Suffrage and Smoke: the UK Parliamentary Archives’ challenges in caring for collections housed in the Palace of Westminster

Have you even been to London if you didn’t catch a glimpse of the Palace of Westminster? You’d no doubt recognise Elizabeth Tower, often referred to by the name of its main bell ‘Big Ben’. Its iconic Victorian Gothic façade is splashed across nearly every postcard rack and tote bag front in souvenir shops across the country. Westminster has become in essence the symbol of the timelessness of London. Designed by Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin in 1835, it centres one of the world’s busiest metropolises, serving as the meeting place for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. But the magic doesn’t end there!

The Palace of Westminster also happens to house a nationally significant collection of documents, including the Acts of Parliament and the aggregated Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this presentation we heard about some of the challenges faced by conservators working in the storage spaces of the UK Parliamentary Archives, in particular the incident management plans for an exhibition held in Westminster Hall and the risk mitigation activities for staff, contractors, and collections during the fire safety works in collection storage areas. Meagen Smith and Dr. Mari Takayangi exemplify these learnings with a discussion of the 2018 exhibition Voice and Vote, Women’s Place in Parliament and the legislatively mandated fire safety upgrades to the archive storage space in Victoria Tower.

Image 1. Screenshot from Suffrage and Smoke: The UK Parliamentary Archives’ Challenges in Caring for Collections Housed in the Palace of Westminster showcasing a print of the Palace of Westminster burning.

Hosting an exhibition – beneath an ongoing roof conservation project

Understandably, working in the context of a UNESCO-listed heritage building inspired all sorts of challenges – not the least of which included scheduling an exhibition around existing building works. As with many projects in heritage buildings, issues that are deemed ‘low risk’ prior to work taking place sometimes unexpectedly rise to the fore. Such was the case with the 14thcentury hammerbeam roof timber conservation project, predicted to conclude before the commencement of Voice and Vote. At this point audience member Jane Henderson asked what the response was to ceasing all the work in the parliament project. Smith later responded with, “The answer is that the Westminster Hall roof works never actually ceased – they were altered, so the current work was always on a roof timber which was not above the exhibition. This was a huge logistical challenge but we had lots of good will from the roof contractors and Parliament’s Estates department to find a solution. Our exhibition designers also altered the exhibition layout so there were no original objects in one quarter of the exhibition – this would have allowed works above this section of the exhibition if absolutely necessary, but in the event this was not necessary.”

Creating an accessible incident management plan

There were so many interesting points raised in this presentation, but for the purposes of this blog I’d like to focus the next few paragraphs on an aspect of the exhibition incident management plan. As with any exhibition an incident management plan is required in the event of an emergency. Smith developed “grab sheets” from a template offered by the highly-recommended Historic England Salvage Training course. Her grab sheets specifically addressed the surrounding space. Whilst salvage activities involve quite a bit of moving through a number of working spaces, Smith chose to modify the spreadsheet in order to include not just one grab sheet per one item, but instead made the grab sheets zonal. Let me explain: a regular incident plan follows retrieving prioritised items, but abandoning the cases and exhibition structure itself. Smith’s decant plan worked in 10-minute time slots that systematically worked to retrieve all collection items in order of the floor plan. 

Being cognizant of the team’s diversity of backgrounds, Smith also made sure the grab sheets were detailed and object-specific, yet used non-technical language in describing how, for example, you would move a suffragette banner or move a textile from a piece of clothing that a suffragette may have worn. The reason behind this being that although a core team of conservators and curators were in charge of helping in the salvage, and would first and foremost be entrusted with object handling, the larger team would likely need to get involved in the event of an emergency and therefore instructions that could be understood and followed by everyone was necessary.

The induction proceedings and safety/handling of archival material during the fire safety upgrades were also very well managed. The UK Parliamentary Archives team carefully orchestrated inductions that considerately fit into the rhythm of a contractor’s day, and included customised Risk Assessment Methodology Statements which will no doubt help to guide future collaborative strategies the Tower. Fitting the scaffolding with Correx protection is another example of the creative ways in which the team at Parliament mitigate risk. It goes without saying that flexibility and inventiveness is valued when it comes to working in historic buildings.

Image 3. Screenshot from Suffrage and Smoke: The UK Parliamentary Archives’ Challenges in Caring for Collections Housed in the Palace of Westminster showcasing the scaffolding with Correx protection. 

Concluding Q&A

The impressive collaborative nature of both projects discussed in the presentation not only exemplify the nature of the team at the UK Parliament Archives but present an exquisite model for comparison. The Voice and Voteexhibition is a prototypically successful example of cross-team working. Several questions asked during the Q&A queried the collaborative strategies behind handling such a diverse range of people. To this Dr. Mari Takayangi reflected on her enthusiasm jumping between the various heritage teams within the Parliamentary Archives and the Works of Art Department. “The most important thing that I did in the four-year leadup was to make everybody as excited and enthusiastic [about the project] as I was”.

During Voice and Vote, contacts in both houses were developed, with the Archives in the Lords and the Works of Art in the Commons. Going between the two jurisdictions Takayangi felt that she, “really did straddle both departments… it just put me in the perfect position – in the centre of the web, as it were, where I could branch out.” She advised the audience that there is no limit to learning and encouraged conservators to branch out and establish fresh dialogues informed by new relationships, “You learn so much that way.”

Image 2. Screenshot from Suffrage and Smoke: The UK Parliamentary Archives’ Challenges in Caring for Collections Housed in the Palace of Westminster showcasing the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall.

You can learn more about the Parliamentary Archives via the following social channels:

UK Parliamentary Archives website: https://archives.parliament.uk

Blog: https://archives.blog.parliament.uk

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UK-Parliamentary-Archives-114697578628112/?fref=mentions&tn=K-R

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ukparlarchives?lang=en

UK Parliament Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ukparliament/?hl=en


About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a 2019 Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute. She earned her Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne and her B.A./B.F.A (Hons) in English and Ancient History with a specialisation in Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. Alexandra completed a postgraduate certificate on Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art in Umbria, Italy, and is currently working at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge, U.K. 

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


Thanks to the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.

For more information on the IIC Edinburgh Congress 2020 visit:https://www.iiconservation.org/congress/Edinburgh

And for other daily discussions and session insights, read:https://www.iiconservation.org/congress/edinburgh/blog