Behind the Scenes: A Case Study
This month before opening time, like the shoe maker’s elves, our Museum Assistants have been continuing our Spring clean of the cases across our main galleries. Yes, this has involved more vacuuming, but it has been a fabulous opportunity to see some of the objects we walk past daily up close, and seeing them from the other side of the glass. Eloise has written another blog to let you know what’s involved behind the scenes, taking care of our collections.
The Williamson Collection of eighteenth century porcelain, on display in Old Tullie House, has been the most challenging cleaning task yet. Porcelain is of course very delicate, and so all items should be carried gently, with as little pressure on the object as possible; one hand underneath and the other on the side (purple nitrile gloves of course!). Lids, separate sections and saucers are also removed and carried separately. Faced with some of the more intricate ones, it becomes impossible to know exactly where to grab hold. Every centimetre seems to be covered in filigree and tiny flowers.
We clean these with a delicate soft bristled paintbrush, just to take the surface dust off, but it is so difficult to imagine the task of the poor scullery maids, when faced with a whole dinner service to wash, plus the table decorations. This is probably why it is rare to find pieces in good condition.
With this task, it was invaluable to have the help of our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art, Melanie; since she has handled these objects before. Moving porcelain can involve a certain amount of pot luck (terrible pun there!) When removing lids, or lifting objects there are all sorts of hidden dangers- wobbly bases, broken edges, and above all, old glue which has begun to come apart. I experience the constant terror that a valuable vase I am picking up is going to come apart in my hands. But by having someone who knows what to expect, it helps to prevent accidental breakages, although there is still an aura of danger about the whole process!
It is definitely worth it however. Once the glass shelves have been cleaned, the newly dusted collection is shown off to its best advantage and looks shiny and new.
We also got to see some of the designs on the reverse of the ceramics, which are not seen in the cabinets. Some of the expressions on the faces of the figurines are really funny; grimacing dancers, herd boys and shepherdesses with cheeky expressions. There are also some bizarre objects, including the pineapple-shaped pot pourri holders, covered in phlox flowers, and the tailor and his wife riding goats!
The dessert services are exquisitely painted. Dessert is actually from the French ‘desservir’ which refers to the clearing of the table. Rather than an elaborate pudding, as is normal today, this portion of the meal is all about showing off the elaborate tableware of the host. Light fruits, sweets and other delicacies would be served, but the focus is on the expression of wealth. As a result, many of the plates are gilded, with glorious designs of fruit, flowers and exotic birds of paradise.
Another tricky task this month involves a degree of ladder gymnastics, as we tackle the gilded frames down the tiled staircase. It somehow doesn’t feel natural to be on a split level ladder leaning over the stairs, in spite of all the ladder training. The frames have similar challenges to the porcelain; cracks and loose pieces as well as elaborate mouldings, only this time, we have to move around them, rather than move them to us.
Gilding is also a hard task master, it is very delicate and shows up any finger marks if you don’t wear the correct gloves. Wearing the gloves combined with the soft brush, makes it feels a bit like dusting for prints in a forensics lab.
Certainly an exercise to keep us on our toes this time! But all in a days work at the museum.