British Museum blog

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: coming apart at the seams

Agnieszka Depta, Conservator, Western Art on Paper, British Museum

After choosing the smallest possible eraser (yes, that’s the skinny one in the middle) to clean the largest print in the Prints and Drawings collection it didn’t seem like we would ever finish with the mammoth task of surface cleaning, but we did it and here is a picture of some of the eraser crumbs to prove it:

erasers

Before embarking onto the next step, to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages, we supported delicate-looking creases and other weak areas with tissue and wheat starch paste. Then the print was turned over, which was no mean feat for a print this size (357 x 295 cm) and required all hands on deck.

weak areas

Supporting weak areas before backing removal

First we carried out some tests to establish which method would be most appropriate to soften the starch-based adhesive so as to allow us to carefully peel the linen off the print in small strips. For this purpose it is best to introduce water very slowly, which allows the adhesive to gradually swell and soften without making the paper too wet. We have a choice of conservation-grade powders that will absorb and hold water in a gel or thick liquid, which we apply as a ‘poultice’. We sometimes use a fabric that holds moisture, such as a Microfibre cloth or capillary matting combined with a barrier material such as Gore-TexR which controls the rate of humidification.

Having settled on using a poultice, we removed the majority of the linen backing using this method. Some areas proved more difficult than others – perhaps where the paper was more deteriorated or thinner, or where the paste had been applied more thickly, or maybe different batches of paste were used. Akin to Goldilocks and her porridge, the poultice had to be left on the linen backing for just the right period of time: too short and some original paper fibres might be accidentally removed, too long and the paper would get soft and be at risk of damage. The goalposts changed as we moved across the print because of the variable topography but, as a reward for our patience, we got to know the print and its little quirks like a best friend. Getting up close and intimate with the print and observing the different styles of chamfering, pasting etc. allowed us to discover what a team effort it must have been to assemble and back it originally.

peeling backing

Peeling off the linen backing

We too had to work as a team and during this period we were joined by students who observed the treatments and, for a few days of backing removal, by a fellow paper conservator Harry Metcalf, from the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol.

hard at work

Conservators Caroline Barry and Harry Metcalf: hard at work

In order to reach the centre of the print, we started taking the individual sheets apart as soon as enough of the backing was removed to allow us to do so.

Unexpectedly, the joins had been thinned down in the past to the point where only a fragile layer of paper fibres remained, and it proved the greatest challenge of the project thus far to take the printed sheets apart safely. It required all our skill and ingenuity, including sourcing tools used in dentistry and even purchasing antique manicure sets on eBay and treating this like an exercise in micro-surgery. After weeks of painstaking labour the print has been taken apart into its original 38 sheets.

We also experimented with agarose gel strips (agarose is usually extracted from seaweed) to humidify the joins but the poultice applied on top of the linen, along the joints proved to be the most successful method. Most of the linen backing we removed was kept for possible future analysis and experimentation.

So far we have discovered that pieces of old prints were used to infill historical losses; there was also a notation made on the verso in red chalk; and the various watermarks on the different sheets are a lot more visible without the lining in place. Now that every sheet is easily accessible, it is apparent how creased and distorted some of the sheets are and we have an opportunity to note historical repairs of missing areas, other damage as well as record the watermarks in detail. Recording this detailed examination is currently underway.

 

notation

Upper left: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under ambient light. Upper right: discovery of historical repairs using old print fragments under transmitted light. Above: historical notation on verso of print in red chalk

Watermark 1

Watermark visible in transmitted light after the backing has been removed

Some of the infill paper at the edges proved very deteriorated and brittle and the adhesive tested acidic, putting the print at risk of further deterioration and confirming that it was high time to carry out conservation and perhaps something to keep in mind for when we might be secretly grumbling to ourselves ‘whose crazy idea was it to take this thing apart?’ when the time comes to fit all those sheets back together…. But before this happens, and after we have completed the documentation, we shall be carrying out treatments to reduce the old adhesive left on the back of the sheets as well as reduce the acidity, about which we will post an update on this blog in the near future.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

You can see the removal of the textile backing here.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , ,

Conservation mounting of Picasso’s 347 Suite

Christina Angelo, Conservation Mounter of Western Art on Paper, British Museum

When the Museum receives new acquisitions to its collection of prints and drawings, either through gifts or purchased through special funds, it is of the upmost importance that they are cared for appropriately for future generations to enjoy. This is why my role as a conservation mounter is so vital. I’m one of three British Museum conservation mounters who specialise in western art on paper. Mounting enables prints and drawings to be handled safely by staff, and visitors to the Prints and Drawings Study Room, without risk of damage to the objects. It also facilitates the option to frame if another institution requests to borrow an object as part of our on-going exhibition programme. All the mounts are made of the highest museum-quality mount board and all the materials we use are tested by our department’s scientists to ensure they won’t damage the artwork over time. In order to maximise space for storing this huge collection of prints and drawings, standard size mounts are used which are then stored in Solander boxes in the Study Room.

Over the years I’ve seen and mounted some of the most interesting and outstanding works of art in our collection, from Leonardo da Vinci to Tracey Emin, and this year is no exception. Over the last few months I’ve been very privileged to have been part of the team involved in the mounting of Picasso’s 347 Suite, aptly named because there are 347 prints. This important collection was funded by generous donor Hamish Parker, and in the autumn 2015 edition of the British Museum Magazine, Stephen Coppel, Curator of the Modern Collection, explained the fascinating story of how they were produced.

DSC_0371

With so many prints requiring mounting, the new studios in the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre (WCEC) have come into their own. It makes my job so much easier using the specially designed space and new equipment we now have. Initially Stephen Coppel and I discussed the mounting of the Picasso prints. Once we agreed on a plan it was full steam ahead for the team. After the prints were measured the mount board was cut to the standard sizes on the board chopper.

DSC_0377

Every print’s platemark was measured carefully as they all varied in size in preparation for cutting the mount’s apertures on our new computerised electronic mount cutter, before the mounts were assembled together.

The prints were now ready to be secured into their mounts using handmade Japanese paper, which we use for its longevity and fibre strength, and a fine layer of water soluble adhesive that can be easily removed by conservators if necessary in the future.

DSC_0366

To give the prints added protection whilst inside their Solander boxes, a sheet of polyester was hinged inside the mount which covers the front of the print.

DSC_0351

Finally to give the mounts their unique British Museum touch, Picasso’s name and the print’s identifying number were stamped on the front of each mount using our handheld typeset tools and etching ink which have been standard practice at the museum since the 19th century.

DSC_0394

After several months the project is now complete. I will miss the prints as they have been a talking point with our numerous visitors and museum professionals who come to the studio to see the work we do. The prints are safely stored in their Solander boxes in the Study Room waiting for researchers to view them, and to mark the completion of this successful team effort, from both curators and conservation staff, we all had a celebratory drink to honour the occasion.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , ,

Corroded ruin or hidden treasure? An early dynastic copper-alloy cauldron from Ur

Hazel Gardiner, Project Conservator, Ur Project

My work as Project Conservator for the Ur Digitisation Project continues the assessment, investigation and conservation of objects held by the British Museum that were excavated at Ur (located in present-day Iraq) in the 1920s and 1930s by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley. Further information on Woolley’s excavation and the Ur Digitisation Project is covered by a previous blog post. One of my current tasks is to work on the metal objects.

One object in this group, an Early Dynastic II or III (2800–2300 BC) copper-alloy cauldron, discovered in the 1928–29 excavation at Ur as part of a grave assemblage, has proved especially interesting…

In the Middle East department in the British Museum, archaeological metal objects are kept in controlled environmental conditions to ensure that corrosion is limited. Ur metal objects are usually stable although many bear the effects of long-term burial in salty, and therefore corrosive, conditions. This cauldron is a prime example!

fig_1

Cauldron. The rim is detached. The wooden supports across the interior were probably added at the same time that the rim was repaired.

Initially it was a pitiful sight, as the on-going effects of several thousand years of burial have taken their toll. The rim was detached and in fragments and the visible parts of the metal body appeared entirely mineralised, that is, entirely corroded. Soil still lines the interior in a thick layer and this is clearly visible where corroded sections of the vessel wall have fallen away from the exterior. Over this soil layer, the interior of the cauldron is lined with strips of waxed calico (coarse cotton), as is the underside of the exterior.

fig_2

Cauldron interior, showing the waxed calico lining the vessel and the fibrous putty-like material used to repair the rim (now orange-brown in colour).

The waxed calico was applied during excavation as a means to protect the object and possibly also to preserve its shape during lifting and transport. A layer of melted paraffin wax was applied over all. In more recent years, probably the 1970s, an attempt was made to secure the rim: a light fibrous putty-like material, used in conservation from the late 1960s to 1980s, is found over much of the area where the rim would have joined the body.

The cauldron initially seemed so deteriorated that it could be of value only as an example of how Woolley secured finds. As such it becomes an historical object – a document of Woolley’s excavation methods – as well as an archaeological object.

However, closer observation revealed that a large section of the rounded wall of the cauldron body appears to have survived intact, that is with only superficial corrosion apparent (the interior is hidden by the waxed calico). The detached rims also proved to be less deteriorated than on first view. The two handles and their fixings, including large square-headed rivets, are clearly visible and in some parts well-preserved.

fig_3

Cauldron rim section showing the handle fittings and rivets.

Although Woolley’s account of the Ur excavations gives barely a page to metal vessels such as this, he created a detailed typology of metal vessel forms. The surviving elements of the cauldron allowed it to be securely identified as Woolley’s ‘Type 49’, distinguished by its riveted handles, rounded profile and splayed rim.

fig_4

Woolley’s vessel Type 49 from Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934.

This information made it possible to identify a series of findspots (burials), eight in total, where this cauldron-type occurred. Of these, one in particular (PG/1422) includes a cauldron of dimensions that correspond very closely to those of the cauldron under discussion.

fig_5

A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of Grave PG/1422. The large cauldron found in this grave is depicted at the bottom left of the image.

Further information is provided by the illustration of this burial from Woolley’s field notes. This shows a large cauldron on its side at the foot of the burial. The fact that the cauldron has what appear to be woven fibres preserved on one side could support the idea that it is the one from site PG/1422. Most Ur burials had a floor of matting. Usually the only surviving evidence of this is where it has been preserved by association with metal. A feature of this type is known as Mineral Preserved Organic remains (MPOs). This occurs when an organic substance, such as textile, leather, or natural or man-made fibre, is placed in contact with a metal surface over a prolonged period. Metallic compounds from a corroding object inhibit the decay of organic materials and can eventually replace the entire structure . In archaeology, this process has ensured the preservation of the exact form of textile and other materials which otherwise would have been entirely lost.

The woven fibres are obscured by paraffin wax, although still recognisable. Woolley observed that the pattern of the matting lining the burial was unusual and included a drawing of this in his field notes. Identifying how much of the mineral-preserved woven fibre survives, identifying whether it is matting, and whether it shows the pattern of the matting identified by Woolley are all questions to be explored.

fig_6

A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of the matting that lined Grave PG/1422.

Also of potential interest, is a crust of sooty deposit that is readily visible on the exterior of the cauldron wall and around the rim. Similar dark material is found associated with the inner surface of the cauldron, where a section of soil has broken away from the metal surface. The sooty material is embedded in the soil. It is possible that this material could provide evidence of what the cauldron was used for. For example, traces of lipids (fats) could suggest that the vessel was used as a cooking pot. It would be essential to find a sample untouched by Woolley’s paraffin wax.

My aim is to stabilise the cauldron and secure it, as far as possible, for the future. Close on the heels of this, through investigative conservation, I’d hope to extract information from the object, in the least intrusive manner, that will be of use in future research.

This process requires thought and care. For example, removing the obscuring layer of waxed calico and soil within the cauldron could lead to its complete collapse as it is in such a fragmented state. Further, as the object is also an example of Woolley’s excavation practice, there is an argument for this material to be preserved (providing that it is not now causing damage to the object).

First, the cauldron must be secured, supported and stabilised. Next, it should be x-radiographed to identify how much of the metal of the cauldron body survives and possibly also to help glean information about structure and technology. Further work, including analysis of the sooty deposits, and study of the mineral-preserved woven fibres, would all add to the body of data about the cauldron. Methods of removing wax to reveal the surface of the object and the woven fibres could be explored with the support of Organics conservation colleagues.

How much can be achieved within the bounds of the current project, beyond the essentials, remains to be seen, as there are many more objects to assess and treat, but certainly these observations on this cauldron will be documented and thoughts on future investigations outlined.

So, from what initially appeared an unpromising corroded mass, a range of possible investigations has evolved which could help reveal more about the technology, use and significance of this vessel, not to mention helping establish its identity within a particular assemblage. Although a humble object compared to the known treasures of Ur, it is potentially a small treasure house in itself of culturally significant information.

To conclude, Woolley’s tantalising notes on burial PG/1422:

‘This was the first grave which, on internal evidence, we could confidently assign to a period intermediate between the early cemetery and that of the Sargonid age: Even the Arab workmen recognised that it was in some way unlike any of the 1400 graves previously dug, and were greatly interested in it. Their interpretation of some of its characteristics is perhaps worth putting on record: the unusual richness of his personal ornaments meant that he was young as well as wealthy; the number of weapons in the grave and the great size of the spear-heads meant that he was a fighting man and a warrior of note; but when they saw the cauldron at the foot of the coffin, a cauldron very much larger than the norm, they agreed that he was the leader of a band of robbers or else the sheikh of a clan; for only one holding such a position and having numerous followers to feed would require so huge a cooking-pot’ (Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934, 186-187)

Filed under: Archaeology, British Museum, Conservation, Ur Project, , , ,

Study, conservation and display of a rare pair of curtains from Late Antique Egypt

Project curator Amandine Mérat gives us an overview of the historical background of the curtains, whilst conservators Anna Harrison and Monique Pullan describe work carried out in order to prepare them for display.

An exceptionally well preserved pair of curtains is amongst the remarkable objects displayed in the exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. They are said to be from Akhmim in Upper Egypt and date from the 6th–7th centuries AD. Acquired for the British Museum by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge in 1897, they are displayed here for only the second time in the Museum’s history. Made of fine linen and colourful wool, the curtains measure more than 2.7m in height by 2.1m in width, and provide a unique example of complete large scale furnishings from Late Antique Egypt.

Because of its dry climate, Egypt preserves a range and abundance of organic material that rarely survive elsewhere. This is particularly true of clothing and furnishing textiles, which provide unparalleled insight into the lives of individuals from Roman, Late Antique and early Islamic times. From the 2nd century AD, Egyptian people progressively gave up mummification, instead burying their dead in the clothes they wore in life, and sometimes wrapping them in furnishing textiles reused as funerary shrouds. This explains why the great majority of the textiles were discovered since the late 19th century in cemeteries and burial contexts. Visible staining from contact with a body suggests that these curtains were used in this way. Although they are now separate, the two textiles were originally sewn together at the top, indicating that they were probably door curtains, before being used as a shroud.

01259289_001

Colourful classical Graeco-Roman motifs decorate the curtains

The curtains represent a good example of continuity and the re-use of classical themes and imagery throughout Late Antiquity, here in a demonstrably Christian context. The lower part of the curtains is ornamented with birds and vegetal motifs in floral lozenges. At the top is a decorative band containing an inhabited vine scroll, below which erotes (gods of love) holding floral garlands stand between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged nikai (victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription. Both erotes and nikai figures come from the Classical, or Graeco-Roman, repertoire, the latter often depicted holding busts of mythological heroes or victorious emperors; later such figures were ‘re-employed’ to present the bust of Christ or other Christian symbols.

pre cons

One of the curtains before conservation in 1994

Although at first sight the curtains appear intact, on closer inspection their fragility is obvious. In particular the stained areas which had been in contact with the body are brittle with many holes. The wool motifs retain their vivid colours but sections are missing, possibly eaten by insects during burial.

The curtains were extensively conserved for the 1994 British Museum exhibition Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture. Each curtain was stitched on to new cotton fabric, applied to secure the damaged areas and attach the curtains evenly across their entirety. Working in fine silk threads, this stitching took over 200 hours to complete. The new lining strengthened the ancient textiles and made each curtain appear whole. The missing coloured wools were not replaced; one of the principal ethical guidelines for conservators is to focus on stabilising remaining original material rather than restoration of the original appearance.

In 2013 the curtains were re-assessed for their suitability for the current exhibition. As the largest and most vulnerable textiles to be selected, any conservation issues needed to be raised well in advance with the exhibition planning team. Due to their fragility, it was impossible to gather and drape the curtains as they would have been originally, as this would put too much physical stress on the ancient threads. In order to get as close to their original appearance as possible, a compromise was reached by mounting them on a board angled just off the vertical, which would give them the appearance of being upright and also give some additional support.

Curtains10

Conservators checking the condition of the curtains in 2015

Examination of the curtains in preparation for the current exhibition showed that the conservation stitching worked 20 years previously was holding the textile securely in position. However, a little more work was required for this near vertical display. Extra lines of stitching were applied in the vertical direction, particularly in the less damaged areas which had not been previously stitched. The curtains were also surface cleaned using a soft sable hair brush and a special vacuum cleaner set to a low setting.

In order to attach the curtains to their fabric-covered display board, Velcro tape was stitched along the top edge of each curtain. Velcro is often used to display textiles because it ensures a continuous, even support along the top of the textile.

Fig. 6

Installing the curtains

During installation, each of the rolled curtains was lifted up to enable the two sides of the Velcro to be connected, also ensuring the top decorative borders were lined up correctly. The curtains were then unrolled as far as the case would allow, with the remaining rolled portion being rolled and placed underneath the support board. Each step of the installation had been planned in advance, using accurate measurements and diagrams to minimise the need for unnecessary handling of these fragile textiles. Finally, the long fringing at the top of each curtain was held in place with strips of semi-transparent net, pinned to stop it flopping forward.

Visitors to the exhibition might be surprised by how much time and effort goes on behind the scenes in order to prepare the displays. A seemingly straight forward task, such as hanging a pair of curtains, in fact required an immense amount of planning and coordination to ensure that these rare and beautiful, yet extremely fragile, textiles could take their place in this show.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , ,

Faith after the pharaohs: Egyptian papyri conservation

Bridget Leach, Conservator: Pictorial Art, British Museum

Working in the paper conservation studio 1

Examination under the microscope (prior to repair) of the Egypt Exploration Society’s papyri.

In preparation for the Egypt: faith after the pharaohs exhibition five papyri, kindly loaned from the Egypt Exploration Society, came into the Paper Conservation studio. As papyrus conservator at the British Museum I have worked on a wide range of manuscripts held by our Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan over the years. The collection includes many fine examples of papyri from ancient Egypt such as temple accounts from Abu Sir dating from approximately 2400 BC, some of the longest and beautifully illustrated funerary rolls from throughout Egypt’s long Pharaonic history, as well as literary texts and day to day legal documents. Working on such material has always been fascinating but I was particularly delighted to be able to work on these five papyri as they were excavated at Oxyrhynchus. The story of this excavation had fired my initial interest in papyrus as a paper conservation student many years ago.

Papyrus rolls before conservation EES image

A group of papyrus rolls as excavated. (Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society and Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford)

The ancient town of Oxyrhynchus, meaning ‘city of the sharp nosed fish’, modern al-Bahnasa lying 120 miles south of Cairo, was excavated between 1896 and 1907 by papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. This excavation began as part of a systematic exploration of the sites of Greco-Roman settlements and their discoveries were made in the sandy mounds on the outskirts of the town. The mounds turned out to be ‘drifts’ of rubbish tips which proceeded to yield approximately half a million fragments of papyri with ancient texts including early Christian literature. Grenfell and Hunt spent six seasons at Oxyrhynchus and their discoveries were by far the most exciting of the time in terms of quantity and range of the manuscripts found. Here was found several centuries worth of archives where official and private documents collectively provided a rare insight into the everyday life of this Roman town’s inhabitants during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. The papyri that came to the paper conservation studio included a rental agreement between two female monks leasing part of their home to a Jewish man (P.Oxy 3203) excavated in the first season, a small fragment containing the Greek Septuagint (P.Oxy 3522) and another depicting an informal drawing of Daniel in the lion’s den, both excavated in the fourth season. It is unknown during which season the last two papyri were found but they addressed matters relating to the Roman requirement for all citizens to sacrifice to the gods and include a Certificate of Sacrifice (P.Oxy 3929) and a letter from a Chrisitian man named Copres about a way to avoid the obligation (P.Oxy 2601).

00941606_001

The Cyperus papyrus L. plant. 

Undoubtedly helped by the dry climate of Egypt, papyrus has proved to be a very durable writing material with remarkable powers of preservation. Made from Cyperus papyrus L., a sedge plant about four metres high that grew plentifully along the banks of the Nile in antiquity, a sheet a papyrus was made from sections of the lower part of the stem where it was at its thickest. The outer rind is peeled off to reveal a spongy white inner pith which can be sliced longitudinally to make thin strips. These strips are laid side by side to form one layer before laying a second layer on top at right angles, then pressing and drying the whole. Individual sheets made in this way could then be joined to form a roll.

00941610_001

A peeled section of the lower stem showing the pith inside being peeled into strips.

00941609_001

Two layers of strips are laid at right angles over each other. The two layers are then pressed together to form, when dry, a sheet of the writing material.

The five papyri for the exhibition were in need of minor repair and all except the small fragment of Daniel were in need of remounting between new sheets of glass. It was decided to exhibit Daniel in a passe-partout without glass to try and enhance viewing for the visitor. Generally papyri are so fragile that glass mounts are necessary for their protection but in this case, the fragment being small and in reasonable condition, an exception was made for the duration of the exhibition.

1. Before conservation and remounting

The papyrus in it’s old mount.

2. With the papyrus removed, the density of the salt bloom on the glass is visible

The old mount with the papyrus removed showing a thick salt bloom.

3. After conservation

The papyrus in a new glass mount.

All the papyri were examined under magnification before opening the old glass mounts and starting any treatment. Once opened a bloom or ‘halo’ could be immediately seen on the old glass, in the case of P. Oxy 3203 it was very pronounced. This is a common feature with papyri enclosed in glass, particularly those found by excavating rubbish tips where they are found together with other material such as potsherds, ash, charcoal, rags, straw, and various kinds of kitchen waste. In this type of archaeological context papyri will absorb soluble salts. When later enclosed in glass, and even in conditions where relative humidity changes very little, the salts absorb small amounts of moisture from the surrounding air. As the air slowly dries out again these soluble salts migrate outwards and deposit themselves on the nearest surface which in this case is the glass. This can happen repeatedly over the years and a substantial ‘bloom’ can build up inside the mount making the papyrus quite hard to read. Scientific analysis has found the bloom to consist of mainly sodium chloride, common salt, and it can be wiped off the glass very easily. However the Oxyrhynchus papyri were all remounted in new glass for the exhibition.

Repairing fractured areas using small tabs applied with tweezers

Repairing a loose fragment of P.Oxy 3203 using small ‘tabs’ applied with tweezers.

Before remounting some conservation work was undertaken on the manuscripts. This involved laying back loose or twisted fibres and repairing along fractures. Repairs – in this case small pieces of Japanese paper, used for its strength and quality and toned to a sympathetic colour – are applied to the papyri with starch paste. The newly mounted papyri now take their place in the exhibition alongside the other fascinating objects that tell the story of faith after the pharaohs.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

 

 

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

Coming of age: The Hirayama Studio celebrates 21 years conserving the British Museum’s magnificent Asian paintings collection

Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Joanna Kosek, Head of Pictorial Art Section, Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum

Anyone who has ever visited the Hirayama Conservation Studio in the British Museum has seen what a unique and impressive place it is. For within its venerable walls an old room found new life as the centre for the most delicate and artistic operations: the care, conservation and mounting of uncounted precious scrolls and similar art on paper and silk from East and South Asia.

This autumn the Hirayama Studio comes of age. For twenty-one years now work has been carried out in this studio and every year it is busier and busier. We have no idea how we would have coped had Professor Ikuo Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan not come to our rescue in 1994, and given us our specially-designed studio housed in the Grade I listed building, once home to the Bloomsbury Savings bank.

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (from left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the last year, four conservators from Japan have been working with us. Sent from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures (Kokuho Shuri Sokoshi Renmei), thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Sumitomo Foundation, the conservators have been working with us on our Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum, now in its eighth year.

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left: Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll)

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left): Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections at the British Museum) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

A recent highlight of the project has been collaborating on remounting the newly-acquired and breathtaking painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806). Old and beautiful kimono silks used in the 19th-century mount were refurbished, combining modern textile conservation techniques with traditional Japanese scroll-mounting skills (watch out for our next blog for details on this).

At the same time, with generous support from the American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, three scroll-mounting experts from Shanghai Museum visited us. These experts worked with us, assisting and enabling our own Master Chinese scroll-mounter, Jin Xian Qiu, to conserve and remount two huge Chinese silk paintings (both measuring around 3.5 m x 1.5 m).

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Thanks to this collaborative help, several paintings which were previously inaccessible due to their poor condition are now fully conserved and remounted.

This year was also a time of great change for the Hirayama Studio, as our Senior Conservator of Japanese Paintings, Keisuke Sugiyama, who has worked with us for the past eight years, returned to Japan to take up a teaching position. Keisuke is sorely missed. Our consolation is that Kyoko Kusunoki from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo will join the team next spring, to continue the fantastic tradition of Japanese scroll-mounting that the Studio enjoys.

At the same time we are busily responding to the daily needs of the Museum. This means that every Asian painting, print, album, fan or screen in the Museum galleries (or any of them out on loan round the world) has been carefully checked and probably treated by us. Highlights in the last year have included the wonderful BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, the newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery, The Prince and the Pir Middle-Eastern painted miniatures display, and the soon-to-be-displayed remarkable paintings by contemporary artist Qu Leilei (watch out for a short film on this on the BM YouTube channel in November.

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the year, staff have contributed to a number of major international conferences, especially the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) congress in Hong Kong. We have given talks and welcomed many groups of students, hosted student placements – one an Institute of Conservation (Icon) intern – and continued our own specialist training under the watchful eyes of our scroll-mounting masters. (Remember that there is normally a ten-year training period to qualify as a scroll-mounter in East Asia).

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll whilst Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll while Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

And we are never short of visitors at the Studio: colleagues, VIPs, journalists and cameramen come from all over to visit us and learn more about scroll-mounting work.

This sums up this last momentous year, while the highlights over our first twenty-one years include:

  • Work for the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery displays (opened in 1990; refurbished in 2006)
  • Work for the Korea Foundation Gallery displays (opened in 2000)
  • Conservation of a six-fold Toyoharu screen by Mitsuhiro Abe, Andrew Thompson, Sydney Thomson and Sara Burdett, filmed as Secrets of the Screen, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (2001)
  • Conservation and mounting of around 100 fragmentary Dunhuang paintings by Jin Xian Qiu and Zhu Pin Fang from Shanghai Museum (2002)
  • The remarkable Sumitomo Foundation-funded Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum which has to date allowed 14 conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures to come and treat with us important paintings, including the imposing Tiger painting by Gan Ku which we have filmed and you can see here and here
Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen

Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Admonitions Scroll (l-r): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay

The Admonitions Scroll (from left to right): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Cooperation with the Shanghai Museum’s scroll-mounters
  • Re-papering of the Korea Foundation Gallery’s Saranbang and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery Tea House
8_Re-papering

Mee Jung Kim and Valentina Marabini re-papering the Museum’s Korean saranbang; and Eoin Kelly and Keisuke Sugiyama re-papering the shoji of the Museum’s Japanese tea house. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Work for major British Museum exhibitions including The first emperor: China’s terracotta army, Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (at the Royal Academy of Arts), the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art
  • Training in both Japan and China for our conservators (to learn about Valentina’s year at Shanghai Museum, click here)
  • Hosting numerous Masterclass workshops, including those by Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Yukio Yamamoto (sponsored by the Daiwa Anglo-Japan Foundation), Keisuke Sugiyama as well as many experts of the Association for Conservation of National Treasures in Japan, including Yukihiro Takegami, Itawaro-Yasuhiro Oka and Ryoko Kamei (sponsored by the Sumitomo Foundation)
  • Countless talks, lectures and publications including ‘The study and conservation of the silk painting Death of the Buddha’ by Keisuke Sugiyama et al. in the BMTRB vol 8

It is never quiet in the Hirayama Studio! So as we celebrate our 21st birthday we look forward with new energy and excitement to all the projects that the coming months and years will bring.

9 Finale

Hirayama Studio staff (from left to right): Valentina Marabini, Keisuke Sugiyama, Jin Xian Qiu, Mee Jung Kim and Carol Weiss. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Filed under: Conservation, , , , , , ,

Spicy stories: the case of a clove boat model

Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student, British Museum and University of Southampton

 Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944


Model boat made from threaded cloves before conservation, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm. British Museum As1972,Q.1944

Since closure of the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, the exhibited objects, including a model boat made from hundreds of dried cloves, have been returned to storage. However, out of sight does not mean out of mind…

The world of clove models is a mysterious one: little is known about these exciting, unique and strongly scented objects. This leaves us with questions such as what are they, where did they come from, when and why? Very little was known about the British Museum’s clove boat model before it was displayed, including its origins. Research was thus carried out to start to piece together information, but many questions are still unanswered. Intrigued by these objects research continues and you are invited to be a part of it!

Through this blog I will highlight what we currently know about these models before moving on to explore what we are yet to learn and, importantly, how you can help.

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015. (Photo: David Agar, British Museum)

Clove boat model on display at the temporary exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange curated by Dr Sarah Longair, open from November 2014 to May 2015.

What were they for?

It can be suggested clove models would have been made as souvenirs. Research has shown it was not just model boats that were made from cloves but other items such as a horse and cart, baskets, and even a tea cup were produced in the Molucca Islands in Indonesia.

So what do we know about the British Museum model?

This model can be identified as a kora kora, an Indonesian boat used for trade and warfare, and is thought to broadly date between the 18th and 20th centuries. Further evidence for the origins of the model can be seen in the materials used, as cloves are native to the Moluccas in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands.

Using examples of other models in museums, such as Kew Gardens and the Ashmolean in the UK, Tropenmuseum in Holland and the Kunstkamera in Russia for example, we can start to build up a broader picture of the art of clove model making. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as when did this practice start, how many were made, who were they for and how many exist today?

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre from Edmond Paris Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Image of Indonesian boats, including a kora kora being paddled in the centre. From Edmond Paris, Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens, 1845.

Benefits of social media

Despite these unanswered questions, a blog post by Verena Kotonski, Conservator for Organic Artefacts, invited readers to help determine the positioning of clove figures on the model which sparked international interest. The responses have been very insightful and revealed clove boat models in private collections in the UK and Australia, confirmed one of the models had been collected as a souvenir and encouraged the only known collector of clove boat models, Loed van Bussel, to get in touch and share images of his fleet with us. In addition, a current website shows some clove models are still being made today on Ambon Island in the Moluccas.

The British Museum clove boat model was clearly not a one off specimen; there are various models of boats, as well as other objects, in existence in museums and private collections internationally. However, these evidences are still few and far between.

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Torsos of drummers positioned on the roof of the model after conservation. This image was used in Verena’s blog post inviting reader’s to share information. (Photo: Verena Kotonski, British Museum)

Can you help?

Do you own a clove boat model or know someone who does? If so, do you know anything about the model and how it came to be in your possession? Or perhaps you have seen such models in a museum that has not been mentioned or in a shop window or auction house. If you have any information about clove boat models please do get in touch by emailing cd405@soton.ac.uk or cdixon@britishmuseum.org. With your help we can start to understand how many models like this really are out there which may, in turn, help us understand this particular form of craft and trade.

Further research: a world of model boats

Whilst I am fascinated by clove boat models my research as a doctoral student is not wholly concerned with these objects. I am instead using a whole range of model boats from the Indian Ocean, from East Africa through to Western Australia, to see what we can learn from them in terms of boat building, maritime cultures and collecting. Working collaboratively with the British Museum and University of Southampton I get the opportunity to go behind the scenes and explore museum collections and have been fortunate enough to see many weird, wonderful and intricately crafted boat models. Through my research I hope to promote the use of boat models for research and display, including those made from cloves.

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

Researching other model boats in the stores at the British Museum. (Photo: Imogen Laing, British Museum)

My thanks go to Dr Sarah Longair, curator of Connecting continents, and Verena Kotonski for their continued help and enthusiasm during and after the exhibition. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for access to the model and to my supervisors Dr JD Hill, Dr Lucy Blue and Dr Helen Farr for their continued support.

Charlotte’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, Research, , ,

Spring cleaning with Dürer: conserving the Triumphal Arch

Lauren Buttle, candidate for a Masters of Art Conservation, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

As a student placement in the Western Art on Paper Conservation Studio at the British Museum this summer, I was expecting a few objects to be placed on my workbench that would present some new and interesting challenges. I was not, however, expecting a 3.5 m x 3 m, 16th-century print collage.

As readers of Joanna Kosek’s previous article on this project will know, the task of unframing Albrect Dürer’s Triumphal Arch and transporting the work to the conservation studio was a major undertaking on its own. Now that the work is in the studio, the even trickier question arises: how do you clean the centre of such a large print? Unfortunately, as high-tech as the brand new studios here at the British Museum are, the option of having conservators suspended from the ceiling like ninjas, was not part of the design brief. A more practical option was designed by heads of department, Joanna Kosek and Caroline Barry, along with the conservation mounters.

To transport the print to the studio, a large tube was designed and created to gently roll up the Triumphal Arch. A secondary, smaller tube was then created to catch the print as it was partially unrolled onto the table. The surface of the print could then be cleaned in horizontal bands across the edge of the table and then rolled beneath the table surface onto the second roll in stages.

Diagram of surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch

Diagram of the surface cleaning set-up for Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

 

Although the print has been behind glass for at least 30 years there is still some surface dirt. If dust and dirt were not removed at this early stage then any subsequent wet treatments would fix the dirt in the paper fibres. While the surface cleaning of the print continues, the team carefully documents all aspects of condition and structure of each sheet of paper: everything from tiny pinholes to large watermarks and embossings. This information helps to inform us of the history of the print and will come in very useful during the next stages of treatment. To do this, thin sheets of transparent polyester are placed over each of the 42 individual pages that make up the image, and all characteristics of the page are mapped using permanent markers and a key of symbols created specially for this project by conservator, Megumi Mizumura.

Conservators, Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservators Emma Webb (left) and Megumi Mizumura (right) mapping out damage to individual pages of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Once the mapping is complete, the fun begins! The conservation team has been hard at work for several weeks now using a variety of different dry sponges, erasers and brushes to lift the surface dirt from the print, taking care to avoid all printed media. This means using magnification and a steady hand to carefully clean in between each printed letter… for 10 square-metres. Luckily for us summer students, the conservation team have been happy to let us step in and get involved.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

Conservation student placements, Tom Bower (left), Carina Rosas (centre) and Lauren Buttle (right) surface-cleaning Dürer’s Triumphal Arch.

The cleaning continues in the studio for now. Once this is complete, the next step will be to remove the soiled and degraded textile backing from the assembled pages. No doubt, there will be more exciting challenges to come!

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging

Ivor Kerslake, Photography and Imaging Manager, British Museum and Joanna Russell, Scientist, British Museum

Before any conservation treatment could commence, and with the Arch now out from behind its screen of glass for the first time in a generation, we were granted the opportunity to create a series of high-resolution images. The British Museum’s newly commissioned photographic studio was cleared for two days and Dürer’s masterpiece was expertly transported down the six flights of stairs and carefully unrolled in the main studio. Because of the fragility of the print we were unable to position the work vertically, which would have made our work considerably easier, so it was delicately unrolled on the floor. The challenge was then how to get high enough over the print to get it all within one shot. This was the first real test of the new facility. We decided to use a mobile extendable work platform (MEWP). Since the studio had been designed to enable access to and photography of large objects, we had sufficient space to manoeuvre.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Senior photographers, Kevin Lovelock and Saul Peckham used their skills to light the print to give an even and colour-balanced appearance, and also employed a raking light technique to highlight areas of special interest to both conservators and curators.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print verso (back) in raking light

The print verso (back) in raking light.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed '1515', the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed ‘1515’, the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

While the print was in the photographic studio, scientists Joanna Russell, Joanne Dyer and Antony Simpson took the opportunity to capture some detail shots using infrared and ultraviolet imaging.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Visible light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – beyond the red end of the visible spectrum is infrared radiation, and beyond the violet end is ultraviolet light. This non-visible radiation can also be recorded in images, by using special lights, cameras and filters. These imaging techniques may tell us more about the materials or construction of an object or artwork, depending on the ways the materials interact with the different wavelengths of light.

The ink used for the print absorbs infrared radiation, so appears clearly in these images, and is likely to be a carbon-based ink. However, an ink inscription becomes invisible in the infrared image, showing it is made using a different type of ink, probably iron gall ink.

TA_Pic_ed2

Left: A visible image of a detail from the Arch. Right: An infrared reflectogram of the same detail. The words ‘The Gate of the Nobility’ do not appear in the infrared image.

Ultraviolet light causes some materials to luminesce, that is to give off visible light. The ultraviolet-induced luminescence from the paper has a yellower appearance in one area of the detail shown below. This reveals that the scene in the bottom left of this detail is printed on a separate piece of paper to the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

The information revealed from these images can tell us more about how the Triumphal Arch was made, and can help to further inform the process of conserving the print.

The conservation of Dürer’s Triumphal Arch has been made possible by the generous support of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. To find out more, see the earlier blog post here.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Conservation of a clove boat

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.

1_Boat & crate

Model boat after unpacking from its storage box. Model Boat, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm As1972,Q.1944

Condition
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.

Model boat during cleaning treatment (right-hand side – after cleaning)

Model boat during cleaning treatment (right-hand side – after cleaning)

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.

3_During clamping

Different clamping devices in action

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.

Detached elements including a long paddle (rudder?), a flag and a drum shaped element with a stick attached (left)

Detached elements including a long paddle (rudder?), a flag and a drum shaped element with a stick attached (left)

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.

Drawing of the boat found in the Museum’s records

Drawing of the boat found in the Museum’s records

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.

Torsos of drummers after installation on the roof top. The original location of the drum shaped element (front) with stick attached is still unclear

Torsos of drummers after installation on the roof top. The original location of the drum shaped element (front) with stick attached is still unclear

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.

7_Retaining collar

Retaining collar made of Japanese tissue paper to replace the missing collar of this corner post

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 conservation@britishmuseum.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.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,439 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

This is a great shot of a sarcophagus by @ss.shri – it shows how well preserved the 2,600-year-old craftsmanship is. It was made for Sasobek, who was the vizier (prime minister) of the northern part of Egypt during the reign of Psamtek I (664–610 BC). His face is naturalistic and shows the use of makeup, but it’s probably not an accurate likeness. Many human-shaped sarcophagi had exaggerated facial features during this period. 
Don’t forget you can share your photos with us by using #mybritishmuseum
#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum Our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) spans over 3,000 years of history! The gallery contains iconic objects such as the Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the colossal 7.25 ton statue of the pharaoh Ramesses II. What’s your favourite object in this gallery?
#AncientEgypt #Egypt #Thebes #RosettaStone #sculpture #statue #history #BritishMuseum #mybritishmuseum We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

#Aztec #Mixtec #knife #eagle #turquoise #Mexico #🇲🇽 This mask represents the Aztec god of rain, Tlaloc, who is characterised by large eyes and a twisted nose. The mask is formed from two snakes which intertwine to create the face, their tails forming the eyebrows (originally gold). This object has also been associated with Quetzalcoatl, the feather serpent, because of the feathers which hang down from the eyebrows. Made in Mexico about 500 years ago, the mask may have been worn by a priest during rituals.

#Aztec #Mixtec #turquoise #mask #Mexico #🇲🇽
%d bloggers like this: