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Conservation and Restoration - Ask Alexandra!

Conservation and Restoration - Ask Alexandra! by Alexandra Greathead

Expert advice on the conservation and restoration of papier mache by a professional conservator.

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Conservation and Restoration - Ask Alexandra!

The art of papier mâché, like all other art forms, is an individual expression and there are no right or wrong ways to do things. With conservation and restoration however, there definitely *is* a right and a wrong way to do it! So we sought expert advice to help answer some of the questions that we have been asked. We decided therefore to:

Ask Alexandra!

Alexandra regrets that she cannot answer individual questions but collected here are some of the more common queries. Over to you Alexandra...

I have a Bachelors and Masters degree in paper conservation. I have gained experience in the USA, South Africa and of course the UK. Having worked in both a large public institution and a small busy private conservation studio, I am now self employed freelance which means I work mainly on site for clients such as the National Trust, English Heritage, various Oxford University colleges, and a couple of museums, such as the Ashmolean Museum. I work predominantly on works of art on paper, but things are never as simple as that, and I have found myself having to make quilt housings for large books and removing a miniature manuscript from a sealed glass phial beside the usual day-to-day work of a paper conservator.

Here are some typical questions:

1


I have just inherited a very old, large piece of papier mâché furniture. It is black lacquered and has tiny cracks in it. Is there anything I can do to hide the cracks without damaging the structure?

It is best not to try to ‘do’ anything to the cracks, this is particularly important, because we cannot always match up materials and introducing a new material to cover or fill the cracks could ultimately cause more damage, however if the cracks are also leading to flaking, then it is time to contact a conservator.

Also, what to I use to clean it? Can I use any kind of detergent or polish?

Using a detergent or polish could potentially change the surface and damage any finishes such as varnish or lacquer, so a soft bristled brush is best for keeping it dust free.

Does it have to be placed out of sunlight and what about the humidity of the room?

It is always advisable to keep paper objects such as papier mâché out of direct sunlight, away from contact with central heating in a room where the temperature and humidity don’t fluctuate greatly on a daily basis. Constant fluctuations can result in significant damage to a work, as papier mâché objects are made up of a variety of materials this is all the more important, because each material will have its own humidity and temperature level it will expand and contract at, leading to separation of layers, cracking, flaking and ultimately structural damage. Another consideration is that it is always best to keep coloured objects out of sunlight because the colours may fade or change, the same will happen to varnishes, not always immediately but ultimately.

2


My antique piece of furniture badly needs restoration. It is valuable so it requires expert attention. Where do I look to find a qualified person to carry out the necessary work, and how do I know that they will do a good job? That is, is there a code of practice amongst restorers like there is say, with builders?

Most countries have their own national organisation for conservators, in the UK these are the Institute of Paper Conservation (IPC), the United Kingdom Institute of Conservation (UKIC) and the Scottish Society of Conservation and Restoration (SSCR), and in the USA the main body is the American Institute of Conservation (AIC). These are all recognised national bodies. In the UK, ‘Accreditation’ has recently come into being, this is a professional recognition of an individuals ability in specific areas, it means that the individual maintains a high ethical and moral standard and is always keeping their knowledge and skills up to date. Accreditation is also something that has to be maintained by a conservator or restorer and can be removed should the professional body feel they are not meeting the high standards expected of them. Lists of accredited conservators and restorers are held by the professional bodies, they are always the first place to start for information.

3


I have an old set of papier mâché nativity figures. They are of no great monetary value, but are of sentimental value. Quite large pieces of the figures have dropped off. What is the best kind of glue to use to stick the pieces back on? They have been in my family a long time, and I would like them to be passed on through the generations.

Questions like this are always difficult to answer without seeing the object. There are several adhesives (rather then glues) which can be used, but the trick part is to know how these will act with the make up of the object (the pigments, the paper layers and any finishes), here it is useful to at least speak to a conservator, and if you don’t want to pay a consultation fee, many museums have a paper conservator or access to one who are usually more then happy to take a look.

4


My old papier mâché doll's face has fine cracks all over it. If I varnish it will it hide the cracks?

The short answer is no, because however clean the doll is, the cracks will have collected dirt, and all you are doing is adding an additional protective layer, but is most probable that the cracks will remain visible. If you are determined to revarnish something, and do it yourself, then it is always advisable to do a test area on as invisible an area as possible and leave it for a week or two and examine it, anything that happens in this small area is likely to happen all over the area you are revarnishing.

Alexandra Greathead
Paper Conservator
Bristol

Thank you, Alexandra.