A thorn between two roses

5 July 2018 - Ashley Gilmour

How does our conservation team deal with stubborn stains and spots on our collection items? With rose thorns of course.

A rose bush in the garden of one of our objects conservators

A rose bush in the garden of one of our objects conservators.

Fourteen Mothers and Widows badges are being prepared for the upcoming exhibition ‘After the War’, to coincide with the anniversary of the armistice. Our textiles conservators worked on the fabric component of each badge and sent them over to the objects conservation team to clean and polish the metal bars.

Mothers and Widows badge before treatment.

Mothers and Widows badge before treatment.

Detail of Mothers and Widows badge with polish residue in the crevices.

Detail of Mothers and Widows badge with polish residue in the crevices.

The badges had undergone years of heavy polishing by their original owners and had a build-up of polish residue in the detailed crevices. We worked with solvents and bamboo skewers, usually the best friends of an object conservator, however the polish wouldn’t budge.

Metal objects are regularly cleaned with bamboo skewers and toothpicks. These tools are soft compared to the metal surface and so, are more likely to break under pressure than to cause damage to a collection item. However, this time these tools just weren’t cutting it; the crevices were too fine while the bamboo was too thick.

Commonly used tools from the conservation lab

Commonly used tools from the conservation lab.

A thin metal pick would have been the perfect size, however this can be very detrimental to the object, with metal on metal likely to cause scratching and other damages. While this damage would have been very small and probably invisible to the naked eye, as conservators we could not view this as a viable option for the objects integrity.

Rose thorn attached to a clamp

Rose thorn attached to a clamp.

Once we realised rose thorns were the perfect tool for our work, we then needed a way to use them. We attached the thorns to clamps; this allowed us excellent control over direction and pressure against the badges.

Dish of collected rose thorns, ready to be put to work

Dish of collected rose thorns, ready to be put to work

Enter: the rose thorn. The perfect hardness and the perfect size. A super fine and organic material much softer than metal and therefore more likely to break under pressure than to damage the metal bars of the badges. Rose thorns, as I’m sure we’ve all learnt the hard way, are also very sharp, they have an extremely fine point that will move easily through the crevice of metal and remove any polish residue, dirt or waxes.

Taken down a microscope, this image shows how we worked on such fine detailing.

Taken down a microscope, this image shows how we worked on such fine detailing.

Under magnification we were able to slide the thorns along the crevices and remove all polish residues. If left on the metal, these residues are likely to cause damage in the future; most likely a form of corrosion, which once started, can be halted but never reversed.

This new technique can now be added to our archive of conservation tools and techniques. It also reminds us that conservation is not just black and white, and that we can find answers to conundrums in the most unexpected places. The preservation and care of our collection will always be paramount, and finding new ways to do this is a fun and exciting time for conservators…now I’m off to plant a rose bush outside the lab.

Partially polished badge.

Partially polished badge.

Once the polish residue was cleaned out, the badges were carefully polished using conservation grade materials, remembering to degrease in acetone afterwards and ensure no speck of polish was left behind.

The difference between a badge that has undergone conservation treatment and one that has not is very clear.

The difference between a badge that has undergone conservation treatment and one that has not is very clear.

Once treatment is finished, the badges will be ready for display…come in to the Australian War Memorial from the 5th of October to see these clean beauties on display in the After the War Exhibition.

The finished product.

The finished product.

The bars were finished in a solvent-based coating; this will protect them from dirt and grime settling on the metal in the future, which often leads to corrosion and other damaging agents. This coating also prevents us from needing to polish the badges again in the future, and the less we polish, the longer they last for future generations to admire.