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Conservation of an Object: A Child's Wagon from A. D. 1900

Some Objects Need Cleaning, Repair, or Restoration

Sometimes the Museum receives an object that would be an excellent exhibit if it were only in better condition. This happened in 1976, when a donor gave the Museum a child's toy wagon made about 1900 A.D. The wagon was a good example of a child's toy from one hundred years ago, but the last owners had painted it blue and tan, covering up the original paint and decoration. The new paint made it difficult for the curator to answer these questions:

  • What was the original color of the wagon?
  • How was it decorated? 
  • Had anything else about the wagon been changed?
  • Were there any wear marks underneath to show how children had used the wagon?
  • Was there a maker's mark or name on the wagon? 
Undoing Changes Takes Special Knowledge

The curator wanted to undo the recent changes and return the wagon to its appearance in 1900 for the exhibit. Conservation requires specialized knowledge of chemistry and technology. For a curator to conserve the wagon without damaging it, she or he would need to know:

  • how to take the wagon apart and put it back together correctly
  • how many paint layers and what other materials were on the wagon
  • what kind of paint was used
  • what chemical removers would remove the top paint but not the original pain
  • which tools would not scratch the wagon
  • how to treat the wagon once the paint was removed            
What are the steps in the Conservation?

Conservation Report

Conservators study and train for many years to become knowledgeable of the science of conservation. With this in mind, the curator took the wagon to a conservator's laboratory in St. Louis. There the conservator examined and tested it and gave the curator a report describing the:

  • wagon's current condition
  • treatments needed to conserve the wagon
  • tools, techniques, and materials necessary to perform these treatments
  • conservation costs 
Paint Sample

To make this report, the conservator had to find out what was under the new paint. The conservator cut a tiny sample of the wagon's paint that included all of the layers down to the wood. Using a microscope, he looked at the sample in natural light and then in ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light helped the conservator determine what kinds of paint and other materials had been used on the wagon:

  • light blue paint
  • medium blue paint
  • metallic paint in resin
  • original dark blue paint
  • resin 
Paint Removal

Next, the conservator wanted to remove some of the new paint to see what was underneath. Because the paint sample indicated that the original paint was oil-based, the conservator decided to use a water-based paint remover that would strip away the modern paint but leave the old paint. 

By shining a bright light sideways across the wagon's sides and panels, the conservator saw the shadows of a fancy decoration, like a decal, under the paint. So, he carefully removed the paint from a small spot on one panel. He could now see the stenciled designs clearly. They had been made with metallic paint in resin (the third layer he saw in the paint sample). 

After treatment.

Restoration Decisions

Something to think about:
Is it more important to: 

  • get absolutely all the new paint off the wagon 

  • or 
  • protect the silver and dark blue original paint as much as possible? 
Remember the goal of conservation treatment. One meaning of "conserve" is "keep." Although it would be nice to be able to remove all of the new blue paint, it is more important to the curator and conservator to protect as much of the original paint as they can. 

After the new paint was removed, the wagon's seat had only a little original paint left on it. If the conservator usedthe same materials and techniques on the seat as on the rest of the wagon parts, why was most of the original paint on the seat missing? 

To answer this question, think about where the wagon was probaably kept a long time ago (indoors or outdoors) and how it was used over many years. 

The conservator had two choices: he could leave the seat alone or repaint it. Which choice would leave us with the most information about how children used the wagon? 

Ready to Exhibit

After conservation the wagon looks almost like it did when children played with it in 1900. It has the original designs and colors. Notice whether or not the seat is paintedónow you know what the conservator decided! The restored wagon is now on display in the Museum's At Home in the Heartland exhibit




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