Conservation

Treasuring the treasures: preservation through packing

The Christ Child's hand and fragments of the Virgin's mantle from the north transept reredos, repackaged
The Christ Child’s hand and fragments of the Virgin’s mantle from the north transept reredos, repackaged

When the Victorian renovators uncovered the reredos and sculptures behind the plaster in 1848, there was much excitement about these artefacts, which according to Diocesan Architect Benjamin Ferrey, ‘were of great beauty, and the colouring and gilding were as fresh and bright as though only recently executed’ (Ferry, 1851). Simultaneously, however, there was an immediate acknowledgement of the need for protection of ‘these most interesting memorials’; Ferrey records that ‘the church-wardens of St. Cuthbert’s Church, and indeed all the officials, have shown the greatest zeal in endeavouring to preserve [the sculptures] from further injury, to the utmost of their power’ (ibid).

In the course of the following century and a half, the sculptural fragments have been moved around – at one time some were propped around the walls of the south transept, and later stored ‘in the coal hole’ – and their delicate decoration has suffered as a result.

As stone objects with applied decoration (paint, gesso, gilding), these objects are characterised by a peculiar combination of weightiness and fragility. We have devised handling guidelines which will reduce the risk of one of the most common causes of damage: mishandling.

A central aim of the current project is to limit the environmental factors which are damaging the artefacts to ensure their preservation. In order to do this, we are improving their current storage. Following advice from our conservators we have started to repackage the fragments using conservation grade materials (meaning that they are relatively stable and will not give off deterioration products which may damage the artefacts). Strong polypropylene boxes lined with nitrogen-expanded polyethylene foam and acid-free unbuffered tissue paper formed into supportive nests and puffs will protect the fragments from dust, light and vibrations and insulate against environmental fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity. This type of packaging is commonly used in museums and is a fairly low-cost but effective way to vastly improve the collection’s chances of survival for centuries more. It’s really exciting to work closely with the objects and to make them – finally – ‘comfortable’. We’re at the early stages now, just 70 fragments in – it’ll be brilliant to see the difference at the end of the project. Nearly 170 years after the original discovery, I like to think the Victorian churchwardens would be pleased with our efforts.

Fragments including part of a vine leaf from the south transept reredos, packed using tissue paper nests and pads to prevent contact between the pieces in the box
Fragments including part of a vine leaf from the south transept reredos, packed using tissue paper nests and pads to prevent contact between the pieces in the box
Several richly polychromed pieces of the architectural decoration from the north transept reredos
Several richly polychromed pieces of the architectural decoration from the north transept reredos

Materials

Polypropylene boxes 

Really Useful® polypropylene boxes are acid-free and conservation grade. For larger fragments extra strong white boxes will be used. The boxes are available in a variety of sizes and are stackable, permitting more economical use of space.

Nitrogen expanded polyethylene foam

Closed cell polyethylene nitrogen expanded foam is stable, safe and non-reactive, and is commonly used to store a variety of museum objects. Nitrogen expanded foam is specified because residues from chemically blown foams can affect the stored objects or detract from the properties of the foamed polymer and foams manufactured using volatile liquids can suffer from dimensional changes. A suitable product is Plastazote® LD45, a crosslinked closed cell nitrogen expanded foam.

Spun-bonded polyethylene sheet

Tyvek® is made from spun-bonded polyethylene fibres. It has a paper like feel but is stronger than paper and is soft and flexible, gas permeable, non-abrasive, waterproof and dust resistant. It can be stitched or heat bonded, and will be used to make dust covers for the shelving containing the largest fragments.

Acid-free unbuffered tissue paper

Conservation grade tissue paper – unbuffered means that it has not been chemically treated to alter the acidity of the material. Lower grades of tissue paper have often been used historically to pack historic artefacts, but these weaken, yellow and can damage adjacent materials as they degrade.

 

References

Ferrey, B. (1851) St Cuthbert’s, Wells. Proceedings of Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, vol. ii, pp. 93-96 and frontispiece.

 

Judeth Saunders, Project Coordinator

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