A Conservation Puzzle

Lucy Sims, Assistant Conservator, discusses the problems of locating suitable storage for collection items at the Soane Museum

The work we carry out in Conservation is not always to do with cleaning or treating objects. Moving and storing objects is also a key part of our jobs, and in recent weeks we have been doing a lot of this. In comparison to most other museums, there are relatively few objects in store at Sir John Soane’s Museum. As stipulated in the 1833 Act of Parliament, the unique arrangements in the Museum must be kept ‘as nearly as possible’ as they were at Soane’s death, and so we therefore do not normally acquire works of art (as most Museums do all the time) and we try to have all works of art from Soane’s collection out on display in their original positions.  Although there are some objects in store which were not acquired by Soane, the majority of objects in store do have a place in the Museum. These objects are in store for a variety of reasons, the most common one being that they were originally displayed in an area of the house which has either been altered or, for necessity’s sake, has been used for a different function, over the years.

The next (second) phase of our Opening up the Soane project (OUTS) is the restoration of the rooms on the second floor of No. 13, including Soane’s Model Room, Bath Room, Oratory and Bed Room. For the last three years these rooms have been used for the storage of all Soane’s models and many other items displaced from No 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where they were on display prior to Phase 1 of OUTS.  For the Conservation team, the first job in Phase 2 has been to empty these rooms of hundreds of stored objects. This was no small task!

This is a photograph of the West Chamber, our only official store. New shelving units were introduced to make use of all of the available space.

The West Chamber, our only official store. New shelving units were introduced to make use of all of the available space.
Photograph: Lewis Bush

As we do not allow works of art to be stored off-site for security reasons, it was necessary to be find spaces throughout the Museum in which to store the displaced objects. There is only one official store within the Museum and this was already quite full. We therefore had to think of some ingenious places around the Museum for storage.  The atmospheric environment any object would be moved into was of critical significance: its new home needed to be as similar in terms of temperature and relative humidity as possible to the environment it came from. Much warmer and drier and organic materials such as wood, paper and leather might crack and become brittle; much more humid and damp and these materials might expand and develop mould. For this reason, each proposed storage space had its temperature and relative humidity monitored before it received any objects. Some environments were more stable than others, so we made sure only objects made of more inert materials, such as stone and plaster, were stored in these less ideal spaces.

All storage shelves were lined with foil backed paper to act as a barrier layer protecting objects from potentially harmful gasses the wooden shelves might give-off. Their width and depth and the space between them was measured carefully to help us decide which objects should go where. Some of the Soane cupboards were adapted to provide more space. This was done by our carpenter, Toby McNichol, who added shelves in various ways, always ensuring any shelving was temporary and had no impact on the original components (e.g. was not screwed into the original timber of any cupboard). All objects were wrapped in a soft, breathable tissue to protect them from dust. Before they were moved, the works of art were checked against their entries in our inventory to confirm they were numbered correctly.

This is a photograph of a Soane cupboard being utilised to provide new storage space within the Museum.


Original Soane cupboard, closeup showing specially inserted shelves to store collection items


Top: A Soane cupboard being utilised to provide new storage space within the Museum.

Bottom: A Soane cupboard in which shelves have been added to make the best use of the space.

Photographs: Lewis Bush

Over 400 framed works and objects were moved from two rooms to seven separate locations around the Museum. This movement took four people three weeks to complete and required a great deal of planning beforehand. It was undertaken slowly and with great care, so as to keep an accurate track of where objects were being moved to, and, most importantly, to minimise the risk any handling and movement could potentially pose to the objects.

By end of Phase 2 at the end of 2014, about 150 more objects in store will have returned to their original positions on the first and second floor of the Museum. By the time OUTS Phase 3 is completed in 2016 we hope to have very few works of art in store!

Lucy Sims, June 2013

For more information on the work of the Conservation Department at the Soane, please see our Conseration section

Posted on 27 August 2013 in Conservation Matters
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