How does conservation affect display? Part Two

Last week I wrote about the effects of conservation on display by looking at the revamped Mary Rose museum. Large, vulnerable objects like wooden ships, once excavated, have specific and changing requirements. The Mary Rose is very much a work in progress, and next year the final drying phase is expected to begin. The ships below have finished their stabilisation and intensive conservation period and their display requirements, although more stable, include a stronger focus on the visitor experience.

The finished product–The Vasa

The Vasa
The Vasa

On 10 August 1628, the Vasa embarked upon her maiden voyage. She sank in Stockholm Harbour, around 1300 metres into the journey. The next time she was above the surface of the water was 333 years later, in 1961. A vast amount of material culture was excavated over the next decade. The ship sank straight down, rather than landing on her side as the Mary Rose did. The conditions in the water of Stockholm Harbour are excellent for preservation of wood and so the condition of the ship is amazing compared with the significant damage seen on the Mary Rose to the exposed side.

Visitors were able to see the ship in a temporary shipyard within a year of its excavation. The following year, the ship began the seventeen-year phase of spraying with PEG.

I’ve been looking at concepts concerning the display of objects that are being conserved, but just briefly I’ll flip that around: how does display affect conservation? According to the Vasa Museum website, in the year 2000 it was noted that humidity was affected greatly by the number of visitors in the ship hall in combination with some rainy weather, leading to ‘alarming deposits of acidic salts’ visible. In response to this damage, a research program was initiated. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton has an information panel which claims that people exhale around 1 litre of water each day, making conservation more difficult as the humidity changes so wildly.

The finished product–the Vikingeskibsmuseet at Roskilde

Any chance to talk about the Vikingeskibsmuseet at Roskilde has to be taken, I think. If you’re ever in the area, go there. It’s amazing. Aside from it being a great museum to visit, the role it has played in wood conservation is significant and has affected display to a great extent. Throughout the excavation of the ships in the Roskilde fjord, the eventual display was considered and planned. Display, however well thought out, couldn’t have occurred without the advances in preservation and conservation which evolved throughout the process.

The main gallery at the Vikingeskibsmuseet at Roskilde

Advanced preservation techniques were able to be applied to the ships as they were uncovered in the initial excavation, which then afforded the opportunity to display the ships as they have been-open to the room, flooded with natural light, and displayed as they are without having to have the gaps filled in with new wood. The process of conservation of these ships made a major contribution to the field of wood conservation:

…some of the [older] treatments have caused shrinkage, warping, and surface damage to the material. The Skuldelev conservation project has, however, given valuable experience with respect to the handling of large finds. Modern waterlogged wood conservation science in Denmark was born with the conservation of the Skuldelev ships.
(Crumlin-Pedersen et al. 2002: 81)

Treatment of the wood has varied and evolved as technology has progressed:

The timbers have been conserved with polyethylene glycol (PEG 4000) in several different treatments: in hot baths, by freeze-drying from water or butanol, or in a few cases, by simply pouring the PEG over the wood. (VSM website)

The benefits of advanced conservation techniques–the travelling exhibition

Skuldelev VI, part of the Vikingeskibsmuseet collection, was able to travel to the United Kingdom and Germany as part of the Vikings: Life and Legend travelling exhibition. This ship benefited greatly from recent developments in preservation of wood, which allowed the planks to be transported safely – something impossible before these advancements (Strætkvern 2013: 234). A Viking ship came to Britain, showing its age and damage, but sitting at the heart of the exhibition. It was the smallest of the ships from the Roskilde fjord excavations, and its original length is around 11m (See the VSM website for further details).

The planks, which made up around 25 per cent of the original ship, sat on a steel skeleton in the middle of a large, windowless gallery, surrounded by material culture. Apart from a slightly cooler temperature, the ship appeared to be hardy and allowed the display to happen around it.

Next week: landscape and Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture

Works cited:

CRUMLIN-PEDERSEN, O., OLSEN, O. & BONDESEN, E. 2002. The Skuldelev Ships I: Topography, Archaeology, History, Conservation and Display, Roskilde, Viking Ship Museum/National Museum of Denmark.

STRÆTKVERN, K. 2013. Conservation of Roskilde 6. In: WILLIAMS, G., PENTZ, P. & WEMHOFF, M. (eds.) Vikings: Life and Legend. London: British Museum Press.


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