When Functionality Is Everything: A Case Study in Recovering Flood Damaged Electronic Parts from a Musical Instrument Collection

Hayley Robb
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Four: 2015-2016


This paper aims to describe the process of treating and rehousing flood damaged electronic parts from a living (i.e., usable) musical instrument collection. The National Music Centre (NMC) was one of the heritage institutions affected by the floods that swept across southern Alberta in 2013. Approximately 650 m2 of storage was submerged in water for days, adding up to a total loss of 2.5 million dollars to NMC’s collection of historical musical instru­ments. One area that sustained the most amount of damage overall was the collection of vintage electronic parts and materials, which was submerged under almost 152 cm of dirty, silt-laden water.

This particular collection of electronic hardware—comprising of miscellaneous circuit boards, microchips, and vacuum tubes, among other things—does not technically qualify as artifacts. They were not collected for display or research purposes, but rather for use in future repairs to the electronic instrument collection. Approximately 10% of the instrument collection at NMC is maintained in working condition, which has enabled the organization to design many unique programs that grant visitors unprecedented access to historic instrument sounds. The continued care and accumulation of spare parts for use in repairs and restorations is invaluable to the organization’s sustainability plan for the living instrument collection, and to the National Music Centre’s ongoing mission.

As such, the needs of this collection are unique and unprec­edented, and have informed much of the treatment process. The goals of this conservation project were not only to recover the electronic parts from the damaging effects of a flood, but also to ensure the parts were stored in such a way that preserved the working life of each electronic part for as long as possible.

Highlights of this paper will include: cleaning techniques and equipment used, including the use of ultrasonic cleaning tanks to clean over 1000 circuit boards; storage protocols developed during the project; types of electronic-specific storage materials used, such as conductive foam for integrated circuits; and important collection management details about the type of information captured in our new electronic parts database. This paper will also touch on the types of unconventional informa­tion sources found throughout the research process, as well as lessons learned from NMC collection staff during the flood recovery efforts.

Hayley Robb
Objects Conservator
National Music Centre
Calgary, Alberta, Canada