Tales from the Bench
RAMM’s conservators and mountmakers prepare many different kinds of objects for the museum. These tales from the bench tell you about what they have been working on in the laboratories.
(You can find this object in the Case Histories Gallery)
When I first inspected the 15th century Tyrolese Annunciation altarpiece in 2005, it was in such a deteriorated condition that I was scared my breath might dislodge the paint. Piles of paint fragments and exposed stretches of bare wood showing evidence of attack by death-watch beetle, indicated the urgent need for conservation. Cleaning tests alongside paint analysis soon established that there was a medieval paint scheme surviving beneath discoloured surface coatings and overpaint.
At the start of the process of protecting fragile paint with facing paper. The altarpiece is made of three boards, probably of limewood; the joint between the second and third boards has opened but the frame holds the panels together.
My priority was to get the altarpiece back to the conservation lab, where it could be removed from its frame so that I could examine the back and stabilise the paint. I held loose paint in place with protective facing paper which I gradually removed as the surface was consolidated over the next five years. To establish the most appropriate materials for conservation, I carried out many trials.
Using high magnification, I examined the painted surface and gradually removed layers of wax and discoloured coatings. As work progressed it became clear that the altarpiece is a complex mixed-media object, which meant that a wide range of techniques were used for treatments. In places the later layers were removed mechanically, using sharp micro-scalpels, whilst elsewhere a variety of solvents and poultices were needed.
Paint analysis has revealed a rich, costly range of colours and fascinating painting techniques. For example, large areas of gold are set beside the crystalline mineral azurite. This blue pigment was bound with glue, resulting in a matt but vibrant colour, seen at its best against burnished gold leaf. Analysis revealed that combinations of linseed oil, animal glue and egg tempera were used to bind the pigments. It also indicated areas where drastic alterations have taken place.
The draperies of the two main figures are now dark, where once they would have been bright. Here silver leaf has darkened or been abraded, leaving the red/brown clay-based undercoat visible. In places an evocative hint of a yellow glaze on Mary’s drapery or a lustrous patch on Gabriel’s is suggestive of a lost brilliance. The brown of Mary’s hair is an early repaint; it was originally gold, but only a tiny trace of this was found under magnification. An exciting find was the discovery of silvered paper dots, applied to decorate the linings of the cloaks.
After consolidation and cleaning was complete, the process of gap-filling was carried out, where the surface was particularly undermined by beetle damage or where fragile edges needed supporting. Finally the surface was re-touched, using reversible water colours to reduce the impact of the exposed white gesso, lessen surface distractions, and tone out fillings.
It has taken five years, many hours of research, discussions, reading, and MANY hours of hands-on conservation and I hope that now this altarpiece can be appreciated and better understood, as well as recognised as a significant piece in the museum’s collection.
Eddie Sinclair ACR, Freelance Polychromy Conservator
A Polar Bear
Interns Vicky and Ashley talk about how they prepared the polar bear for displays. You can find him in the Finder’s Keeper’s Gallery.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is part of the diverse natural sciences collection at RAMM. It was donated by the estate of Charles Peel dating from the early twentieth century. The polar bear was originally displayed as part of a large diorama, in which it was seen to be attacking a seal with the front left paw positioned on top and embedded in the seal. When the display was dismantled the seal was removed resulting in the loss of the attacking paw. Damage from the old display and pest attack, combined with long exposure to sunlight and pollutants from open display, meant that the polar bear had become dirty and needed many repairs.
Starting bottom up
Work began from the bottom up, starting with the recreation of a snowy landscape. It took many hours to carefully cover the front left paw and part of the back left paw which were missing.
A thick layer of dust covered the entire surface of the bear. The cleaning began with the brushing and vacuuming of the hair. This was followed by running Smokesponge (vulcanised rubber sponge) across the hair then swabbing it with a solution of alcohol and water. The surviving paws were covered in old paint and glue which had to be painstakingly removed.
As polar bear hair is unavailable other hairs had to be creatively resourced. A combination of cow and goat hair was used to infill and reconstruct missing areas. The goat hair was kindly donated by the Exeter Hide and Skin Co. Ltd. The front right paw of the polar bear was missing three toes. To reconstruct these, a papier maché base was created and covered with tinted goat hair. Using the other claws, a mould was made in order to cast replacement claws from plaster. The polar bear was also missing his tail which was reconstructed using the same technique as the toes. The new tail is secured in place by wire. Breaks in the ear were re-attached and other cracks that had formed in the painted features on the face were filled in and in-painted.
Splitting at the seams
Shrinkage of the skin had caused three of the seams on the underside of the polar bear to split open exposing the interior fill. These seams were first patched with tissue and then a layer of tinted goat hair was adhered to the tissue to hide the repair.
Thousands of Shells
47,285 shells and still cleaning!
Where to start…? During the redevelopment of the museum the conservation team began the task of cleaning and repacking the shell collection. This collection area contains specimens of international importance, but until the redevelopment had not been a priority for treatment. In fact, it had not received any conservation attention since it was acquired by the museum.
Some sections of the collection are well documented, others less so – from the patchy documentation, curators estimated that there were approximately 38,000 shells to clean and repack!
We condition checked the shells to assess whether the collections had any mould growth, if the shells had developed Byne’s disease, or if there were signs of pest infestation. All the shells were cleaned and treated with an alcohol solution to kill any mould growth.
In the case of the Linter collection all of the shells were donated to the museum in small black presentation boxes, some of which were in poor condition and needed conservation. In addition to cleaning the shells we also re-adhered box corners, cleaned their glass lids, and then relined them with polyester wadding and spider tissue.
In the first two years of the project with the help of 11 volunteers, nine interns and nine staff we cleaned 47,285 shells! Now several years later we have moved the majority of the cleaned and repacked shell collection into More in Store, our storage area in the heart of the museum. We are now past the 50,000 mark and there are still a few cabinets left to clean.
The conservation team would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all those who have helped us with the shell collection so far.
For those of you not familiar with the collection, Gerald is the name affectionately given to our bull giraffe, donated to the museum by Charles Victor Alexander Peel in 1919.
Gerald was one of only two objects not removed to our off site store when the museum closed – the other one being the elephant. Before being lifted into his final position in the gallery, the conservation team took the opportunity to assess his condition and clean and repair those hard to reach areas.
Gerald has spent the last three years tilted nose down in a purpose built crate covered in dust sheets whilst the building work progressed. On 17th of August 2010 he was squeezed out of a (big) window and craned through the roof into his new gallery.
Since he went on display in 1920 Gerald had mostly stayed in one spot, but over the last few months he’s been tilted nose down, had a ride on the back of a lorry, tilted upright again, craned over the museum and tilted back down on his nose again – all of which can put a lot of strain on a very large, 100-year-old taxidermy specimen, not to mention the numerous ‘repairs’ carried out over the years.
Time has taken its toll on Gerald
In his position in the old gallery, Gerald’s head was very close to the roof lights and over the years most of his spots had faded in the sunlight. He has lost most of the hair from the top of his head, the skin had split around the horns and there are lots of areas of hair that had been lost to moths and beetles and rumour has it that his tail is actually from a cow.
Gerald is not all in one piece either. Back in 1901, the skin was originally divided into small manageable pieces that were shipped back from Kenya to the taxidermist Rowland Ward of London. Here a giraffe shaped frame was made onto which the skin was reassembled by stitching the smaller segments back together again.
Some of these joins are easy to see, especially at the top of the legs. Due to shrinkage and movement of the skin, however, the stitching has broken in many areas, opening the joins again, and people have tried many times to fill these holes.
Other old restorations had attempted to make him look more ‘giraffe like’ by painting new spots and applying yellow pigment to the faded head and neck. Replacement hair has been glued to the horns, mane and tail to cover the bald areas and two or three different resins and fillers had been used to fill splits and holes in the skin – especially around the top of the head and horns and between the legs.
The week before he was put upright, the conservation team worked to clean and vacuum off building dust. We also looked at the painted spots and yellow colouring to the head – most of which do not seem to be painted over any original markings, so these were reduced to try and bring back Gerald’s original markings and hair colour.
He was lifted upright for the last time just before Easter, and put in the final position in the new gallery.
Improving access to the Greek and Cypriot collections
RAMM’s Greek and Cypriot archaeology collection contains around 500 objects from Neolithic stone tools to Roman glass. Funding from the AG Leventis Foundation has enabled staff and volunteers to conserve, photograph and research these collections. RAMM’s Conservation team are repacking the collections in store, and conserving objects to make them safe to handle and suitable for display in the future.
More than 20 objects from this collection have now received individual conservation treatment, varying from minor treatments like removing mould, to more extensive treatment like full reconstructions. Once objects have been conserved they will be re-located into RAMM’s ‘More in Store’, in the heart of the museum.
Examples of objects that have been conserved include:
- Glass drinking vessel. Originally in 5 pieces, two of which were delaminating sections. 90% complete, with iridescent weathering.
- Glass vessel originally in 20 pieces. Object has localised area of iridescence and insoluble salt deposits. Larger shards have running cracks.
- Ceramic bowl originally in 11 pieces, 95% complete. Thin layer of surface deposits (possible archaeological deposits). Clean break edges.
- Rider and horse. Originally in 6 pieces, the figurine is creamware with red strips. (A similar figure can be seen in the Ancient Worlds Gallery)
- Ceramic vessel in 7 pieces. The vessel has salt deposits and structural cracks.
- 5 chicken figurines and 3 ceramic sherds. Repacked into a more secure environment, ideal for handling purposes.