Volunteers tackle a conservation project set to restore a 1930's diaroma

Volunteers tackle a conservation project set to restore a 1930's diaroma
Wheal Martyn

By: Jo Moore, Curator
Added: 17 June 2015

Wheal Martyn has, as an important part of its collection, a beautifully-detailed diorama model of a clay pit. Made from wood and plaster, painted in watercolour, and stamped with its maker’s name, Herbert H Cawood, it shows the workings of a 1920s china clay pit. It is believed to have been one of a set commissioned in the 1930s by the Geological Museum, South Kensington (now part of the Natural History Museum), which depicted various industrial landscapes around the country.

Colin Bristow, former Chief Geologist for English China Clays, emphasises the importance of the model: “The diorama is very precious in recording visually the history of china clay working, as it depicts the sort of pit which existed from late in the 19th century up to the Second World War”.

The diorama had been displayed in the museum’s linhay, a building which was used for drying and storing china clay before being transported for export. However the building was too damp for such a fragile piece, resulting in mould, dirt and water ingress affecting its surfaces, and so, with the help of four strong men, it was brought into the main museum at the end of 2014.

Advice was sought from a professional conservator, who recommended that the diorama be left for a few months to acclimatise very slowly to the drier atmosphere in the museum, thereby reducing the risk of warping or further damage.

In May 2015, with the acclimatisation complete, work began on the cleaning and conservation of the diorama. Training a small group of volunteers the conservator, Laura Ratcliffe of L R Conservation, the model was first carefully dusted, using a specialist museum vacuum cleaner and a very soft brush, to remove the loose dirt sitting on its surface. Following this a material called ‘Groom Stick’, a natural rubber that dry-cleans and permanently absorbs dirt and grease, is being used to lift the dirt sitting in the upper surface of the paint.

Once the diorama is as clean as possible, using these gentle methods, the conservator will stabilise the metal components and repair and tone-in the damaged paint surfaces. When the work is completed the diorama will be moved into its final display position, near the beginning of the visitor route in the main museum building. The project will also include research into the commissioning and making of the diorama.

The cost for the conservation of the model and the training and supervision of volunteers working on it will be approximately £1,300. The museum has already received generous funding from Cornwall Council of £250, which has been an excellent start to our fundraising. If you would like to support this project the museum would be very grateful for any donations. Please contact Wheal Martyn on 01726 850362 or email whealmartyn@swlakestrust.org.uk.