Conservation, Museums and Blacksmithing

As part of the National Heritage Ironwork Group’s Heritage Blacksmiths Bursary, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future Programme’, I have had the pleasure of spending three weeks working in the Conservation Department of the Royal Armouries. Coming from a background in blacksmithing, where often the delicate work simply requires the use of a slightly smaller hammer, it was a bit of a change swapping to cotton wool buds!

The craftsmanship and skill of the weaponsmiths and armourers that made the Museum’s objects is unbelievable. The time and care that has been spent on some of the pieces is so impressive you can see why a suit of armour could have cost as much as a small farm.

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

While working here I have been lucky enough to get involved in behind the scenes aspects of the Museum, from putting objects on display to cleaning and conserving items in the collection. The conservation of the brass nipple-studded breast plate, pictured above, required removing corrosion without disturbing the original patina in unaffected areas. This can be quite challenging and the conservation work that the department does is vital in maintaining the collection for future generations.

I will be using the skills and conservation techniques which I have learned at the Royal Armouries to protect and maintain the heritage ironwork I hope to be working on in the future.

Blogger: Matthew Boultwood, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Power House – Object Conservation 4

Object: Uniform Coat of the Duke of Wellington c.1835 (xvi.8)

Blogger: Suzanne Dalewicz-Kitto, Conservation Manager

This blue cloth uniform with white lining and scarlet facing was worn by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower of London. It has gilt buttons bearing a miniature of the White Tower in silver, and epaulettes made of gold and silver thread.  The coat is in reasonable condition with only a few small holes and surface grazing of the cloth, probably caused by moths.  The main area of interest to our Conservators were the tarnished metal threads and spangles (sequins) on the epaulettes.

Duke of Wellington's uniform

Duke of Wellington's uniform coat

Metal threads are fragile at the best of time.  Some are made from twisted fine metal wire and others are formed by twisting wire around a cotton or silk thread.  When applying treatments to remove the tarnish Conservators have to be careful not to leave residues behind that will ‘rot’ the thread over time.  On these epaulettes there are eight different types of thread design including: dull purl, pearl purl, bright check and Lizardine close.

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

The tarnish was removed by gently cleaning the surfaces with a damp swab using a mixture of carefully chosen chemicals.  This was carried out under a microscope to make sure no metal threads were being pulled away from the epaulette.  Residues where removed again by careful swabbing using deionised water – very pure water that has had any minerals filtered out of it.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London which opens on Saturday 2nd April. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 3

Object: Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

This musket is one of several experimental firearms which are to be included in the Power House exhibition. The musket was designed and made by the gunmaker Richard Wolldridge who worked at the Tower from about 1704 until 1749. Although this particular pattern or design was not issued to the military its does show the general form which British military firearms were beginning to take in the early 18th century.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

The musket was is a very good condition prior to entering the Conservation Lab with only a small amount of old yellowed oil visible on the lock. Even though the exterior of the musket didn’t need a great deal of remedial work the lock mechanism was carefully removed from the musket, after of course checking that the firearm wasn’t loaded.

When working with firearms we will always, where possible, remove the lock mechanism in order to check the condition of the lock’s interior as well as the underside of the barrel. Often the interior of a lock can look very different to its external appearance, with combinations of dirt, old oil or wax and corrosion all potentially present.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Luckily in this case the interior of the lock was in a very good condition with no further cleaning or disassembly needed. The musket was therefore reassembled, making sure that the screws were replaced in exactly the same order they were removed. This is good practise as particularly with older firearms the screws threads will have been hand cut so using the wrong screw can damage both the screw itself as well as the internal thread.

Once the old yellowed oil was cleaned from the musket’s lock using solvent swabs the metallic sections of the object were given a thin coating of Micro Crystalline wax providing a protective layer. Finally the object was photographed and packaged for transport to the Tower of London.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 2

Object: Brass belt plate (mid 19th century) I.979 ii

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

It’s always nice to work on an object which can be related back to a particular person in history. This belt plate is one of a pair of objects relating to the Board of Ordnance’s only identified rat-catcher, Richard Dean.

The plate is the only surviving portion of Dean’s uniform and he can be seen wearing it in a portrait which is to be displayed alongside the plate. The brass belt plate is engraved with a rat shown sitting below the arms of the Board of Ordnance, whilst around the edge the inscription reads ‘Richard Dean, Chislehurst, Rat Destroyer to the Honorable Board of Ordnance’.

Belt Plate

Belt Plate

In order to make the letters and images engraved on the plate stand out a black enamel-like material was originally applied to the object. Unfortunately over time this material has cracked and in some areas has been lost. Where damage to the enamel had occurred traces of a powdery green corrosion could also be seen.  The powdery corrosion was carefully removed from the damaged lettering and other areas of decoration using a scalpel whilst under magnification. Once clean it was necessary to stabilise the enamel to prevent any further cracking or loss, this was done by running a thin adhesive solution into the damaged areas.

Before and after conservation

Before and after conservation

In addition to the problems with the lettering several finger and palm prints were clearly visible and spread across the plate. When we handle metal objects with our bare hands the sweat and oils on our fingers are transferred to the objects and if not swiftly removed can become etched into the objects’ surface. Sadly there is no way of removing finger prints once they are etched into a metal surface without removing the object’s top layer at the same time. Once fingerprints are imprinted they are generally there for good, which is why conservators always ask people to wear gloves when handling or moving objects.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at the Tower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

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!