Power House – Object Conservation

Prior to installation of a new exhibition the objects which will appear on display have to be carefully cared for by the Conservation Team. Nyssa Mildwaters, one of the Royal Armouries Conservators, will be blogging about several interesting items which will soon be on display at the Tower of London.

One of the more unusual looking objects being conserved for the Power House exhibition is a three stemmed candlestick.  The main body of the candlestick is made from metal weapon parts which twisted and fused together during the blaze which destroyed the Grand Storehouse at the Tower of London on the 30th of October 1841.

Candlestick made from debris of the fire at the Tower of London in 1841

Candlestick made from debris of the fire at the Tower of London in 1841

Large numbers of weapons and other historic objects were destroyed by the fire, however in the weeks that followed tables were set up in what was left of the building and pieces of bizarrely twisted and shaped metal debris were sold off to members of the public at prices of up to £1 each.

This particular piece of debris was converted into a candlestick by drilling into the lump and then screwing on the three decorative stems, which as you can see have a very different appearance to the twisted and misshapen metal below. Although it is not possible to identify all the metal components which fused together forming the centre of the candlestick, yet to one side there is still clearly visible the remains of the lock or firing mechanism from a flintlock rifle.

Very little remedial conservation work was actually needed to get this object ready for display as it was already in pretty good condition if a little dusty. The dust and any dirt were removed using solvents swabs, after which the whole object was coated with a protective layer of Micro-Crystalline Wax. This was achieved by using a technique called ‘hot waxing’, where the wax is warmed during application to give a better and more even coating.  With conservation complete the candlestick is now awaiting packaging and transport to the Tower of London, ready for display.

Behind the Scenes: Conservation

Conservation plays a key role in any museum, although conservators aren’t always the most visible members of staff they are involved in a huge number of museum activities behind the scenes. At the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds we have three full time conservators who staff our main conservation lab, they are regularly joined by volunteers and interns from conservation courses around the UK and from abroad.

Conservation Lab

Conservation Lab

Conservators are responsible for the care and preservation of the Museum’s entire collection. Work ranges from practical remedial conservation work, like preparing objects for new exhibition or loans to other museums, to preventative conservation such as monitoring and controlling temperature, humidity and light levels around the Museum.

The more grizzly side of a Conservators role includes pest management, which in our case includes rabbits in the Arena as well as the more normal museum pests like woolly bears or woodworm. The Conservation Team do a wide variety of other day-to-day jobs, including checking the condition of objects before they are used in handling sessions to ensure objects are suitable and won’t be damaged.

It is also important that Conservators test any materials which are going to be used in close contact with displayed objects to ensure they won’t cause the object to deteriorate, for example silk will cause silver to tarnish if left in the same display case together.

Xray Room

Xray Room

In addition to the main lab the Museum has a large X-ray room where objects from the size of a small bullet up to a large cannon can be examined. X-raying objects helps us to understand how objects are constructed, helping us to choose appropriate treatments. It can also answer questions which Conservators and Curators have about a particular object, as well as identifying old repairs or intentional fakes.

The Conservation Team will be posting regularly about what they’re up to, keep checking back for more!