For many visitors to Alnwick Castle, they are eager to explore this iconic setting used in popular film and television series, learning about the fascinating history of the Percy family and seeing for themselves the treasures kept inside the different rooms of the castle. 


But have you ever wondered who looks after the castle and the thousands of objects stored inside its walls? And, how the 950 year history of Alnwick Castle is preserved and made accessible to visitors?


Find out more about what it takes to care and conserve the castle and its collections and archives, with behind the scenes knowledge and insights from our Collections and Archives team. 

What is conservation and why is it necessary? 


Conservation of the castle and its collections and archives is a crucial step in ensuring that Alnwick Castle’s history and the history of Northumberland is preserved and is accessible for future generations to enjoy, collecting and recording the story of each object and the castle as it evolves over time. 

What happens in conservation? 


Conservation is the act of managing and preserving items, from recording their history and carrying out regular cleaning, to managing and implementing repairs where necessary.  

What issues do conservators manage? 


The conservation of historic buildings and their objects face a wide variety of challenges due to the different materials they are made from, their design and structure, their location and environment, as well as their age. Conservators manage and care for historic objects and buildings keeping them safe from accidental damage, pests, pollution, thieves and vandals, incorrect temperature, incorrect humidity, or fire, to name just a few. 

At Alnwick, most of the collection is used, either by the family, or because it is exhibited for visitors to appreciate, so we must reduce risk of damage due to this usage.

Every time we handle historic objects, because of their fragile nature, there is a risk to damage them. So the first rule in collections care is to avoid handling objects when it is not necessary.

Controlling the rooms’ environment to ensure optimum conditions to preserve the objects and interiors can also be a challenge. 

For instance, light damage is always a worry, which is why all of the castle's windows are fitted with UV filters and the blinds are kept down until the very last minute before the doors are opened to visitors every morning.


What skills does a conservator need? 


Due to the location and nature of Alnwick Castle as a historic building open to the public, as well as the private family home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, the conservation of the castle and its collections presents the collections and archives team with a unique set of challenges. 

Is it hard to protect historic buildings? 


Protecting historic buildings and the collections that call them home comes with a number of different challenges. Historic castles like Alnwick Castle that are open to the public, can see detrimental impacts to some of their collections through accidental damage by visitors. For instance, visitors accidentally touching precious and delicate objects, can have a negative impact on the look and structural integrity of an object. The damaging oils produced naturally by our skin that are put into contact with items through visitor object handling or touching without wearing protective gloves, can have negative impacts on an object, especially delicate items like paper and textiles. 


One of the biggest challenges the team faces within conservation management, is controlling the humidity within the castle, as this can fluctuate at various points in the year, due to visitor footfall within the castle and outside conditions fluctuation. Excess moisture in the air can have a negative impact on a number of objects, speeding up any deterioration, including causing tears in paper and discoloration  and cracking in wooden items. To combat this, the team uses a combination of dehumidifiers and heat to ensure that the humidity remains at the optimum level. 

What tasks does a conservator undertake? 


A conservator's day to day job is very varied, but at the heart of the collections and archive teams roles here at Alnwick Castle, their aim is to conserve the castle and its objects, ensuring that the history of these items is valued and recorded for future generations. 


All of the objects on display within the castle or in storage, are catalogued, photographed and regularly cleaned, ensuring that any details of their history and condition are recorded. 


Cleaning is a large part of a conservator's role, ensuring that each item is in the best possible condition to be conserved for years to come. This involves the deep cleaning of items on a regular basis, which is usually undertaken in the winter months when the castle is temporarily closed to the public. This allows the collections and archives team time to get stuck into deep cleaning objects, which can vary from small textile items to large objects such as chandeliers with thousands of individual parts. 

The collections and archives team works closely with the Household team to set appropriate cleaning routines. There are daily, monthly and annual routines in place to make sure everything is cared for adequately. For example, the visitor route is cleaned daily to remove as much dust and dirt generated by the visitors as possible. The paintings and chandeliers however, only get cleaned once a year during the annual deep cleaning of each room.


For deep cleaning large items like a chandelier, this is a time intensive and intricate process, involving the erection of scaffolding within the room it is in for the the team to gain access to it at height, dismantling it carefully piece by piece, cleaning each section, making any repairs, and reassembling it piece by piece at height on the scaffolding. When constructing scaffolding within any areas of the castle, the surrounding objects and furniture needs to be carefully removed or covered to avoid any damage as the team work on the deep cleaning process for the chandelier. This process is repeated for any large items at height, including the castle's intricately gilded state room ceilings, hundreds of paintings throughout the castle, as well as any wooden panelling and lighting. 


What is the best part of a conservators job at Alnwick Castle? 


Not only is the castle a beautiful and spectacular place to work, but no day is the same, with new challenges and problems to solve with creative solutions, to ensure a future for the castle and its many objects.

Discover The History of Alnwick Castle


Find out more about the history of the castle and explore the collections and rooms of the castle that our collections and archives team look after, by booking your tickets to the castle, open to the public from Friday 29th March 2024. 


Want to find out more about the history of the castle and the Percy family, or the work of our collections and archive team? Take a look at our blog or why not listen to the Alnwick Castle podcast