Care of Collections

In 2015 the model room will be unveiled for the first time in over 160 years. Watch a timelapse of the stand being constructed:

The reconstruction of a shattered plaster cast

The shattered cast

Left: The shattered cast

Right: Christian working on the cast


During my time as a volunteer in the conservation department at Sir John Soane’s Museum I have been lucky enough to take part in helping to conserve a wide variety of objects including frames and plaster casts.  This post is about a shattered plaster cast that I was given the opportunity to re-construct.

The plaster cast, the head of a goat from the angle of an altar (M812), had fallen from high on a wall in the museum one night. It was discovered by a surprised warder the next morning, lying broken into many pieces on the floor. It seems that the fixing on the cast had failed.

The only image of the cast before it was broken was a grainy, black and white partial photo copy so it was no easy task to set about re-constructing it! The first and most time consuming task was to arrange all the loose fragments into their intended positions.  This was harder than you might expect as representing the corner of an altar the cast was not a flat relief, but right-angled, and the pieces ranged from large through to very small – presenting a complex three-dimensional puzzle.

Through-out the treatment I placed the cast, which stands 35cm high and 21.5cm wide, on Plastazote, a stiff foam, to help support the pieces. After numerous dry runs, to identify the best order to re-assemble the pieces, I began the process of re-construction. This was complicated as there was a specific order that the fragments needed to be fixed in order for a seamless, non-stepped finish to be achieved.  Due to concerns about specific weight-bearing areas the decision was also made to insert small stainless steel doweling rods at certain points within the cast to increase its strength.  Once I had fixed the larger pieces together I was able to adhere the remaining tiny fragments into their correct place by matching the tone of each one with the resolved pieces.

Left: The cast during re-construction

Right: The cast after conservation

Following the re-attachment of all the loose fragments I filled any small holes and hairline cracks with Flugger, an acrylic filler, and toned the fills with acrylic paint so they matched the surrounding areas.  Finally, as the damage incurred to the cast’s proper left hand side was considerable, a section of muslin was attached to the verso (the cast’s back) to give additional support.

Conserving ‘the goat’ is a project that I returned to many times over a two month period. Re-making the cast into a cohesive whole from the pile of fragile and jumbled pieces has been a truly satisfying and absorbing experience. Once a new fixing has been devised the cast, now in a fit state, can be returned to its high walled splendour

Christian Kile, September 2014


Welcoming our volunteers

Each Monday for the past three months, we have been working with two wonderful conservation volunteers. After nearly one hundred people applied to volunteer, we chose Mark and Isaac, pictured below, to join the team.  Choosing who to give the roles to took a great deal of time and thought as all the applicants were extremely keen and many had a lot of conservation experience. In the end we chose Mark and Isaac because they are at the beginning of their careers, both studying for heritage related degrees, and we felt they would get a great deal out of the experience. The time they give is very beneficial to the Museum, especially at the moment during the busy programme of conservation for Opening up the Soane.

Here is just a taster of the kinds of things they have been helping with so far.

One of the cornerstones of preventive conservation is good housekeeping and more specifically, dusting. Dust is one of the conservation team’s greatest enemies. It is all around us in the atmosphere and settles on every surface. With major building work in the museum at the moment we have to be even more vigilant. If left for long periods, dust bonds to the surface of objects and becomes considerably harder to remove. Added to this it attracts and provides food for insect pests which can cause considerable damage to the collection if allowed to multiply. With so many objects packed into Soane’s fascinating interiors, we spend a lot of time dusting! All the help from Mark and Isaac is vital in keeping on top of this never ending process.

Protecting the collection
We often hold events at the Museum at which food and drink are served. In preparation for these we have to ensure that all delicate flat surfaces in the museum’s interiors are protected. We do this by cutting thin acrylic sheeting, called Melinex, to fit the surfaces, acting as temporary protective covers, on which even a damp glass can be put down without causing damage.   This all takes considerable time and requires great attention to detail. Mark and Isaac help to measure the spaces and cut the Melinex to fit them. This is a vital, if lengthy process.

Collating environmental data
Each week the volunteers collate the environmental data, collected in the central computer from sensors placed in the museum’s interiors. They note when the temperature or relative humidity (RH, the amount of moisture in the air) has become too high or low. The level of humidity is directly influenced by the temperature and there are ideal levels for both. It is very important to control the levels of RH because too much moisture can lead to damp and the risk of mould growth, while too little moisture can lead to cracking and splitting of timber, paint surfaces and other materials. We look at the graphs together and look for evidence of fluctuations in these levels. If we find any worrying changes we discuss why this might be happening and propose ways in which we can control the environment more effectively.

We really appreciate all the help our volunteers give us and look forward to continuing to work with them in the coming months.To learn more about how we look after the house and collection, have a look at our ‘Conservation Housekeeping Trail’ and view the Museum through a conservator’s eyes.


Mark and Isaac carefully dusting some plaster busts in the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Conservation Centre at the Museum

Lucy Sims, January 2014

Gandy un-framed - the secret life of a watercolour

An exciting and unexpected discovery, made while the conservation team were treating works of art for the restoration project, is reported here by Head of Conservation Jane Wilkinson.

As part of phase two of the OUTS project we are carrying out conservation on the framed works from the North Drawing Room: assessing the works and their frames, and cleaning and repairing them where necessary. During the week before Christmas 2013, we opened up the frame of Interior of a Sepulchral Chapel for the Duke of York, 1827 (P282) by Joseph Michael Gandy, which appeared never to have been opened since it was framed in the 1820s. We found the watercolour had been attached to a piece of canvas and placed on a stretcher – as if it was an oil painting. This was not so surprising as it is something we have found with other watercolours here, however, more intriguingly, we discovered that the back of the stretcher had been protected with layers of what looked like scraps of paper, all pasted to each other to create a kind of papier-mâché board. Because we thought there might be something on the undersides of the scraps, we decided to separate the pieces.  Lorraine Bryant, our paper conservation consultant, first removed the ‘papier-mâché’ board, using poultices, in this instance, a jelly-like substance applied to the paper to soften the adhesive. This was a very delicate, lengthy and tricky process. Lorraine then humidified the pasted sheets in a bath of water to separate them.

An image of the watercolour by Gandy before it was unframed

P282 before treatment


Imagine our delight when we discovered that there were twelve separate pieces of paper, all of which had architectural drawings on them! In some instances sheets had drawings on both sides. There were plans, elevations and sketches, all evidently from Soane’s own drawing office. Apart from the thrill of this discovery of previously unknown drawings the find has also provided new insights into the workings of the office, showing that Soane used his students to frame works for him in the Office, and that drawings for schemes were readily discarded when superseded by new designs.  The drawings are for the Bank of England, the museum itself and other schemes not yet identified.  It’s interesting to note that paper, an expensive material in the Regency period, was often carefully re-used. The point of covering the back of the stretcher in this way seems to have been to protect the Gandy watercolour, and this was successful as the back of the canvas supporting the work has remained very clean, and the watercolour is in good condition. This method of backing the canvas seems to have given greater protection against pollutants than the more common way of framing watercolours with wooden backboards.

A photograph of the drawings found in the back of the frame, during the treatment to separate them

The drawings found in the back of the frame, during the treatment to separate them


Over the next few months the drawings will all be identified and catalogued, so watch this space for further updates. We will be posting regular bulletins about these and all the other drawings we have unearthed from the backs of several more Gandy watercolours.

Jane Wilkinson, January 2014


Gilding at the Soane Museum

Claire Kooy-Lister, consultant frame conservator at the Soane, talks about work being carried out on the frames in the North Drawing Room for the OUTS project


To view previous stories from our Conservation Department, please see the 'Care of Collections Archive' page.