By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum
Three years ago, on 25 March 2013, a huge fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall building. The Cuming Museum had its public display galleries on the ground floor of that building, with over 900 objects in display.
All museums dread major incidents like this and we all have strategies in place to deal with them. The London Fire Brigade also has rescue plans in place for historic buildings and objects. Top priority is always life and limb, but once assured people are safe the fire brigade works hard to help preserve what they can.
In the Cuming Museum’s case the emergency personnel did a brilliant job of rescuing over half the objects on the day of the fire and the museum team spent the next year salvaging and recovering more of the museum’s collections.
Like most museums, the Cuming only ever had a fraction of its collections on display at any one time but new objects were exhibited all the time through temporary exhibitions. The rest of the collection was safely stored elsewhere and was not affected – but even so the job of conserving the material affected by the fire was a big one.
Damaged historic buildings, objects and archives are cared for by trained conservators. Many museums have these on staff but as a small museum the Cuming does not, so had to seek out a firm which could tackle the job. Many conservators work alone and large firms are rare. So to treat several hundred objects at one time would mean big pressure on even the largest firm. For this reason the objects were sent in small batches so the chosen firms could assess, conserve and return them in a manageable way.
Plowden and Smith was the main firm selected to take on the bulk of the job. They have several different conservation specialisms, from wood and ceramics, to paper and textiles.
The museum’s insurance covered the cost of work but only to return the objects to the condition they were in before the fire. It was decided that most of the objects would be cleaned and very gently conserved.
When you think of a fire in a museum (or anywhere else for that matter) you automatically assume most of the damage comes from flames or smoke. However in our case very little was touched by the fire itself and not even very smoke damaged. The big problems came from water damage and broken glass.
The fire brigade uses tons of water to extinguish major fires. It saturates everything and gets absolutely everywhere. It has to be done, but the water itself causes a lot of problems during the later clean up.
Also in the Cuming’s case, in order to get at the objects the fire brigade had to smash their way into the high quality cases used for display. The glass in these kind of cases is designed to turn to powder when struck and this powder liberally coated most of the objects.
So Plowden and Smith, along with two other conservation firms who took on very specialist material, had two tasks: to deal with moisture damage and to get out all the glass.
Simon Moore and Janie Lightfoot Textiles joined the conservation effort focussing on taxidermy and rare pacific island material from the first voyages by Europeans to the region, most famously Captain Cook.
Janie Lightfoot Textiles’ team dealt with glass too, but their major work was severely damaged pieces, such as the kid gloves which had become very shrunken due to the water and heat.
Taxidermy is the Marmite of museum collections. People either love it or hate it. Modern taxidermy is making a comeback but our taxidermy is very old and we would never collect new kinds.
Our most famous “stuffed” animal is our little black bear, which Richard Cuming bought at a sale in 1806 from the Leverian Museum. This museum was a very early museum and, in the late 18th century, was based just off Blackfriars Road. The bear was on display from the very first moment when the Cuming Museum opened in 1906, and many generations of children remember him.
Being furry, he was covered in glass and dust after the fire and Simon Moore, an expert in restoring natural history objects, spent an incredibly long time extracting it all while at the same time trying not to pull out any hair – either his or the bear’s.
In another example, the conservator at Plowden and Smith removed all the glass from the velvet associated with Queen Caroline’s funeral coffin. Leaving the glass would just mean the damage would continue.
Work on objects like these took well over 18 months to complete. Not everything merited attention and the instruction was, for most objects, to do the least needed in order to preserve them. However some objects needed a lot of work and were significant enough to need resources focussed on them. In a future blog we’ll look at the giraffe sculpture from the lost “Walworth Zoo”. The sculpture is the only surviving memento of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.
Meanwhile the collection is in storage but continues to be exhibited and digitised in anticipation of new space. The Cuming team in particular is grateful for all the help it received to rescue the collection and the enormous amount of good will and support from the community.