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Behind the scenes

100s of shells, 60 hours of cleaning

Written by Alice Walsh and Charlotte Goodhart, images by Alex Schouvaloff
06/03/2020

After 80 years on display this Victorian ornament was in need of repair. Our conservator Alex spent 60 painstaking hours working on it, soundtracked by a playlist that is ‘a third classical, a third Leonard Cohen and a third electronic ambient’.

Detail of shell ornament

The object

Covered in a glass dome, hundreds of small shells make up a large bouquet of floral shapes.

The quirky design and use of basic materials suggest this is a piece of amateur work, but objects like this are rare.

This style of decoration was popular during the Victorian era (1837–1901) and usually made by women with spare income and time, to show off their talents.

We acquired it in 1936, 22 years after the Museum first opened.

The original setting was probably plaster: it takes a while to set, allowing the maker time to create an entire flower, without the need for adhesive.

An ornament made from shells covered with a glass dome Object number 91/2010

Calling in the conservators

The glass dome was glued down very strongly: we don't know when, or by who – but we suspect it was before the 1980s based on the materials used to fasten it.

The putty-like material that the dome was embedded in gets harder and more brittle with age.

The removal process alone took Alex around 20 hours.

Any small crack in the glass will spread quickly – so patience is vital.

Loose parts from the ornament separated into silver pots on a black background

So why not smash the glass? 

Alex explained 'it would've been a minor tragedy' – replacing a glass dome like this is an option but newer glass never looks as authentic as the original.

Alex started digging with a mixture of scalpels, dental tools and knives. Sometimes you have to improvise: bobby pins become miniature clamps.

After 10 hours, gentle chipping away grows boring and Alex had to avoid the temptation to hack away at it.

Although he specialises in difficult, fragile objects, it was the first time he'd ever worked on something quite like this.

A close up of a hair clip holding a decorative leaf

Nearly there

With the dome safely off, Alex carefully removed the loose fragments of shell, cataloguing them meticulously to make sure nothing got muddled up. From there dust and dirt were removed with sable-hair brushes.

Fish glue, similar to that used originally but less prone to yellowing, was used to return the parts to their original place.

Luckily, we only had to buy one new shell. It's a close match to the originals, but is slightly whiter: this will help the curators know what's been restored, but won't be too visible to visitors.

A close up of decorative shells in the ornament

The final result

Now the ornament is restored it is brighter: the pearly colours of the shell catch the light and we can appreciate the detail, work and skill that went into producing it.

And what's the highlight for Alex the conservator? Getting to the end without breaking anything.

A close up of a decorative seahorse in the ornament

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