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Sunnycroft’s Spring Clean

April 18, 2014

Every year, National Trust properties go through a programme of conservation cleaning where the conservation teams clean and monitor every item. Originally, this programme was called the Winter Clean or “putting the house to bed”. This involved cleaning every item before putting them under cover to preserve them throughout the closed Winter months until the properties were opened up again in the following Spring. This is a process that has carried on from when these houses were occupied by families. In the larger country estates, the families would split their time between their country homes and their properties in towns or cities. While the family was away, the house staff would do a complete clean of the property and put the house to bed until the family arrived back.

Today, with most National Trust properties open all year round so that we can welcome our visitors, the collection is no longer covered over but the work must still go on! We work from room to room, checking and cleaning every item inside and out. This is very delicate, time consuming and often dirty work, but essential to keep the collection in the best possible condition.

What do we do?

We do not use harsh treatments, as these can remove the patina of the item and some of its story. We use a selection of brushes in a range of textures, lint free dusters, vacuums with a suction gauge, muslins and gauzes, vacuum attachments, and a selection of packaging material, including acid-free tissue and bubble wrap. We do not use any harsh chemicals as these are more likely to damage fragile surfaces.

Some of the equipment that we use

Some of the equipment that we use

Firstly, we remove dust. Dust not only looks unsightly, it can also react with a surface and damage it. We use the brushes to remove surface dust from stable objects, particularly from any crevices and design features. A softer brush, such as a pony hair brush, is used on more unstable items or items with an applied surface that may come away with a firmer brush, for example on flaking gilt picture frames.

Dusting

Dusting a gilt frame

Stable, flat textiles can be vacuumed through a textile attachment on the end of the vacuum nozzle. To help prevent sucking up any loose threads, a piece of muslin can be placed between the attachment and the nozzle.

Vacuming through gauze

Vacuuming through gauze

For fragile textiles, a pony hair brush is used to flick up the surface dust in to the vacuum nozzle held away from the fabric.

Some surfaces can be treated with wax. We use Harrell’s soft wax on wood that has already been waxed previously. Another wax is called Renaissance wax. This is a finer wax that dries translucent. This can be used on a range of materials, from wood and stone to metals and leather. Wooden floors that have been waxed can be rejuvenated by wiping them with a cloth that has been soaked in a 50:50 mixture of paraffin and vinegar. This not only collects up the dust and dirt, but also helps to soften and spread any wax that the floor has been treated with. Beware! This leaves a strong odour, but this soon dissipates.

We are not just concerned with cleaning the objects, but in keeping them in an environmentally controlled environment. This can be rather tricky in a historic house. Think about your own house. Do you get condensation on your windows? What about damp floors or walls, particularly underneath sinks? Have you had moths munching your best wool jumper or carpet? Faded curtains? Mould in your shower?

All of these things can damage our collection. To try to prevent these problems from occurring, we have in place a few simple measures. We try to minimise the amount of direct sunlight that falls on an item throughout the year by using UV film on windows, sun curtains, blinds and curtains. We monitor how much light is landing on an item using a blue wool dosimeter.

A blue wool dosimeter

A blue wool dosimeter

To prevent either mould growth or drying out of objects, we try to maintain relative humidity (the percentage of water vapour in air) between 45% and 60%. Below 45%, objects will start drying out, above 60% the majority of moulds will grow. Both can cause irreparable damage to objects.

As for pests, we have traps called “blunder traps” that catch any insect pests that are running around our houses. We are particularly concerned with silverfish (these eat mould and whatever the mould is growing on), wooly bears (larvae of the carpet beetle that eat natural fibres such as wool and silk), wood-boring pests such as wood worm, and moths. We check these traps every three months to see what insects may be harmful to our collection. To all those afraid of spiders, I’m sorry to say that spiders are our friends. They kill the bugs that will destroy our collection.

A blunder trap

A blunder trap

We have almost finished our work in the showrooms. During the summer months, we will move in to the stores where we will be cataloguing, photographing, cleaning and repackaging every item. What a task! We will be discovering more and more about the fascinating collection at Sunnycroft and be able to bring more of it out for our visitors. Did you know that the Gentleman’s Dressing Room was furnished entirely by items from the stores?

Conservation 022

Our newly dressed Gentleman’s Dressing Room

If you want to find out more about conservation of historic collections or how to care for your own precious objects, don’t miss our wonderful conservation team at work on Saturdays 3rd, 10th, and 24th May where they will be cleaning and checking items from the collection, particularly the costume collection.

by Megan Cullinan, Assistant House and Visitor Services Manager

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