drawings, I often do other things. This includes finding machines within Granton, identifying parts of machines and then locating the actual machine that they belong to in the stores, taking and returning items that need to be photographed and seeing and handling (carefully and with gloves on!) the first sewing machine to be made.

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias  Howe of the United States of America

Early sewing machine c.1846-1872 made by Elias Howe of the United States of America.

Life is not boring or repetitive and when you come across an item that is the same as one that you also owned (as I have done), then perhaps that is the time that you realise that you are also a trainee fossil! It is fun and I love it, long may it continue.

Kitty Mcmurdo SchadBy Kitty Mcmurdo-Schad, work experience student with the Department of World Cultures

Arriving at the National Museums Scotland staff entrance was a daunting experience. Turning up at the door at ten o’clock exactly with my packed lunch in my bag and my itinerary in my hand, I walked in and got my visitor’s pass ready for the day ahead. Soon after arriving I was shown into the office by Sarah Worden and introduced to everyone in the World Cultures department. I was shown my desk and given the museum newsletter to read for future reference. I was then set to type up a pamphlet for the recent Livingstone exhibition and my work experience began.

One of my favourite parts of my time here was going down to the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton, where I got to see lots of items that are not on display. It was really cool going down there and observing the wide variety of objects the museum has and learning about their history. My time there was also made even more enjoyable by the great people who work there, who were happy to talk to me and show me what they were working on, despite their busy schedules.

Conservation work in the National Museums Collections Centre

Conservation work in the National Museums Collections Centre.

I also liked going to staff meetings as it meant I got a good insight into how a workplace functions and what is involved in bringing together such a large body of people to function in a correlating and amicable way.

It was a great experience and I am very grateful to everyone who made it possible to give up their time and let me tag along with them and look in on what they were doing. Everyone was very friendly and I really feel like I have learnt a lot, both history and work wise. I’m very sad that my week here went so fast but who knows, I may be back in the not so distant future!

Kitty with Dr Sarah Worden, Curator of African Collections

Kitty with Dr Sarah Worden, Curator of African Collections.

Lisa BarterBy Lisa Barter, Conservation Intern

I am a Los Angeles, California, girl who chose to do her Conservation training at University College London, Institute of Archaeology. Just as I thought the weather could not possibly get any colder, I applied to do my third year internship in Scotland. Since arriving in Edinburgh at the end of September 2012, I can honestly say I have seen it snow more times than I had ever seen before in my life! Now that my time here in the Artefacts Conservation section at the National Museums Collection Centre is ending, I thought I would write a blog post about what my MSc dissertation research into the potentiostatic reduction of lead corrosion has achieved.

I have been working on 156 bullets and casings found near the Special Training Centre Lochailort (1940-1942; site near Inverailort). This was the first Royal Commando training centre set up during WWII. The bullets were found, buried in the ground, near a derelict building which is a possible site of the first ‘mystery house’. Trainees would have been sent into this building to test their new skills in an unknown scenario.

Bullets and shell casings

Small arms ammunition; 156 bullets and casings.

The bullets and casings were found buried in the ground

The bullets and casings were found buried in the ground. The National Museums Scotland collection is just a trowel full taken from this pit (Photograph courtesy of Stuart Allan, Senior Curator National War Museum, Edinburgh).

My work on the bullets was two-fold. First, by studying these bullets and the casing head stamps (impressed markings that indicate country and calibre) I could shed light on the types of ammunition and possibly also the weapons that were used at this site. Secondly, as Stuart Allan, Senior Curator of Military Collections, was concerned about corrosion to the bullets, I needed to determine a good bulk conservation treatment which could efficiently treat all 156 objects so that they could be displayed in the future.

Bullets and casings

The types of bullets and casings found in the collection, tentatively identified as a rifle round (top-left), a .45 calibre (top-centre), and a .32 calibre (top-right). The types of head stamps present are an ELEY 328-65 (British), REM-UMC .45 ACP (American), WESTERN .45 AUTO (American), W.R.A.Co .45 A.C. (American). Therefore the likely weapons used at this site were pistols, sub-machine guns, and rifles.

Because these bullets have corroding lead (Pb) cores, which are very toxic, this presented a health and safety risk to researchers and visitors, and this needed to be resolved before they could be displayed (and before the metal corrodes completely to dust!). Therefore, when I worked with the objects I wore protective gear and used other equipment to contain the lead corrosion products so that I and the other conservators would be safe.

Protective clothing

Gloves, eye-glasses, lab coat, and face mask must be worn when working with the lead corrosion, while a filter vacuum is used to contain the toxic dust.

First, I sorted the bullets visually into sizes and types, then I chose seventeen samples (four casings and thirteen bullets) which were representative of the types and corrosion products present. These would be used to analyze for composition (to see which metal alloys were present) and to undergo potentiostatic trials.

The 17 samples

Seventeen samples represented the four types of casing headstamps, the different types of bullets, metal alloys, and corrosion products visibly present.

To understand the types of metal alloys and corrosion products present I turned to several analytical techniques in addition to the desk microscope to assist me. With the help and expertise of Conservation Scientist Lore Troalen, x-ray fluorescence (XRF) was utilized to provide me with an elemental composition of the bullet shells and the casings. With this technique it was determined that there were two alloys present: copper-zinc (‘.45 calibre’) and copper-nickel (‘.32 calibre’ and ‘rifle rounds’). The cores were determined to be lead.

Two types of corrosion products were visibly present: a primary, white corrosion and a secondary green corrosion which appeared either as compact and dark green or as nodular and light green-blue.

Different types of corrosion

The types of corrosion present appear either compact or voluminous and are either plain white corrosion or a secondary light green-blue or dark green corrosion.

With the expertise of Peter Davidson, Curator of Minerals, x-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis was used to determine that the white corrosion was Cerussite (lead carbonate). However, the two green corrosion products were not as easily defined by this technique. In addition, after potentiostatic reduction trials were run on several sample bullets, XRD was used a second time to confirm that lead metal had been formed. This was the most exciting test as it showed that my project was successful!

Bullet in position for XRF analysis and data

Bullet in position for XRF analysis (left). Sample 9 spectra (right). The results show the presence of Pb, small amount of Cu, Ni, Fe, Zn. The type of equipment used was a XRF Oxford ED2000.


Sample 15 diffractogram showing that the white corrosion product is cerussite + unidentified phases (green corrosion products).

XRD PANalytical X’Pert Powder

The equipment used was a XRD PANalytical X’Pert Powder.

Because the green corrosion could not be identified by XRD, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was used to help determine which elements were present in the green corrosion products. The backscatter micrographs were truly amazing to me, as they illustrated how beautiful a mineral can look when viewed at such a magnification. This technique also indicated that these were copper-based minerals and possibly more non-crystalline in nature than previously thought. Therefore, future tests will involve Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) which can better identify non-crystalline and organic materials.

Sample bullet #4

Sample bullet #4 showed the earliest successful reduction of lead carbonate to lead metal (left image). The backscatter micrograph (SEM-BSC) showed two phases present: one more needle-like or dendritic (Phase 1) and one more compact and globular (Phase 2).

Light green-blue corrosion examined

The light green-blue corrosion that appeared nodular under a desk microscope (left image) appear drastically different using SEM. In the SEM-BSC mircograph this corrosion appears fiborous and almost flower-like in structure (right image).

Dark green corrosion product adhering to white product

The dark green corrosion product (left image) was strongly adhered to the white corrosion layer beneath it. This made taking ‘pure’ samples for XRD analysis difficult. In this SEM-BSC micrograph (right image) the lead carbonate appears brilliant white and is adhered to the dark green corrosion.

To treat the bullets I chose an electrochemical technique called Potentiostatic Reduction. This process utilizes a potentiostat machine which, with the aid of computer software, can help determine a safe electrical current to push through the circuit to reduce the corrosion to metal. Initially the software is set to run potentiodynamic scans which display a unique signature peak corresponding to the specific metal or alloy which is to be reduced. This allows me to be more selective in what potential difference (voltage) I should choose to run my trials. If I set the potential difference too low then nothing will happen and the electrolyte solution may attack the metal. If I set the potential difference and current too high hydrogen evolution (bubbles) may form.

Sycopel Enhanced Ministat potentiostat (model 256E) and PC-100 digital controller with software

Sycopel Enhanced Ministat potentiostat (model 256E) and PC-100 digital controller with software.

The aim of determining a safe current range for reduction is to avoid the rapid formation of hydrogen gas which evolves off the surface and within the structure as tiny bubbles. When the experiment is running correctly very few hydrogen bubbles will be formed on the object. Oftentimes the object to be reduced is extremely fragile, thus, the rapid evolution of hydrogen could be enough to shatter the object apart!

Test bullet

Rapid hydrogen evolution can be seen streaming off of this mock ‘bullet’ which I created to test the cell before an actual bullet was tested.

The electrochemical cell set-up

The electrochemical cell set-up. I used a platinum mesh for the anode and a calomel electrode as reference. Two electrolytes were chosen to test, sodium sesquicarbonate and sodium sulphate.

The bullet was connected to the system as the cathode, the platinum mesh was connected as the anode, and a Calomel Reference electrode was included in the cell to monitor the potential drop occurring at the cathode. This reference electrode allows the potentiostat to adjust the potential (voltage) at the cathode, in order to keep it constant. The potentiostat is set up so that I can monitor the current through the bullet (cathode). When it settles on a current for a duration of time, I can then assume that all the corrosion that will reduce to metal has done so and the experiment can be stopped. The bullet is then rinsed and dried and stored in an air-tight container.

Diagram of the electrochemical cell

Diagram of my electrochemical cell, representing the placement of the object (cathode), the platinum mesh (anode) within the cell. The current is pushed through the bullet first, which provides the necessary electrons needed to reduce the lead carbonate back to lead metal.

Samples #4, #9, and #10 – after potentiostatic reduction treatment was complete

Samples #4, #9, and #10 – after potentiostatic reduction treatment was complete.

Well, if you have all stayed with me and read this far, then I guess the big question is: “Did I have any success?” My overexcited answer is “YES!!!” I was very happy to be able to reduce three different bullets and demonstrate that both copper-zinc and copper-nickel alloy shells in galvanic connection with a lead core could be reduced, as well as bullets with the secondary green corrosion. I was also able to set up a cell with two bullets and have both bullets reduce at once. This means that future testing can begin on creating multiple-cells, with 5-10 bullets, which will allow all 156 bullets to be reduced efficiently!

Thank you for reading through my blog post and many thanks to the conservators, curators, and site staff that made my time at National Museums Collection Centre wonderful. I wish I didn’t have to leave! Now back to typing up my dissertation!

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