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Agnes Brokerhof Membership Profile

Profile of a Senior Conservation Scientist

What is your name? Agnes Brokerhof

What is your position called? Senior conservation scientist

Where do you work? Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Amsterdam How many years have you been working in this capacity? 22 years (yet not all of them as ‘senior’ – once upon a time I was young)

When did you join SPNHC? 1994

What brought you to work with Natural History materials? It certainly was an indirect route. After my masters in chemistry (University of Leiden) I decided I knew too little about Art History and did my bachelors at the same university. During that study I realized there is a lot of chemistry in works of art and so I got in touch with the CL/Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science in Amsterdam and found out that there is such a thing as ‘conservation science’. They hired me on a project to look into non-toxic alternative treatment methods to control mould and insects in heritage collections. That was my introduction into a field I came to love. I continued the pest control work at the Australian Museum in Sydney where I worked for a while at the Materials Conservation department. Next I studied time-temperature-mortality relationships of cloth moths at CSIRO’s Stored Grain Research Laboratory in Canberra; the lab is one of the world leaders in stored product research. Their knowledge and expertise were highly inspirational for developing clean and safe pest control methods for my somewhat unusual stored product: museum collections. After a course on ‘Scientific principles in Conservation’ at ICCROM/International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome I returned to Amsterdam where the Central Lab offered me a permanent position. I was asked to promote and introduce IPM and my newly acquired knowledge on pest control methods in Dutch museums. I also did a survey on conservation problems in Natural History and Ethnographic collections to determine what research needs they had. The old CL and its successors have always been the Ministry of Culture’s support unit for museums, libraries and archives, developing and disseminating knowledge and giving advice about preservation and collection management. Together with the Dutch natural history museums we made an inventory of problems, knowledge and gaps therein. I looked abroad to see what was known elsewhere already before initiating new research projects. That brought me in contact with the ICOM-CC/International Council of Museums - Conservation Committee’s Natural History Working Group and SPNHC.

What do you do, and how do you work? I have been actively involved with researching many aspects of collections care issues, e. g., my CSIRO work led me to freezing, high CO2 and low oxygen fumigation and heat treatment with the ‘solar tent’ as pest control possibilities. Then there’s frequent consultation, often with other SPNHC members. My work on introducing IPM in the museums profited greatly from input by the entomologists in various museums. Together with Jean Tétreault from CCI/Canadian Conservation Institute, I studied the effect of acetic acid on calcareous materials such as eggs and shells to find preservation methods for Byne’s disease. And with Dries van Dam of the Anatomical Museum in Leiden I looked at fluid preserved specimens and the dissolution of calcareous materials in buffered and non-buffered alcohol and formalin. Through SPNHC I got to know Rob Waller and his work on risk assessment. At the time we were working on a program to integrate the various research lines in preventive conservation into a more holistic approach. I realized that Rob’s model provided the perfect umbrella to gather and apply all our bits of knowledge to setting priorities in collection care and in our research program as well. There was a need for research producing data to be able to predict future losses. The past decade I have been fortunate to work together with Rob, CCI and ICCROM on promoting and teaching risk management world wide. This year we jointly did our first e-learning course ‘Reducing risks to heritage’. Risk management has drawn me into the area of assessing cultural value and accessibility as well. Currently I am working on a model for cost-effectiveness of preservation activities, together with Anna Buelow from the National Archives in London. It is based on a model from health care economics, the QALY {note: the Publications of Interest section in this Newsletter has a reference to this project}, and offers a way to quantify the effect of a treatment on risk, value and accessibility and weigh that against its costs.

What do you find most interesting about your work? What I like most about my work is developing new knowledge and methods to support heritage institutions in doing their work effectively and efficiently. Helping others and gaining insight in return.

Might you tell us of one of your more significant natural history accomplishments? The most important aspect of my work for the natural history collections in The Netherlands was facilitating the network and sharing knowledge. We did this in a series of publications compiled in ‘the green binder’. This was a sort of little sister of SPNHC’s ‘Storage of Natural History Collections’ books that has served as a source of information for so many. And through the acetic acid research I came in contact with Lorraine Gibson in Glasgow and Cecily Grzywacz at the Getty. As ‘carbonyl girls’ we initiated the Indoor Air Pollution meetings in 1998. It great to see that Morten Rhyl-Svendsen and others have taken that forward and that this year the 10th Indoor Air Quality meeting is being organized at University College London!

What have you learned from SPNHC to be helpful? Although I am no longer actively working with natural history collections, the experience that I have gained from working with these ‘archives of nature’, has enabled me to connect more easily to collection management issues in museums and galleries as well as archives and libraries. SPNHC is a source of information and contacts and has played an important role in my personal development from thinking in terms of molecules via object to collections.

How has SPNHC helped you? SPNHC has opened doors within the natural history community, and the work with SPNHC members, to which I previously referred has been fruitful and insightful.