Standen

What goes on behind the scenes at Standen House, an Arts & Crafts family home


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Preserving Plastic

There was an interesting article in the Guardian recently about the difficulties that the V&A Museum are facing when it comes to preserving plastic objects: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/19/va-conservators-race-to-preserve-art-and-design-classics-in-plastic

The Blow Chair

The Blow Chair Image Courtesy of The Guardian

The rise in technology has led to the creation of new materials which are used to create art and objects, both decorative and every-day. However, we know very little about the longevity and the process as to how these materials will change. This has become apparent with some of the plastics in the V&A’s collection. Objects such as the Blow chair, designed in 1969, and the Stephen Willats Mini dress, also designed in the 1960s, are starting to degrade to the point beyond repair, and the only way to protect them to keep them in dark, temperature controlled stores.

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Stephen Willats Mini dress Image Courtesy of The Guardian

The common assumption with plastics are that they are a stable substance, when in actual fact they are very brittle. The reason plastic is brittle is because plasticers are used in the process to make it malleable. Unfortunately, plasticers have a habit of leaking, making the object sticky, attracting dust and dirt. This stickiness also makes it very difficult to clean as brushes and water only further damage the object. Plastics are also susceptible to changes in temperature, humidity and light, which can lead to discolouration, decaying to a powder, warping, cracking and shrinking – all the things that we try to prevent happening to our collections as a whole.

As plastic is still a relatively new material we do not know as much as we would like in order to prevent damage to it. This is why the V&A has partnered with Imperial College London to try to see how we can prevent further damage as well as its causes. With most other materials that can be found in historic house, there is a history of research that has gone into how we can best look after them.

Light damage to the Sofa turning it from Pink to Green

Light damage to the Sofa turning it from Pink to Green

Temperature, light and relative humidity are monitored both weekly and biannually. This ensures that we keep an eye on things that might be in danger of deteriorating and we can then assess how best to limit any damage. Humidity causes objects to shrink and grow that leads to stress fractures and cracks as can be seen on the cabinet at the Top of the Stairs. Light not only causes objects to fade but also causes threads to fray and eventually tear. Light also causes a chemical reaction whereas the object will actually change colour – like in the drawing-room where the rose-pink sofa has faded to a murky green colour.

Deep Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room

Deep Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, (https://standennt.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/deceptive-dust/) dust is another factor that damages the collection as it discolours objects but also forms a hard surface which not only attracts more dust but is also very difficult to clean off without damaging the object.

This is why knowledge and a good cleaning routine are so important. We dust and vacuum the house once a day plus every object gets an annual deep clean every year. It is also why the house may seem cold or dark as we try to preserve it for the future.


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Deceptive dust…

One of the monthly jobs that we carry out is to dust the Billiards table. The dust is quite deceptive (hence the title) in that the table often looks okay after a month until we move the balls and cues!

A very dusty table

A very dusty table

Usually, all of the flat surfaces in the house will be dusted with a chamois every day so that the dust does not stick and cause problems. Dust mostly consists of lightweight organic materials like skin and clothing fibers along with carbon based products like soot and silica.

The Big Brush

The Big Brush

If dust is left too long, the dust starts to bind itself to the surface  causing a greenish grayish hue to appear on objects. This dust takes a lot of effort to remove and as such could damage the object. One example of this would be if there was a layer of dust embedded on a gilded picture frame – removing the dust could potential take any gilding off with it and just leave a bare wooden frame. So by dusting everyday and by deep cleaning every object once a year we hope to prevent this happening.

The first step with dusting the billiards table is to use a big brush to brush the dust from the edges of the table in the center – the bristle are longer on the two ends so that the bristles reach underneath the lip of the sides. This is when we start to see exactly how dusty the table is

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Dirt Devil and Square Mesh

We then place a square piece of mesh onto the edge and run a dirt devil vacuum lightly over the mesh. We use the mesh so that any loose baize or threads are not sucked in, avoiding any potential for damaging the baize. The mesh square is about 30cm by 30cm so this task can take some time. Once the whole table has been vacuumed, we check the table manually, picking up any larger bits of fluff or dirt that was not picked up by the dirt devil.

Once the baize has been cleaned, we run a chamois over the polished wooden edging of the table to give it a little bit of a shine. It is always a satisfying job to do seeing the table all nice and dust free (although it never remains that way for long!).