As I gently brush dust from a piece of chewing gum, I have to wonder how I got to this point. This has to be the strangest thing I have done since I began volunteering, but I have learnt how to do this over the last 10 weeks. Not dusting chewing gum specifically, but the reasons why I am not removing this particularly yucky piece of my museum object.
This is the final week of a 10 week Museum of London course on how to clean museum objects. We have covered: upholstery; basketry; glass; ceramics; metal; wood; paper; and textiles. We have learnt how to write condition reports, treatment reports and risk assessments. How to handle museum objects and the ethics that need to be at the forefront of your mind before you go anywhere near a hoover or a swab. We have learnt we are not conservators, but we are now competent enough to carry out basic collections care and cleaning of museum objects hopefully with the mindset of a conservator. Throughout all this, we have also been able to get hands-on or at least gloves-on with museum objects, from week 1 to week 10 it has been the practical side to this course that has really brought all the theory to life. So I am kind of enjoying brushing dust off a piece of chewing gum in a weird ethically-minded cleaning kind of way.
On this last day we are finishing our end of course object. We picked it last week and it has been our first solo project, a test of our knowledge and skill. I have been itching to get back to my object, I love it, I actually want to take it home. I certainly couldn’t carry it on the tube so I may be out of luck. Now I come to think of it, my object actually links quite nicely to the tube! My object is quite large, red, metal, wood, textile, it also has a chewing gum attached to it. It actually has three pieces (I’ve counted). My object is….. (well I will get to that in a minute).
I am actually going to start this post by talking about the very end of our day at the Museum of London archive in Hackney. We went round the table to say what we felt we had learnt across the 10 weeks and the answers were surprisingly varied. From the actual physical skills – knowing how to make a swab and techniques for polishing metal, to a confidence with handling objects for newer professionals, to the realisation that there is actually quite a lot you can do even if you are not a conservator, to brushing up on best practice for those with more experience of working in museums. For me, I have a real appreciation of the role of conservator, the skill and expertise involved, the dedication and time, patience and precision. I know how lucky conservators are because they get to spend more time up close with objects than anyone else in the museum. I have also learnt how to really look at objects, this may sound like the simplest thing in the world but it is actually the hardest skill I have had to learn on this course.
I know I will never look at objects in museums in the same way again, even if I never clean another object again, this has changed for me, my thought process and the things I look out for. Throughout the past 10 weeks there have been two questions that have become a mantra – Does the object need to be cleaned? Can it be cleaned safely? But now when I go to an exhibition, I look at an object and think ‘if I was given this to clean what would I do?’. I have an interest in the whole behind the scenes process, it has opened up a new museum chapter for me. To begin with I didn’t even realise I was doing it. At the Fashion Museum in Bath I am taking pictures of padded hangers. At No1 Royal Crescent I am excited by the fact it took 2 and half miles of acid free tissue paper to pack up their objects in a recent refurbishment.
At the Discoveries exhibition at Two Temple Place I observe a crack in the Lion’s head. I return to the Cheapside Hoard at the Museum of London and marvel at the time it must have taken to clean each jewel and chain so not a smudge or mark remains as they dangle suspended, when every facet that catches the light could betray the smallest particles of dust that have been missed. At the British Museum’s Viking exhibition my mind is completely blown by the 10,000 hours spent on conserving the remaining timbers of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever found.
No exhibition is untainted, my new knowledge and experiences have altered my view of every exhibition, every object, I wonder over every process. It is sad in a way but it is the sadness of saying goodbye to being a child, you are desperate to become an adult you want to experience more things, be allowed to do more. With that transition comes more responsibility, I can never blindly pick up a museum object without gloves, I have a duty of care to every object regardless of value or worth, but I think I was ready for that change, the time had come for me to grow in my volunteer roles. I am no longer a novice, if not an adult yet perhaps I am an adolescent, (I am certainly moody ask my husband!) I have spent a year soaking up every experience and moment, I know I am no longer a child.
Perhaps this will make you see why my final object that I chose to clean over the last two weeks of the course is to me as valuable as gold, as beautiful as a precious gem, as rare as the first written word. In fact it is a simple cinema seat, red, battered and worn, moth-eaten (before it came to the Museum of London) but beautiful, wonderous, alive, throbbing with history, life, memories and stories. It spoke to me and I chose it. It is red painted metal, brown wood, red upholstery and of course three pieces of chewing gum. The label tells me it is from the Embassy Cinema – Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Fabulous, I know as soon as I am home I will be doing a bit of research, I am so excited I have a birth place for my cinema chair.
It is in bad condition. I spend half an hour looking, recording, assessing every aspect of my chair. My plan is to remove pest damage with a pair of tweezers, a moth has eaten away at the fabric of the red seat and back. When I look at the fabric it looks so badly damaged I don’t think I will be able to use a museum vacuum to suck up the dust even with a mesh protector laid on top of the upholstery. There are stains on the red metal legs, I am not sure what they are – oil or drink stains? I think on reflection I won’t remove them, they show how the object was used, how it has lived. So I plan to brush, under suction, the wood and metal, remove the dust first and then if I have time use a smoke sponge to lightly lift off any surface dirt.
I spot the first piece of chewing gum, it is stuck underneath the wooden seat, when the seat is in the upright position it is easy to spot. There are two other pieces, even though I am looking at this object for half an hour it takes one of the helpers on the course to spot them. One is secreted on the right hand side deep down in a metal ridge. The final piece is actually on the back of the upholstered seat, when folded up it faces the floor when the seat is pushed down to sit on it would have faced the row behind. We debate how the chewing gum got there, you couldn’t have put it there if you were sitting in the seat, there is no room to slip you hand down the back of the seat. Perhaps it was put there by the person behind. Who would have thought all these years after it was stuck in position we would be talking about the people who carried out this rather disgusting crime. I wonder what film they were watching, who they went to the cinema with.
I am not going to remove the chewing gum, it is part of the object’s history, it captures a moment in time. I am confident that this is the right thing to do, I know my decision is the right one. But that night I meet up with my brother, I explain what I have been up to, a celebratory drink at the end of my course. So I tell him about the chair, so battered and worn, and that I have to clean it.
“I see” he says.
“Of course I have to leave the chewing gum.” I say. He gives me a strange look.
“So, you are on a course learning to clean objects but you leave chewing gum on a seat”. He says.
“Yes” I say.
“You are crazy. Chuck it in the skip”. He says.
I then spend a good 40 minutes and a few drinks trying to explain ethical cleaning of museum objects. I do realise how absurd it all seems. In the end I take it to an extreme to get my point across. I say what if chewing gum was banned, you can’t buy it, it doesn’t exist anymore. One day you have to try to explain to your kids what chewing gum was, it tasted like plastic and you chewed it forever, and sometimes when you didn’t have anywhere to get rid of it you stuck it under your seat. Don’t believe me? You can go the Museum of London and see this fab cinema seat with lots of chewing gum stuck on it. So there we go, ethical cleaning in a nutshell.
I love my object, chewing gum and all. My cleaning goes to plan. At the end I have a seat that is clean but worn. It is never going to look like new, it is not going to look perfect. But it looks a hell of a lot better than it did. I have stabilised its condition, I have lavished care and attention on it. I have thought about all the bums that sat on it, all the movies, the laughter, perhaps the tears, the hands that gripped the seat.
During my cleaning I learn the seat fabric is called moquette, it is still used on tube seats today and I find myself snapping surreptitious pictures on my journey home. I am making comparisons, learning all the time, making connections, from one tired lonely cinema seat.
When I am home and my cleaning course is finished, my research begins. I learn of the Embassy Cinema, Chesham, Buckinghamshire, built in an art deco style, opened in the 1930s and demolished in the 1980s. I learn of the architect David Evelyn Nye, he designed over 40 cinemas, The Rex Berkhamsted is still open, saved and now Grade II listed. Not only a designer of cinemas but churches, and in a strange bizarre twist he has designed a church in my local town, in fact the same church where I go to yoga on a Friday night. A weird, strange connection, perhaps this object chose me after all. Something plain, everyday, overlooked, dusty, dirty, damaged and worn. It has sparked in me thoughts and helped me make connections, we have spent time in each others company and learnt from each other.
I scour the internet and I come across reminiscences, a cinema much missed and lamented. But it is still here in spirit, a little piece of art deco entertainment, a small flame burning brightly in the Museum of London care. All this, all this comes from a little cleaning, a little care, a little time taken. My first object, chosen, cleaned, completed, it will never be forgotten.
1 – Http://cinematreasures.org
for information on Creative Commons Attribution License click here
http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/44377/photos/92278 Accessed 27 March 2014
With massive thanks to the Collection Care Team at the Museum of London, patient tutors, inspiring and welcoming. Thanks to my course colleagues, it is good to share and it is good to laugh too. Thanks to the Arts Council for funding the course. Thanks to anyone who has stuck with me for all 10 blogs, I hope it has been a bit interesting and bit fun too. I never realised cleaning would be this addictive.
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