I am really looking forward to Week 3 of my Collection Cleaning Course at the Museum of London as we get to focus on wood. This may sound a bit silly, but I love wood. The hard bit this week will be keeping the gloves on and not going hands on. The problem when I see a lovely old chair or well used piece of kitchen equipment made out of wood is that I just want to hold it, wood more than any other material is a storyteller. With a touch, wood can give you a sense of history and the echoes of life.
Wood bears the marks of life even in death. You cut down this living breathing organic life and the marks of that life are still present in the grain, the knots, the rings. They are carried from the natural life into the useful life. Wood is so strong and yet it bruises and shows the dents and knocks. The scars of use, the gouges and chips, they are all carried by wooden objects. Harsh environments, avaricious pests, cracks and splits, they all tell a story.
I am surprised this week as we are not given a talk on recognising different types of wood, instead we get down to the very nature of wood. A lecture on its integral structure, how the fibres grow together, how wood holds water, where the strength in its structure can be found, where the weaknesses are.
We talk about the stable heartwood and the weak sapwood. Words like longitudinal, radial and tangential are used to explain how wood shrinks. It is fascinating to think you are fighting not only the way wood is continually reacting to the environment, but how the wood was first cut from the tree and how it was ‘seasoned’ or left to dry.
It seems a bit overwhelming when you realise how important it is to store, handle and display wood in the right way to prevent damage. It is often hard in small local authority museums to maintain optimum environmental conditions in the store and underfunded museum space. Perhaps the most important point that comes across from the morning’s discussions is understanding that conditions don’t have to be perfect, it is about giving an object time to acclimatise to it’s position. The aim is to restrict the fluctuations that occur as they can cause the most damage, this becomes crucially important when, for example moving items from a store to display or vice versa.
Another eye-opener is gaining an awareness of how invasive and damaging historical treatments can be to wood. It’s very important to be aware of hazards when undertaking any potential cleaning of an object, for example, the Victorians had a propensity for using wood preservative containing arsenic.
Understanding the integral structure of wood is the first step, before contemplating any cleaning treatment. It is a perfect introduction to the work of the afternoon, where we move on to discussing the different types of finish on wood. We compare emulsions and gloss paints, clear finishes such as lacquer and varnish. We look at waxed woods, oiled woods and the type of items that are coated in a dry pigment common in ethnographic items.
The conversation turns to discussing how the paint surface can be damaged by any stresses to the wood underneath. I think of the fabulous ‘Bull Panel’ paintings from Bromley Museum where I volunteer. There were 16 panels found in a shop which was once the site of the Bull Inn in Market Square Bromley. The panels were originally covered with brown varnish which completely obliterated the paintings underneath. When you see the beautiful images it is a stark reminder of how important it is to protect the wood from movement, cracking or splitting which would damage the paintings.
Finally we get practical with an array of social history items from the Museum of London store. Many of my fellow students get to grips with stocking stretchers and I get a washboard to practice on. Our items are bare wood with no glaze or paint finish and we try out first hand a “smoke sponge” to lift off the dirt and grime. It is quite satisfying and surprising how much dirt lifts off the bare wood with the latex sponges. There is a debate to be had on what constitutes dirt accumulated during a lifetime of use that should remain, but it is hard to resist the temptation to clean dirty finger prints and dark smudges.
Finally as the afternoon slips away from us and we are lost in learning cleaning techniques, we are privileged to get the wax out for a spate of ‘wax on – wax off’ buffing and polishing. Not all museums wax their wooden objects so we are lucky to be able to have a go and learn the proper technique. I am given a wooden coal box to work on which has an intricate design carved into the wood at the front. I find myself unsure of the best way to wax the wood without leaving excess wax in the curves and indentations.
We get to compare different waxes and it is amazing the difference they make to the wood. We are quickly disabused of the idea that wax feeds the wood, it is not a case of smearing on as much wax as we can, but just rubbing a thin layer on top of the wood. We use the wax so sparingly it is surprising what effect such a small amount can have. There is something so satisfying when you remove a top layer of dust and then with gentle circles breathe life back into an object. I was right when I said I love wood, you can’t reanimate any other material in this way. It may be a humble coal box but waxing the wood gives it a glow and natural energy that completely surpasses its utilitarian nature.
Our time is up but we are subsumed in the transformations in front of us, we all want to finish what we have begun. As I pack up I realise how important it is that we have these social history collections to work on. Often you can walk round the store with no clue as to why something has been kept, when it seems such an average every day item – who has a wooden coal box anymore? I wasn’t even sure what my item was when it was first put in front of me. One of our group didn’t know what the washboard was in the morning session, luckily she has youth on her side. These once ubiquitous items have faded from our kitchens and living rooms, it is fabulous to get up close with these things that were once overlooked. When you clean an item like we have been doing, you spend so much time looking up close at the curves, the joints, the way an item has been made, the signs of how it has been used, you get a completely new perspective on something that would have bypassed our attention.
I knew after this course I would never look at museum objects in the same way again, but I never realised I would never look at objects at home in the same way again either. I know for a fact I am not going near a can of Pledge furniture polish again and I am quite pleased to discover one tin of wax will last me a lifetime. I can’t wait to get home and examine a couple of wooden pieces we have. I am suddenly seeing the act of cleaning in a different light, I can’t lie it is a bit weird, but at the same time it is a little bit addictive too, roll on week 4.
Please note any inaccuracies are purely my own and not the fault of Museum of London staff.
You can find out more about the courses offered by the Museum of London and funded by the Arts Council here –
You can also find more blogs on the Collection Cleaning Course by other students on the Museum of London Blog here –