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Nicolas Verhulst: intern case study

conservator in mask and goggles pointing laser at an object

Laser cleaning in action

A report from Nicolas Verhulst, written mid-way through his six month internship at the sculpture conservation studio.

As a Belgian conservation trainee, specialising in stone-like materials at the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, I am enrolled in a two year program to complete this Dutch course as an accredited conservator. During my master of Art History at the Catholic University Leuven, Belgium, I decided to gain another master in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage. Doing ceramics, glass and stone at the University of Amsterdam I envisioned my dream not only to do research about the artifacts but also to conserve and restore them so future generations can enjoy them as well.

During my first year as a conservation trainee I completed projects such as documenting the outdoor timpanun of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam and the garden sculptures of Castle Amerongen, doing research and removing bronze stains from a limestone plinth and a two month placement at Cliveden Conservation, UK. I am now privileged to commence an exciting year consisting of different internships.

This first half year I'm working on different objects in the sculpture studio of the Conservation Centre under the wings of my supervisor and Head of Sculpture Conservation, Lottie Barnden. It began with writing condition reports on different kinds of sculptures in the collections of National Museums Liverpool, and organising the collection of fragments in storage.

Documenting the condition of the sculpture Documenting the condition of the sculpture Documenting the condition of the sculpture Initial dry cleaning

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During my first week I got to know the organisation. The interdisciplinary set up of the different areas in one building always intrigues me, as I find myself visiting other departments to discuss different approaches and borrow tools.

To get a better understanding of the collection Lottie introduced me to Georgina Muskett, Curator of Antiquities at World Museum. After considering the collections and the resources available we decided to start work on a number of different pieces for this six month period.

In the studio two unfinished objects were selected: a broken marble 'mask of a seagod' and a stone relief, probably part of an antique sarcophagus. Another challenge that inspired me was the over life-sized antique sculpture of 'Marcus Aurelius', heavily restored in the 18th century, but now dirty and broken again in many pieces. I first analysed this project, writing a structural restoration proposal to tackle this complex project within a three months timescale.

In addition to these projects I went back to the stores to pack two small, but interesting, marble objects for transport to our studio. This included a 'miniature Hercules' dating from the Renaissance and an antique 'disk with three masks'. 

Disk after partial laser cleaning with a Nd:YAG laser UV-light examination of the antique disk X-ray image of Hercules

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After writing a proper condition report of each object, it became clear what the problems were for each one and treatment was carried out:

  • In the first instance the objects need to be cleaned. Dry cleaning with a soft brush and vacuum cleaner, with cotton swabs of de-ionised water or solvents, or different kinds of poultices can be used. The Conservation Centre has a reputation for its contribution to the field of laser cleaning. I was glad to take part in the laser cleaning course, as I can now safely use a Nd:Yag laser to clean the surface dirt of objects if the type of soiling lends itself to this cleaning technique.
  • Once the objects are in a stable condition and have a satisfactory appearance, the broken pieces can be fixed together with pins and different types of adhesive depending on their strength and stability, for example acrylics, polyesters and epoxies. These kinds of adhesives also can be used with different kinds of fillers to make 'colour fills'. It was agreed that a small research project could be executed to make samples of commonly used materials to produce a gap filler that has appropriate working properties, is 'reversible' and looks similar to the surrounding marble. For the adhesives four categories have been created, based on lime, acrylic, polyester and epoxy resins.
Disassembly of objects Drilling lead out of pin holes Glueing pieces together The sculpture is supported as the glue dries

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