Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Conservation Story

Janelle Blucher is responsible for the conservation of our museum artefacts and each week works on a range of objects. Over past weeks she has been working on a beautiful but very fragile copper bust of young girl. Janelle has written the following article on the bust and the work she has completed. 

It is absolutely wonderful when an object that has been buried in the ground for who knows how many years makes its way to become an incredible ‘surface’ find; it occurs not so irregularly on this island that boasts multiple layers of history.

One such find was at No. 5 Quality Row in Kingston, originally the Commissariat Storekeeper’s Quarters which was constructed between 1842 and 1843.  It was later occupied by David Buffett from Pitcairn Island and then Gregory Quintal.  In 1908 the house was destroyed by fire and remained a ruin until 1971 when it was reconstructed and occupied by the Chief Administrative Officer. 

During the 1980’s Robert VJ Varman, Curator of the Norfolk Island Museum, conducted archaeological digs and wrote many reports on the archaeology of Norfolk Island. Varman found a bust of a young girl’s head in the garden at No. 5 Quality Row; a charming sculpture made from beaten copper layered over soapstone.  Standing approximately 35cm high, the form appears to be life-like; she has short hair draped with a scarf, a pinched nose, smiling eyes and mouth.  The sculpture ends at the top of her d├ęcolletage that is supported upon a short pillared hexagonal base.

Extremely fragile and quite weighty, the sculpture’s pillared based is cracked around its circumference, fortunately the sculpture has a support rod from the base through to the top of the head.  The copper has peeled away in some areas and deteriorating green corrosion products began to appear in a troublesome form.

Usually on display at No. 10 Quality Row,  the bust’s deteriorating condition necessitated some conservation activity and its removal from display. Copper alloy is still a difficult metal to conserve.  Beyond mechanical removal of corrosion products on the surface of the object there are a number of chemical treatments that may be considered. None of these chemical procedures promise a successful conservation result and some can permanently change the patina.  

The method selected to treat ‘our girl’ was by firstly very gently ‘mechanically’ removing the surface green corrosion products, using fine brushes and scalpels looking through an illuminated magnifying glass.   She was swabbed and cleaned with methylated spirits and a ‘spot’ test of the chemical Benzotriazole (BTA) was applied.  Deciding upon this treatment a three percent solution was applied, then swabbed and wiped off with ethanol.  (“The application of BTA should be an inherent step in the conservation of all cupreous metal artefacts” Donny L. Hamilton, Conservation Research Laboratory, Texas A&M University.)  

An application of microcrystalline wax completes the treatment by providing a barrier between object and environment.  She is now back on display, however as the pillared base is broken she is not standing upright but has been laid in a mount made from archival quality materials that supports the weight of her head.

Robert Varman speculated that she could possibly be French made in the first half of the nineteenth century.  She truly is a beauty; come and see for yourself!