Week 5 – the half way point of this course, I have learnt so much, I have enjoyed myself, I have cleaned, brushed, hoovered and polished. But I am finding this blog hard going; it is half-term, the kids are at home, distractions are everywhere. I made a commitment to the Museum of London and to myself to blog every week of this 10 week course and for the first time I am struggling a bit. I am wondering if it is the subject matter this week, metal. Metal, cold and hard, strong and unbending, metal doesn’t lure me in like wood or glass, it doesn’t demand my touch like ceramics do.
I look over my notes from this week and there are pages and pages on the characteristics of metal, recognising different metals, understanding corrosion of metals, so much to take on board before you even get anywhere near cleaning. The process of distinguishing the type of metal is so important as it dictates the cleaning method used, it is not as simple as one approach suits all. I knew that we would learn different approaches for different materials like ceramics, wood and upholstery but I don’t think I really appreciated the different approaches needed for metal. Surely there is a one-stop tin of metal polish that does it all?
The day begins with a talk on the characteristics of metal, it is a list of contradictions, nothing fits neatly into a box. Metal is strong – iron and steel. Yet cast iron can be brittle and crack easily. Not all metals are strong, lead is soft, silver spoons can be easily bent. Metals can be shiny, highly polished chrome but also dull and grey like pewter. It is not easy to tell with metal alloys what is ‘in’ an object, a little tin, a covering of silver over a base white metal, steel underneath, layers and misdirections that require you to really look at an object. It is not as easy as I thought it would be and I make some silly mistakes.
We talk through ferrous metals (iron, steel and stainless steel), copper alloys, (copper, brass and bronze) silver, lead, tin, chrome and aluminium. Then just to make sure we are paying attention we come back from a tea break to find ourselves confronted with a quiz. A table laid out with all manner of objects, a door handle, a tea-pot, a knife, a pub optic, decorative bowls and dishes. We have to sort this mish mash of museum social history fodder, but team work to the fore, we instantly get stuck in and scrutinise each object.
It is by actively interacting with an object that the clues become apparent. Without even thinking about it too much we become detectives, with an object in hand we instantly think about weight; it is light – it could be aluminium; it is heavy – it could be lead. We look at colours, the warm reddish-brown of copper, the yellow of brass, the deeper brown of bronze. We gaze at surfaces, the shine of chrome, the pitting of iron. We think about how the object was used, a knife needs to be strong – steel; a pub optic coming into contact with liquids needs to be resistant to rust, it is heavy but not iron. We use tools at our disposal, magnets ferret out ferrous metals, bright lights and keen eyes seek out hallmarks that point to silver and discreet lettering that points to silver plate.
We surprise ourselves as a group, we get them all right, we have worked together and analysed using all we have learnt today and over the past few weeks. What surprises me from this is corrosion of metals can be quite useful, wait give me time to explain! Rust is great, all metals rust don’t they? No, apparently not, only iron rusts, everything else has corrosion! So rust is an indicator, the telltale reddish-brown crumbling eruptions is a flag that can tell what type of metal you are dealing with. Silver? Well, that tarnishes, the black dull surface that again points you to the likely metal makeup of your object.
Metals are after all ores, dug up from the ground they are continually fighting to return to their natural state. We think of them as so strong, but simple fingerprints can etch their way into the surface of a metal object and be impossible to remove. So all corrosion of metal is bad? Apparently not, another misconception that falls away. We need to get our heads round a sliding scale, corrosion bad, tarnish sometimes bad and patina, desirable as it gives an indication of age and use. When I am at the swimming baths in the week, I see the power of corrosion in the face of what we think of as a strong material, the handle in a shower, coated in plastic, the top visible, the bottom eaten away.
It blows my mind when we are told that metals can react to the case they are exhibited in and the material they are laid upon. Really? This strong robust material can be eaten away by a bit of blue velvet and a wooden display case. No object exists without some force being exerted on it, without some hidden danger, yet we have to see, understand, sometimes handle these objects otherwise what is the point of having them in the first place. All this in my head and we haven’t cleaned a single thing!
My first object to clean is rather understated and simple, an iron nail, its surface is pitted, dulled by non-active rust that has left a distinctive dark reddish-brown uneven surface. No metal polish is required for this first object, we get to use a Garryflex block which basically works as a rubber which gently abrades the surface. It is a gentle action that is needed, we are not aiming for a shiny nail at the end, the danger of going too far and over cleaning is ever-present.
We move on to brass, copper, and finally silver. In a surreal twist we are not cleaning Museum of London objects but a wonderful array of charity shop bargains and silver raided from cupboards and draws from staff and volunteers. The ethics of cleaning are brought to our attention again as the Museum of London has a policy not to use metal polish on their museums objects. I think this is perhaps more interesting than the act of cleaning itself. What one museum will do and what another considers unacceptable.
To understand this it may be better to explain that polishing is not just cleaning, it is using an abrasive to remove a microscopic layer of surface from the object. In fact by polishing and attempting to achieve a dazzling shine you are damaging the object, the physical material itself. The Museum of London is a museum that prides itself on telling the story of London through London objects. The dirt on an object, the grease on a handle, the tarnish on a piece of silver, the patina on a tankard, these are the words on the page, they are what helps us interpret and understand that story. If we polish them away, the words are lost and the story has no meaning.
So I set to work polishing a brass goblet and silver spoons. With the brass I use a cleaner called Pre-Lim, gently applying with a cloth and the merest scrape of polish. I buff smooth surfaces and work with a swab in areas that are hard to reach or with a pattern so as not to leave any of the polish behind. I think of how my Mother had a collection had a collection of brass in the 1980s and would go at it with the Brasso rubbing the objects to within an inch of their life, she would laugh to see me with a wooden stick with a wisp of cotton wool stuck on the end.
For the silver spoons I begin with a silver cloth, it does little to remove the tarnish. I move on to Goddards’ Silver polish which works its magic. But in the back of my mind the whole time I am thinking about how the polish is removing the surface layer of the object, how it now looks shiny, perhaps too shiny.
I don’t enjoy the cleaning as much as previous weeks. I am not sure why, perhaps for the first time this feels a little like housework. I recall over Christmas attempting to clean a canteen of cutlery given to us by an elderly aunt, it seemed too old-fashioned for our modern table so we sold it. I spent a manic afternoon trying to clean it up, it was hard work and unsatisfying.
Maybe it is the fact these objects are too commonplace – spoons, everyone has spoons. In previous weeks I have cleaned a tube seat, a washboard and a coal box, they were unusual to me, not things that I have at home. They say familiarity breeds contempt, these spoons are certainly not igniting any passions in me. Then I think about who actually cleans their brass and silver at home anymore? I know my mother no longer has any of her brass, a volunteer relates their silver cleaning is relegated to a once a year event before Christmas. Perhaps the act itself is becoming a dying art, our tech heavy, time poor lives have no room for buffing up the best silver and burnishing our favourite brass nick nacks.
The day finishes and for once I quickly pack up my silver spoons. I have not enjoyed cleaning today, I hope it is just mid-course blues. Maybe as it is half term I should raid my own local charity shops, grab a few brass candlesticks and bring them home for my kids to clean. They always want something to do in the holidays! A lesson in metal recognition and characteristics, how to clean like their Grandmother does, with a tin of Brasso and a lot of elbow grease. For me? I may use a cotton swab, see if I can reignite that passion, and certainly a little bit of practice won’t go amiss either.
Please note any inaccuracies are purely my own and not the fault of Museum of London staff.
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You can also find more blogs on the Collection Cleaning Course by other students on the Museum of London Blog here –