Conserving Dickens’ chairJanuary 10, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Conservation, Exhibitions, Special events
A blog post from Jon in our conservation team on the work looking after and preparing our objects for display.
As this years’ intern within the applied arts section of the conservation department at the Museum of London I am very grateful to have been given the exciting opportunity of experiencing the build-up and installation of the Museum’s major new exhibition – Dickens and London.
In the months before installation began, conservators were busy ensuring all the objects and artefacts were suited to being placed on display. Within the new exhibition objects of a range of materials are installed including shop signs from Dickensian London, documents written in Dickens’ own hand and furniture from Dickens’ house.
This required the knowledge and expertise of our whole conservation team, particularly specialists in paper, textiles and the applied arts.
Within the Applied Arts section we work to conserve many artefacts of Victorian social history; however, as an admirer of Dickens it has been incredibly rewarding being able to work on objects with a particularly close connection to the man himself – such as this chair he was often photographed in.
Dickens’ chair is on open display within the new exhibition, so work was required to stabilise and secure the aged leather upholstery, predominantly around the back rest, where the degraded material had begun to laminate and fall away.
In addition to this, surface cleaning was conducted to remove dust.
Modern ethics within the field of conservation maintain that minimal intervention should be practiced when conserving artefacts – this means altering the original material and structure as little as possible, whilst ensuring the object is sturdy enough to be displayed or stored. We also aim to make every process and alteration reversible, so our changes could be ‘undone’ if needed in the future. For Dickens’ chair this meant adhering loose leather with a removable adhesive to consolidate the fragile material.
Historic leather can suffer acidic degradation due to reactions with sulphurous pollutants in the air. Testing the pH of the leather of Dickens’ chair revealed the leather had become particularly acidic – it was therefore thought appropriate to treat the leather with an aluminium compound – a process that effectively re-tans the leather – neutralising acidity and reversing some degradation processes.
Preventive conservation is also a key role of the museum’s conservators and collection care staff. With regards to this we have been carefully monitoring light levels (particularly important where objects such as Dickens’ handwritten manuscripts are displayed!), ensuring the environment within the gallery is suitable for the collections and that the cases are dust free – the latter involving several days spent cleaning the inside and outside of display cases!
It has been brilliant to see the culmination of many people’s knowledge, ideas and skills work together to create such an exciting and enchanting exhibition.
You can hear more about the conservation work for the exhibition as part of our free drop-in activities for families during February half term on Thursday 16 February between 11.30am to 1pm and again at 2pm to 3.30pm.