Contributions from Conservation: More than Meets the Eye

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Assistant Objects Conservator Paige Schmidt. Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Hello there Mariners! I thought it was about time I introduced myself on the blog. My name is Paige Schmidt, and I am the Assistant Objects Conservator for the museum’s general collection. While I work in the Batten Conservation Complex alongside the archaeological conservators who dedicate their time to conserving the U.S.S. Monitor, I myself do not work on the Monitor. My job is to conserve and help care for the 18,000 three dimensional artifacts within our impressive collection!

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While hands-on treatment of artifacts is a regular part of a conservator’s job, conservation encompasses a whole lot more than just treatment. In addition to assisting with the preventive care of the collection (i.e. avoiding the need for treatment as much as possible by regulating the environment in which artifacts exist), we can also provide insights into the history of an object, help objects tell their stories, and sometimes literally ‘unlock’ their secrets.

Several months ago Collections Manager (and prolific blogger) Jeanne Willoz-Egnor asked the Conservation Department to assist with the investigation of a recently acquired Asprey Despatch Box, dating from 1871-72 (gift of Jonathan Morey in memory of Leonard Morey). You can read Jeanne’s post about the box and its many secrets here:

https://www.marinersmuseum.org/blog/?s=despatch

Asprey Despatch Box, lid open, ca. 1871-72.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Asprey Despatch Box, center tray removed.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

As noted at the end of Jeanne’s post, one of the box’s many secret compartments remained locked after an exhaustive search for the release mechanism (see photos below of the location of the compartment). There was an interest in opening this compartment because:

1. We wanted to see if any additional information could be found inside.

2. We needed to fully assess the condition of the chest and establish the best storage solutions for its component parts.

3. It’s super cool!

Location of hidden compartment in the Despatch box.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

View of hidden compartment with the front drawer removed from the Despatch box.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Luckily, x-radiography was an option for us when this question came up earlier in the year, since the humidity was still low enough in the space where the x-ray unit is housed. This particular object, with so many composite parts made of both inorganic and organic materials, would not fare well when exposed to high or rapid fluctuations in humidity (just one of the many things we must think about when considering treatment/storage options). So, Analytical Chemist Dr. Molly McGath and I proceeded to x-ray the box with bated breath to see what we could find, and…

…Success!

Hidden compartment removed from the Despatch box.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

In addition to imaging the many different previously identified hidden mechanisms within the box, we were able to clearly see the clever system of posts and levers that unlatched the compartment! The mechanism is initiated by pressing through the plate hole on the proper left side of the box (see images below).

Hardware plate circled in red with hole that engages the hidden compartment mechanism. Credit: Mariners’ Museum and Park.
X-radiograph of the Despatch chest, as viewed from the front of the side with the hidden compartment. Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

 

1. Press through hole in plate, which depresses a rod.
2. Rod presses down on end of first lever.
3. First lever press up on end of second lever.
4. Second lever lifts up, unlatching the hidden compartment.
Credit: Mariners’ Museum and Park.

X-radiograph of the hidden compartment and mechanism, as viewed from above. The mechanism and box are seen on the right side.
Credit: Mariners’ Museum and Park.

The green highlights the hidden compartment. The orange box outlines the spring that pushes the compartment out when the latch is released.
Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.
Detail X-radiograph of the front of the hidden compartment release mechanism, as seen from above.
Credit: Mariners’ Museum and Park.

The compartment easily popped open when a soft bamboo skewer was used to depress the mechanism, revealing a thoughtfully built little wooden box with a sliding lid. Of course, repeated use of these fragile mechanisms will be kept to a minimum to avoid damage, and this compartment will now be stored separately from the box. The compartment will be covered to help protect it from UV radiation that would alter the deep, rich color of the wood that has been so wonderfully preserved in hiding.

This was a satisfying conclusion to a real head-scratcher for us all. And it is only the tip of the ice-berg in terms of the analysis and ‘extra-eyes’ conservation and conservation science can provide to the assessment of artifacts. I look forward to many more collaborations with our incredible team here at the Mariners’ Museum and Park. One mystery down… infinite possibilities to go. So stay tuned!

 

 

5 thoughts on “Contributions from Conservation: More than Meets the Eye”

  1. “The compartment easily popped open when a soft bamboo skewer was used to depress the mechanism.” It may have “easily popped open”, but I’ll bet there was a big cheer when it did. What a great piece of engineering and what great detective work! It must have been super fun to work this out using the x-ray images, even though the x-rays could have been more interesting if these had shown a few coins or documents inside. The craftsmanship is amazing, just to think that everything worked and the spring popped it open after all these years. Makes one wonder who was the last person to close it, what treasures or secretes it may have held and who was the last person to know of the hidden latch?

    Awesome work Paige. Thank you for sharing and the really well documented post.

  2. We are thrilled you have the equipment to do the detective work on this piece. Will you be able to find it’s historty? I’d love to know about the owner of the box. I feel a romantic novel submerging from the mystery of The 📦 ❤️

  3. “The compartment easily popped open when a soft bamboo skewer was used to depress the mechanism.” It may have “easily popped open”, but I’ll bet there was a big cheer when it did. What a great piece of engineering and what great detective work! It must have been super fun to work this out using the x-ray images, even though the x-rays could have been more interesting if these had shown a few coins or documents inside. The craftsmanship is amazing, just to think that everything worked and the spring popped it open after all these years. Makes one wonder who was the last person to close it, what treasures or secretes it may have held and who was the last person to know of the hidden latch?

    Awesome work Paige. Thank you for sharing and the really well documented post.

  4. Paige. Hope we have as much success with the Prospector as with what I have seen in blog. Have some ideas.
    When can we get together. Also have Prospector atifacts..

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