Verena Kotonski, Specialist Conservator (Organics), British Museum
In November 2014, my workbench temporarily turned into something close to a shipyard when a model boat made of cloves arrived in the Organic Artefacts Conservation Studio. Every object that goes on temporary or permanent display at the Museum receives a thorough condition check and, if necessary, conservation treatment before its installation in an exhibition. The clove boat was to be included in the exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, in which it was to be displayed for the very first time.
I have come across many weird and wonderful objects over the years, but never a boat made of cloves! I was particularly looking forward to unpacking this object from its storage box to see what it looked like. When I opened the box, an almost overpowering smell of cloves was released, which was somewhat of a surprise as this boat was probably made during the 18th–20th centuries in Indonesia and was accessioned into the collection in 1972.
A thorough examination of the object revealed that the structure of the boat was reasonably stable, but a significant number of elements (14 altogether) had become detached over time. It was difficult to establish the extent of missing elements at this stage. Furthermore, a considerable amount of dust had accumulated on the surface. In order to make this object fit for display, the surface would have to be cleaned, the detached elements reinstated on the object and missing elements reconstructed if and where appropriate.
Cleaning of the surface
Centimetre by centimetre I slowly worked over the object, removing the dust from the surface. This allowed me to appreciate the boat in detail; its decorative scheme and the intricate details of the cloves themselves. The boat is constructed of cloves that are either strung on one or two threads, or threaded on thin wooden pins. The hull is built from strings of cloves layered on top of each other and tied together. I also discovered, for example, that the arms of the figures on the boat and the paddles they are holding were made as one element, which was then adhered to the torso.
It was lovely to see the creative way in which the four unopened petals of the cloves that form a small central ball were used to either depict the head of a rower, the knob at the end of a paddle, or were used as decorative architectural elements.
Tools and materials I used to remove the dust were: a soft, fine tipped brush, vacuum suction and a special conservation-grade natural rubber to catch and trap the more ingrained particles.
Stabilisation of broken elements
Work to stabilise the boat and its occupants included mending a break in one of the corner posts of the cabin and securing several sets of arms and paddles to the torsos of the figures. For this, I used a conservation-grade adhesive, hydroxypropylcellulose, that has good ageing properties, which means that it will remain reversible should the need arise to undo the repair in future. In order to hold the elements in place until the adhesive had set, a range of different devices were employed to apply gentle pressure, such as light weight carbon clamps, hairclips, pins padded with silicone tubing and a bamboo stick mounted on what is actually a brush washer.
Reinstating the detached figures
Finding the original location of the figures that had become detached from the boat proved less straightforward than I initially thought. I found 14 detached elements on the boat: 5 torsos, 1 standing figure, 2 sets of arms and paddles, one long paddle rudder (?), 1 pennant (long tapering flag) without pole and 3 round-shaped objects.
Due to the vacant places among the rowers and a set of holes in the bottom at the stern it was fairly obvious where two of the torsos (including the respective arms and paddles) were meant to go, as well as the figure standing upright. It was possible to attribute a set of arms and paddle to the respective torso by matching the shape of the cut-out on the cloves forming the shoulders with the shape of the stick that forms the neck.
Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.
Fortunately, research into similar models carried out by Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student at the University of Southampton and the British Museum, provided me with a chance to compare our boat with photos of a boat held in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection, which Charlotte kindly shared with me. This strikingly similar boat shows three figures with round elements in front of them on top of the roof of a cabin. Further research by Charlotte also established that the round elements might represent drums. Close examination of the break edges on both drums under the microscope established from which torso one of the drums had broken off, and allowed me to reattach it accordingly.
Despite the very revealing and informative images of the boat at Kew, the numerous holes in the roof canopy offered little guidance on how the torsos might have been arranged on the roof. The ethics of reinstating the detached figures without knowing their original location was discussed with Charlotte and Sarah Longair, curator of this exhibition. We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.
Reconstruction of missing parts
There were still a long paddle (rudder?), pennant and a drum with a pole attached, for which I hadn’t found a location. Unlike the other detached parts these three would have required substantial reconstruction of missing elements in order to be able to reinstall them. As there were no hints where those elements would have been situated originally and what the now missing elements had looked like, we decided not to include them on the boat. Instead, they were packed safely to go into the object’s storage box.
One exception to this was the reconstruction of a missing retaining collar, which was vital for the object’s stability. These collars on top of each corner post of the enclosure prevent the roof canopy from lifting off the upright poles. One was reconstructed using tinted Japanese tissue paper rather than a clove in order to distinguish the later addition from the original object. This detail, which could have been easily overlooked, highlights how important it is for the conservator to understand how an object was constructed in order to inform the decisions about treatment that ensure the long-term stability and integrity of an object.
Call for action
After 34 hours of conservation work, which included the time for investigation and discussion with curatorial colleagues, the model boat was ready to sail and take its place on its tailor-made mount, created by Amanda Gregory, Senior Museum Assistant in the Department of Coins and Medals. My sincere thanks go to Charlotte and Sarah for their enthusiasm and constructive support in the course of this project as well as other colleagues who contributed to the success of this conservation project. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for providing me with an image of the historic drawing of the boat.
Despite all our efforts, not all questions regarding the correct original position of some detached elements have been solved. Therefore, I would like to extend an invitation to the readers of this blog to get in touch should they have further information about the position of the rooftop figures, the drum (?) with pole attached, the second pennant and/or about the arms and paddle (rudder?) of the standing figure. Please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org with any information that might help.
Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange is on display at the British Museum until 31 May 2015.