Caring for the collection


Preserving the things of the past for the benefit of future generations is one of the British Museum's founding principles. Museum staff have the tough job of caring for and protecting millions of objects, while making sure millions of people can access them each year.

Conservation and storage are major parts of the everyday business of the Museum. For example, the Museum has a collection of 1,400 Chinese paintings, which is one of the finest in Europe. Yet Chinese paintings on silk or paper are extremely delicate and can only be displayed for short periods of time because unrolling them and exposing them to light can damage them.

Perhaps the Museum’s most famous Chinese painting is an early copy of a hand scroll by the figure-painter Gu Kaizhi (c.AD 344-c.406). It is called Admonitions of the Instructress to Court Ladies, and is a parody on court life in the form of advice on correct behaviour for ladies of the imperial harem. It is only placed on public display for three months a year, so that as many people as possible can see it. It has also bee re-sited so that people wanting to study it can do so on a permanent basis.

When looking after all of the objects in its collection, the Museum combines authentic conservation techniques with modern technology. Our specialist Hirayama Asian pictorial art conservation studio is the only one of its kind in a European museum and is run by a Chinese paintings conservator who trained and worked in the Shanghai Museum for over fifteen years.

conservationThe studio uses traditional Chinese and Japanese materials and methods of mounting and conserving paintings, including the manufacture of Japanese paste-glue which is mixed and then stored until ready for use, ten years later.

Chinese paintings are stored in a climate controlled area and each work is individually wrapped to maintain constant conditions. Chinese ceramics are stored in updated shelving systems, which are bolted to the floor and ceiling to ensure stability. Each one of over 8,000 vessels is individually placed on a thin layer of non-slip foam for protection. Lacquer is also stored in a separate air-conditioned store with lighting, temperature and humidity regularly monitored by conservators.