CLEAN [from glan, Welsh; clean, Saxon]: To be free from dirt or filth
‘They make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter..’
Samuel Johnson Dictionary (1755)
‘To clean or not to clean?’: that is indeed the question on everybody’s lips by week three of CCC here at Mortimer Wheeler House. No matter how dirty the object may be, however, the answer is not as simple as it may first appear.
In order to answer this, we were first faced with the question ‘what is wood?’. Fortunately, armed with various samples and raring to share his years of experience (and several amusing, if not alarming, anecdotes of wooden woes), was Rob Payton, Head of Conservation. He gave us a remarkably informative whirlwind review not only of the types of wood, as you might expect, but also how trees are formed, inside out. All this simply but perfectly demonstrated with a fistful of straws!
Next, the nitty gritty: a look at the typical types of damage, with lots of samples to look at, ranging from rot to pests and yes, the results of inappropriate cleaning. The lasting impression of the morning’s eye-opening talk was that wood, owing to its organic nature, is not a big fan of water. Or light. Or change, really. A sobering thought when considering the 18th- century panelling and floorboards back at Dr Johnson’s House. But all was not lost as after lunch, Libby was on hand to show us the collection at Mortimer Wheeler House and various methods of cleaning our collections carefully and ethically. Again, three is the magic number as you should really only ever choose between the brush & vacuum cleaner method, a smoke sponge or with a duster, depending very much on the surface of the wood. Wet washing? Best not. We also learnt when and whether to apply wax polish as well as which method of cleaning suits each object best, which was very interesting.
Then, the best bit: spending the rest of the afternoon cleaning. Yes, cleaning can actually be that exciting! I managed to get my hands on a charming [and impressively solid] 19th-century market stool and progressed to a beautiful Edwardian piano stool. This is where I’m in my element, we all are; after filling out a condition report (which by this time is second nature), you get to practice all the methods. You also get to ask Libby and Jihyun, her very helpful and knowledgeable assistant, all the questions which you’d never think to ask until you’re actually handling an item from a collection, and are faced with the question, object in hand, ‘to clean or not to clean?’
If you really want to know the answer, then I wholeheartedly recommend you sign up for the 2014 course. One thing’s certain after this; Dr Johnson’s House will be having a major spring clean next year!
Celine McDaid, locum curator at Dr Johnson’s House
The Museum of London’s Collection Cleaning Course is a 10 week, Arts Council funded programme, aiming to support regional museums with their collections. For further information, contact Libby Finney.