Museums are Cool! (Pun Intended)

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

I am rather lucky to work where I do, for a plethora of reasons.  I’m a history junkie and museum nerd, so working in my field in a subject I love is a blessing.  I work right on the shores of Lake Ontario; on summer mornings, before I begin my day, I’ll often sit and just watch the lake, taking in the silence before the excitement of the day.  I love my community and I love meeting new people, and as Community Engagement co-ordinator, I get to talk about how amazing Oshawa is.  And on the hot, humid, stinking summer days, I get the joys of working in an air conditioned environment!

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Visitors are often surprised to walk through the doors of Guy House and discover just how cool it is in here.  All three museum buildings have climate control methods, and while I’d like to say that it is purely for the comfort of staff and guests, that just simply is not the case.  In our collections, housed between our three buildings, we have thousands of artifacts, including clothing, textiles, archaeological collections, cameras, furniture, and much more.  And then, of course, there is the archival collection in Guy House, including around 10,000 photographs of Oshawa, and irreplaceable text documents.  Fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity (RH) are not ideal for collections, so air conditioners are used in the summer for climate control.

According to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), who are essentially the go-to people for Museum conservation standards, fluctuations in temperature and RH are the enemies to museum collections.  It is important to note that temperature and RH are directly related – if a volume of warm air is cooled, then its RH will go up; in turn, if a volume of cool air is warmed, the RH will go down.  Science.

Circled in red is the temperature and RH meter in the Robinson House attic storage area
Circled in red is the temperature and RH meter in the Robinson House attic storage area

What could happen if there is incorrect temperature or humidity?  CCI outlines three broad categories: biological damage (mould growth); chemical damage (including hydrolysis and oxidation); and, mechanical damage (objects naturally expand or contract depending on warm or cool temperatures – this could spell disaster for large objects with many components, like CCI’s example of a chest of drawers or paintings).  By regulating the museum environment and closely monitoring the temperature and relative humidity in our buildings, we are doing our best to deter potential damage to our precious artifacts.

Having A/C is also a nice draw for tours: take a break from the heat and discover more about Oshawa’s past.  The Oshawa Museum: We’re a cool place to visit! (See what I did there?)

Conservation of our Wax Floral Study

By Melissa Cole, Curator

If you had a fine home during the Victorian Era, (1860-1880), you most likely had a Parlour Dome, at least one, in your Parlour.  These oddly fascinating pieces could contain anything from artful displays of flora, fauna, and food made from wax, paper, human hair, wool, muslin, feathers, seashells, and buttons.  Sometimes there were even real animals such as canaries, pheasants, and even terriers that had been preserved by skilled taxidermists that enchanted the Victorians.  The hand-blown, removable domes with their still life interiors may seem weird by today’s standards, but one must understand that the 19th century was an exciting period of exploration, innovation, and experimentation.

The Oshawa Community Museum recently received a Wax Floral Study as a donation.  I had been looking to acquire an arrangement like this to place in the parlour of Henry House.  This particular intricate wax floral arrangement is made from beeswax, silk, wire and feather, the model contains a large arching spray that is 31 cm wide and 41 cm in length.

012.10.1 - Floral Wax Study
012.10.1 – Floral Wax Study before Conservation Treatments – note the condition of the base, and the number of fallen flowers

Correspondence with the donor indicates that this piece was on display for many years in her grandmother’s parlour, a room she was not allowed to play.  As a child she was always interested in the flower arrangement that sat in this room. It is estimated that this particular Wax Floral Dome is from 1910; therefore it is possibly over 100 years old.

When the Wax Floral Study arrived at the museum many of the flowers were cracked and some pieces had broken away and fell to the bottom of the dome.  This is to be expected considering the age of the wax flowers.

Close up of 012.10.1
Close up of 012.10.1, before conservation

Overtime exposure to fluctuating temperatures causes the wax to soften, peel and crack, and allowed dirt and dust to permeate the surface of the arrangement, and over time more dust accumulated.

The project was carried out in stages over a year. Wax model conservation is a slow and painstaking process and the extreme fragility of the objects makes their conservation difficult.

Small pieces of the broken wax were analysed to determine the composition, so that suitable materials could be chosen for the repairs. Conservator, Miriam Harris had to research what type of glue would be suitable for repairing the wax flowers.  Each individual wax flower was cleaned and restored.  The arrangement was carefully packaged for transport back to the museum.

The Waxed Flower Study is currently on display in the parlour of Henry House and can be viewed by visitors to the Oshawa Community Museum.

012.10.1 - Floral Wax Study, after conservation, on display in the Henry House Parlour
012.10.1 – Floral Wax Study, after conservation, on display in the Henry House Parlour
Detail of 012.10.1, after conservation
Detail of 012.10.1, after conservation