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Open or closed? Conservation and the closed record

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cracked yellow wax seal
A Wax Seal of Queen Victoria, attached to a Royal Commission (HL/PO/JO/10/9/958) closed whilst The Collection Care Team devise a new packaging project

It can be argued that the purpose of an archive is to hold documents for the continued access of the public, sharing historical information of the past to present and future researchers. However, not all documents within the archives can be accessed, either due to their condition or due to legislation such as the Data Protection Act.

As The Parliamentary Archives readies its collection to move to The National Archives by mid-2025, our closed records have been assessed to gain an understanding of their access requirements and contents prior to transfer. A proportion of these documents were closed due to their poor or complex condition, or requirement of specialist handling, rather than the information they hold. As the Collection Care Trainee, I was tasked with reviewing these objects to ascertain whether these items can be re-opened to the public.

Objects that were labelled as closed for condition reasons spanned from glass plate photo negatives, photographs, plans, books, uniforms, and Royal Commissions, all portraying different conditions and varying conservation needs. In total, th. My assessments for the objects included their condition, the ability to handle and manoeuvre the item and the suitability of their packaging. Any items that were considered to be in fair condition, or stable enough to be handled by future researchers were listed as appropriate to open.

The decisions surrounding objects' need for treatment, within an archive setting, are influenced by the item's condition and its ability to be handled by researchers, especially those who may not have experience in handling heritage items.  The aim of treatment must enhance the stability and longevity of an object and ensure as much information is maintained as possible. Furthermore, with the transfer of objects to The National Archives, the packaging of an object must be appropriate for additional movement.

My assessment of these closed records determined that a large number of the items were appropriately stored and in fair/good condition, with evidence of previous treatments performed. The previous treatments, such as lining of paper plans, were more identifiable and less reversible than the current treatments used in conservation, creating an incredibly strong lining and a more durable object. Other findings showed bespoke packaging for textile items and strapping of fragile books in bespoke boxing. The stability of these objects were good, with handling causing no further damage, so the items were deemed appropriate to open for public access.


Items that were classified as being in an unstable condition, such as the Royal Commissions, were significantly deteriorated, could not be handled without further damage or in unsuitable packaging for transportation. The Royal Commissions, parchment documents that include large pendant wax seals, remain closed, as some of the seals are broken and crumbling, folded up inside the document, and require careful handling to read. A project to open the collection again is ongoing within the Collection Care team who will be repackaging them to protect the seals so that the documents can be studied without further damage or excess handling. Other items that were closed due to condition included a collection of burnt WWI photographs and a Metropolitan Police Helmet.

Metropolitan Police Helmet; Parliamentary Archives, MET/4/2

Gifted to the archives by retired Duty Inspector of the Palace of Westminster, Ron Tucker, the helmets' design dates to 1999, with the additional element of the chin strap having been removed by Mr Tucker due to safety concerns. The item was closed due to the previous requirements of specialist handling and supervision by collection care.

When initially assessing the object, the helmet was in poor condition and unable to be handled without further deterioration. The hard exterior of the hat was sturdy, however the interior, consisting of a padded foam lining covered with a supportive fabric, was in a friable condition, losing material with each handling. The loose material, combined with imbedded dirt and grease from wear, had caused a build-up of thick residue upon the surface of the outer netting. This created a potential hazard for any researcher handling the object, as the loose material could become an inhalation risk or cause skin irritation, and potentially cause the material to break down further with each handling. The deterioration of the object is likely why a preceding conservator closed the record from public access.

View of the interior of the helmet
Build-up upon the edge of the helmet caused by imbedded dirt and grease. Metropolitan Police Helmet; Parliamentary Archives, MET/4/2

After assessing the object, an achievable treatment plan was devised, with the aim to open the item for access. The deterioration of the object had not affected the overall structure, meaning it wasn’t too damaged and could be treated effectively for future use.

Delving into the problematic interior, it was clear that the first step would be to remove the damaged foam, to see whether the deterioration was just focused on the top of the exposed foam, or if it travelled through the rest of the helmet. This was achieved by brushing the helmet down with a soft brush and removing the loose material with a vacuum. From this, I could see that the entirety of the foam in the helmet was also crumbling, attempts to remove any of this would cause further damage to the interior structure of the helmet.

After some consideration, and consultation with the rest of the team, we decided that the best course of action, in order to allow the helmet to be opened, would be to block access to the interior of the helmet, thus preventing any further loss of material and removing the hazard for the helmet and handler. To do this, I cut out a circular disk of inert foam to keep the head straps in place, and then created a cover with cotton fabric for the hole, tucking the edges into the helmet so it could be removed easily if necessary. The helmet could then be handled without risk to the researcher or object.

View of the interior of the helmet with the protective padding
The covering added to the helmet to prevent further loss. Metropolitan Police Helmet; Parliamentary Archives, MET/4/2

To stabilise the item for storage and transportation, I created a bespoke stand, which kept the hat upright and fixed in place so it wouldn’t move and abrade the woollen exterior. The stand structure was attached to a removable tray within the box, allowing for a 360’ view without requiring the helmet to be removed from the stand. Handling instructions were created for the user to follow on how the stand could be removed, including a request that the helmet not be removed from the stand, and providing additional images of the interior should anyone wish to view it.

three white rectangular cubes placed one a top the other getting progressively smaller
A bespoke stand created for the helmet.

With this treatment complete, the helmet record is now open on the Parliamentary Archive catalogue and should be able to be viewed for years to come. The project proved to be successful in its aim; we changed the access status of several objects that were stable to open, gained a better understanding of the vulnerabilities of objects that remained closed, and ensured the safe transfer of the objects to The National Archive.

All opened items within the Parliamentary Catalogue will be closed from June 2024 whilst the transfer of documents takes place, but will be opened again, with access from The National Archives.

I would like to thank the cataloguing team for their assistance in completing this project.

Parliamentary Archives collections and some associated services will have relocated to The National Archives in Kew by summer 2025. Access to some collections will be limited from Jan 2024. To find out how the move affects you, see the plan your visit page:

Find out more about the Archives Relocation Programme on the website










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