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Antarctic conservation blog archive

When paper goes bad

George, Thursday 20 May 2010

Temperature: -25°C
Wind speed: -10°C
Temp with wind chill: -35°C
Sunrise: a long while yet
Sunset: a long while yet

With such a wide variety of artefacts to conserve (ranging from timber to metals, textiles and paper) it’s critical the Trust employs conservators with the right area of expertise.

I work mainly on the paper-based items, and for the past couple of weeks I have been able to collaborate with my colleagues on multi-media pieces. Mindy had some Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup tins, which look exactly the same as they do today! A couple of these tins still had their original paper wrappers, and so it was my job to try and preserve them. Due to the harsh Antarctic climate, paper out here is often in a very bad condition.

Degraded paper of poor quality can be very acidic (which is what makes it look yellow), and in this instance also stained with food product and metal corrosion. Washing the paper in deionised (pure) water removes many of these damaging products, although it is very fragile when wet so you have to be careful! The paper is then soaked in an alkaline solution which lifts its pH and creates a buffer protecting against future degradation. This wrapper had many holes and missing areas, so I patched them from behind with hand-coloured Japanese paper. I then wrapped the repaired sheet back around the tin which Mindy had treated for rust.

Tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup with its wrapper before treatment © AHT / M Bell

Tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup with its wrapper before treatment © AHT / M Bell

Tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup without its wrapper © AHT / M Bell

Tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup without its wrapper © AHT / M Bell

Wrapper removed from the tin during treatment © AHT / G Whiteley

The wrapper has been removed from the tin during treatment © AHT / G Whiteley

Tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup with wrapper after treatment © AHT / G Whiteley

The tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup with its wrapper after treatment © AHT / G Whiteley

As you can see from the photos, the finished item still looks old – but this is good! We don’t want to change the appearance too much (or it will look out of place in the hut), only to stabilise the materials and increase longevity as best we can.

Another joint effort was with Jane on a series of dehydrated cabbage tins. The tins and their labels had a special varnish which complicated their treatment; if the labels got wet with water they bloomed (ie. turned white!). Jane had to find a way of treating the rust on the metal whilst preserving the varnish, whilst I had to treat the labels without using water. These objects are chemically stable now and we were pleased with the results.

5 Responses to “When paper goes bad”

  1. Rae Bassett says:

    Thanks for explaining the process George. The before and after results are stunning - and like you say you have still preserved the aged appearance of the item. I am glad you and your team are there protecting every little artefact. I hope I will get to see them one day!

  2. becky says:

    Hi George, Becky here from last Winter! I remember those yellow labels, they did bloom in water - I seem to remember swabbing them with…methylated spirits? or acetone was it to get rid on the bloom if I’d needed to wet treat them. Maybe you could find it in the treatment notes from last year.

  3. George says:

    Hello Rae! Thank you for your nice comments! I really hope you get to come down here one day; its something special to see these artefacts in context.

    And hi Becky! We ended up using a non-aqueous treatment on those dodgy labels; adhering with Klucel G. We found IMS would shift the bloom but only by removing the glossy coating, which we wanted to keep! It was pretty interesting working with Jane on this one. We even had a bit of metal bloom on application of corrosion inhibitor - fixed it by retarding drying time. Materials seem to react strangely down here with the climate - way too dry!

  4. Jenny says:

    Thanks Becky

    Hello from the AHT team.

    Thanks for your comments which have been passed to George.

    Best wishes


  5. Clare says:

    A really impressive job on such difficult material - but only what I would expect from the Queen of filling and retouching!