One of the objects I have worked on during my time as a HLF ‘Skills for the future’ conservation intern at the National Maritime Museum has been a silk Royal Standard (post 1837). This object had sadly deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to see many of the typical features present in this type of flag. The Royal Standard is flown when and where a monarch is in residence. It has a distinctive layout which has changed over the centuries to include emblems that relate to the formation of the United Kingdom, in this case England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Prior to commencing any work on the object, I carried out a full assessment of its condition. This identified two major concerns regarding the long-term preservation of the flag. Most prominently that the warp threads had disintegrated, and left large sections where weft threads were ‘floating’, or only partially still in a woven structure. This gave the flag a straggly appearance with bundles of fibres twisted and knotted together. The flag is also significantly faded. This is particularly evident in areas which have more saturated colour, such as in the folds of the hems, which can sometimes show the original colour scheme of textiles. The main cause of this type of damage is exposure to light.
The Royal Standard flag (AAA2020) before conservation treatment
The flag had been printed or resist dyed to give it red, blue and gold colouring. The red has faded completely, and the yellow has discoloured giving the flag a uniformly brown colour. The printed areas appear to have deteriorated much more than the unprinted areas. Some historic dyes and pigments contain compounds such as Iron Oxide, that are known to deteriorate over time and damage the materials to which they were applied, and this may be why the printed areas are far more damaged than the unprinted areas.
Royal Standard flag (AAA0809) from the National Maritime Museum collection, showing the intended colour scheme.
The royal lions prior to treatment
The flag was very crumpled and my first priority was to ease out the creases before any stitching could take place to secure it down to a lining fabric. To achieve this without using excessive heat, pressure or water, the best available option available to me was the use of cool moisture through a humidifier, and letting the flag rest under light, flat glass weights until the creases were slowly eased out. Once in this condition, I could place the flag onto a support fabric that I had coloured to match using stable, lightfast dyes. The flag was then secured to the support fabric with rows of couching stitches, and placed onto a padded board. The board provides a rigid but soft support that is suitable for long term storage. A layer of dyed net was used to overlay the surface of the flag, creating a ‘sandwich’ that will keep the fragile fibres aligned and secure for the future.
The flag has been a great project with plenty of challenges. It has enabled me to work through a range of different techniques, that will benefit me greatly in future textile conservation projects.
The Royal Standard (AAA2020) after conservation treatment
In the corner of a vast store was a navigation instrument, whose history deserves to be revisited. It has not been used in any major battles, nor did it belong to any great commander. It served ordinary seamen on-board a trawler and it tells the story of the bravery of ordinary men who volunteered to protect British waters during the Second World War.
Admiralty sextant (NAV1229)
As the war in Europe progressed and the enemy started creeping closer and closer to the British shores, the Admiralty appointed a large number of fishermen to form the crews of additional minesweepers. The trawler HMS Royalo was one of those civil vessels converted to use by the Royal Navy in 1940. Its service history was short, for it struck a mine and sunk in September 1940 just off the shore of Cornwall, near Penzance.
The position of the wreck was known to the local community and in 1962 a group of divers recovered a wooden box. As it turned out, it contained a sextant, used for navigation, made in 1939 by famous Hughes & Son Ltd. of London. The Royal Museum Greenwich acquired the sextant in the 1970s.
During a recent inspection of scientific instruments it was decided the object should come to conservation for further investigation and possible treatment. As an intern at the Museum, I saw the instrument as an excellent learning opportunity, because it presents many intriguing conservation issues.
The sextant has the most fascinating combination of colourful corrosion products I have ever encountered. The instrument is made of different copper alloys, originally covered with a layer of paint. Sea water contains large amount of chloride and sulphide ions, which react with the metal. Different shades of green, blue, grey and yellow corrosion products covered large areas of metal surfaces. The paint remained unaffected by the elements, causing an ethical dilemma when considering any conservation treatment. Original paint is part of the object and should not be damaged by conservation treatment. The dilemma is whether to sacrifice the original finish for the longevity of the instrument or to do as much as possible without damaging the surface. A number of methods were tested to implement the second option. The best results were achieved using chelating agents, which chemically bond and remove the particles of corrosion products. The surface was then covered with a coat of wax to prevent oxygen and moisture reaching the metal and causing further corrosion. The sextant needs to be monitored regularly to make sure the treatment was sufficient.
Treatment of the sextant
Had it not been for the wooden box however, the preservation of the instrument would be considerably worse. Worm holes cover large area of the lid, causing the wood to become fragile and soft. Any loose dirt was removed mechanically from the box. The surface was washed with special soap and the most fragile fragments were carefully consolidated chemically using a syringe. Afterwards, a protective layer of wax was applied to all surfaces.
The main purpose of conservation treatment is to make sure the instrument survives intact for as long as possible. The damage sustained during its burial at sea is now part of its history.
As part of the redevelopment of Neptune Court, right at the heart of the National Maritime Museum, the iconic power boat Miss Britain III has been the subject of a great deal of attention from the conservation team.
Miss Britain III (BAE0064)
Miss Britain has always been of interest to me as she was built in my home city of Southampton. In 1933 she competed in the Harmsworth Trophy and later that year became the first boat to break the 100mph barrier. Despite approaching her 90th birthday she still shines in the sunlight and draws lots of attention from visitors.
During the first phase of the redevelopment Miss Britain was removed from her old stand, allowing better access for the conservation team, whilst awaiting her new stand. This allowed the Museum’s metals conservators to gain access and work on the gearbox which had been previously difficult.
Following on from this work, my colleague Fay, and I gave her the most thorough clean which has been possible for some years. Although she is cleaned nearly every week on the outside, the inside is usually out of reach. This clean largely consisted of removing dust, which was a loose covering outside, but thick and more compacted inside the boat. This is important to remove for several reasons. Firstly it affects the appearance of the object, making it dull and less eye-catching to visitors. Secondly, the dust can cause chemical or physical damage through abrasion or retaining moisture.
On the outside, the aluminium bodywork was cleaned with soft cloths and hogs hair brushes. This involved a detailed brushing out of every rivet and join. It is vital that this is carried out carefully, as any rough action can be abrasive and cause damage to the relatively soft surface. Although painstaking, the end result was excellent to see.
Once the outside had been cleaned it was time to turn our attention to the inside of the cockpit, and this was where the fun really started! Access was a tricky issue, with only two small openings, each with a fragile leather seat underneath. This meant that we had to lean head-first into the seating area, balancing on the wings of the boat and working as quickly and carefully as possible. To ensure that we did not cause damage through this process we had to first pad the wings with acid-free tissue and plenty of bubble wrap.
As the leather of the seats is so old it is quite dried and cracked, and so can only be gently dusted with our softest of goat hair brushes. This is done in conjunction with a low-suction vacuum cleaner to remove the dust leaving the surface of the object undamaged. The large ‘clumps’ of dust along the creases of the seat needed to be removed with tweezers as they were more robust than the surrounding leather at this point, and we found a number of stray sweet wrappers in the foot well as well! It was quite slow work due to the build-up of dust, but satisfying at the same time.
On the dashboard we were surprised to see not one, but two St Christophers, the patron saint of mariners. Seeing these small details on museum objects, although in this case it is something not visible to visitors, is always a pleasure. They give objects like Miss Britain a human story, bringing to mind a young man, unsure of how safe his journey was, placing his faith in the saint to bring him back from the journey.
The St Christophers inside Miss Britain III
Miss Britain III will be moving to her new stand in Neptune Court during May.
Whilst undertaking my internship in the Metals Conservation studio at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, part of my duties involve regular visits to the stores. On a routine inspection of one of the sections, the discovery of these interesting objects quickly caught my attention. A pair of weighted brass and leather diving boots, with brass buckles and copper rivets is not something that one comes across every day.
Manufactured by famous London diving company Siebe Gorman in the mid-19th century, these boots would have been used for underwater diving on a soft and loose bottomed sea bed such as sand or silt.
The boots were showing signs of active corrosion products of a bright green soft waxy deposit predominantly around the areas where the copper rivets attach to the leather. This is caused by the reaction between the free fatty acids found in the leather with the copper, which forms a waxy metal salt, most commonly known in conservation as a metal soap. The brass was also covered in a green corrosion product, although this was a harder product, more firmly attached to the metal. The leather was dirty, very waxy and rigid and brittle in areas and due to its weight, the leather had collapsed and ‘set’ itself into a slumped form.
Various methods of treatment were decided on to remove the corrosion products, clean, reshape and support the slumped leather suitable for re-storage. Delicate mechanical removal of the waxy deposits was undertaken, taking care not to damage the brown coloured copper oxide layer beneath. Whilst working under a 20 x microscope mechanical removal using a scalpel was used to remove the harder corrosion products from the brass components. A temporary custom built ‘tent’ was used to house the boots for humidification to soften the leather to enable re-shaping and support.
Conservation work on the diving boots is still underway. I am continuing to stabilise the corrosion and will shortly start constructing inner supports for the leather.
Siebe Gorman Diving Boots before conservation treatment
Nelson’s Trafalgar coat has now entered that part of the process of conservation where its condition is thoroughly checked, comparing its current state with all previous observations so as to identify any deterioration.
This time will be different from previous examinations in that we’ll be bringing some serious technology to the proceedings. We are going to carry out rather extensive analysis on the materials of the coat so that we know precisely what we’re dealing with, such as the wool and its dye, the silk, the metal threads on the epaulets and medals, the buttons etc.
This will help us to determine what specific protection might be necessary, add to the historical details and give us a clear picture of the condition of the materials at a macroscopic level. We’ll also be carrying out fading tests to see how much fading to the outside of the coat has occurred over the many decades of display.
Here are some recent photographs of the coat with the fragile silk lining starting to be removed.
Lining of Nelson’s Trafalgar uniform (UNI0024)
Lining coming away from the coat
Section of lining removed from the coat