Hello! We have been busy moving to different cities/countries, job-hunting, and oh yeah—completing our MSc in Conservation Practice! So now that we are Masters of Science, we are returning to the blog world to share our experience from last summer. We assisted in the conservation of objects for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibit titled ‘death: the human experience.’ It was not as grave as it sounds!
This exhibit allows people to observe how different cultures view and deal with death. This varied representation allowed us to work with diverse objects as beautiful and intriguing as the cultures represented. We worked with several objects used during funerary or death rituals and have chosen a few memorable pieces to write about.
An Oceanic, and very heavy, funerary statue of a woman was one of the objects we conserved for display. Although robust, the wooden statue was covered in delicate loose pigments. A separate paintbrush had to be used for each colour as we dusted off residual dirt from the statue’s surface so as not to brush one colour pigment onto another.
The statue's necklaces pre-conservation and the statue on display.
The statue also wore necklaces made of seashells and nutshells. The seashells were cleaned similarly to the bone conservation described in Tanya’s previous placement blogpost http://samandtanyaconservators.blogspot.com/2014/10/part-1-door-by-dodo-my-placement-at.html. Instead of Triton-X, swabs of our spit were used to break down the dirt followed by swabs of 50/50 deionised water and IMS to remove residue cleaned up the seashells nicely. We then used vulcanized rubber to dry clean the dirt off the nutshells.
Vulcanized rubber: No, this is not a rubber created by any Star Trek characters. Vulcanized rubber is a natural rubber that can be used as a dry sponge and can be cut for easy control to pull dirt away from a surface.
Another object we conserved was an Oceanic funerary wig. It was incredible to see how this object was created, imagine a plant-based woven basket with hair attached. We gently brushed off excess dust from the wig with paintbrushes but we had to be as careful as possible because of the lice. You read that correctly—lice! Historical lice that could not be removed as it was a part of the object’s past.
Funerary wig with historical lice.
Next up we conserved a wooden funerary mask. A soft brush was used to brush away the loose dust and dirt in the same way as we did with the statue. A museum vac was used to take the dirt away from the object as we brushed the surface. The mask’s ruffled feathers were gently re-positioned. The loose feathers were re-adhered using Paraloid-B72 (another adhesive used and discussed in previous blogposts), applied with a cocktail stick so as not to use too much.
The mask on display.
A few different taxidermy animals were selected to portray predators and scavengers in the exhibit. A vulture, an owl, a jackal and a crow were chosen, but needed some cleaning before being ready for display. Their feathers and fur were cleaned using microfibre cloths, which we used to pet the animals clean. Probably the most pleasant conservation experience so far! These cloths are able to effectively pick up dust and dirt while being very gentle on the fur and feathers. The eyes and claws were cleaned using spit cleaning, followed by 50/50 deionised water and IMS.
The death exhibition had dim, but appropriate lighting for the objects and general atmosphere of the display. It was thrilling to see objects we worked on shown so creatively while also being informative and respectful in opening dialogue about ethics and attitudes regarding death.
Our animal friends watching us in the lab.