Vasa's newest exhibition, "Meanwhile," opened to the public this past Sunday. The show has been installed in the first entirely new-built exhibition space at the museum since our present building opened it's doors in the late 80's. I took some time on Monday to sit for a little while and informally observe our first test group of highschool students as they explored the new gallery, led by one of our museum educators. After seeing hundreds of adults in the space during the opening, I was curious to see how a smaller group of teenagers would react.
Though the content of the exhibition is quite serious, "Meanwhile" presents some interesting and even playful opportunities in its physical configuration, with unexpected turns around corners, unusual presentations of light, panels of mirrors, and huge apertures opening in some of the free standing walls. These elements combine to create a feeling of intimacy and focus on whichever region of the world/exhibition you happen to be in while still allowing you to see outside that region or topic and connect to other pieces. I think it speaks to the theme of the global perspective and awareness quite elegantly. Anyways, I'm not sure if this is what they were thinking, but this particular group of students was quickly absorbed in both the space and the content of the exhibition. It was no small task to gather them up when it was time to go. I would say that's a pretty strong endorsement.
Some fifty years after the original conservation treatment with polyethylene glycol, PEG (external website), here we go again! We are removing iron from a number of wooden loading equipment objects, since results from chemical research on the wood from Vasa show a correlation between iron content and wood degradation. As the iron extraction is completed, impregnation in PEG solution now follows. Freeze drying the objects will then be the final step of the full retreatment process.
Wet archaeological wood often look well preserved. As long as the wood is wet, water fills out degraded wood cells and the material appears intact. But to avoid cracking and distortion upon drying, another substance is needed to replace the water. The substance used in the original treatment of Vasa was PEG. In improved methods, PEG is the substance we use today as well.
The PEG treatment for the loading equipment objects will last for thirteen months. Molecular size and end concentration of PEG are chosen according to the degradation degree of the wood. The degradation degree also affects impregnation time, which apart from that largely depends on the dimensions of the object. Impregnation time is calculated and divided into several steps, in which the initial concentration of PEG is gradually raised to the end concentration.
As seen in photos from the original conservation work to the left below, some things have changed, whereas others not. We are in the preservation business after all!
Calculating treatment parameters with ballpoint pen.
Dissolving PEG in large.. ..or less large quantities.
Examining object in treatment with concerned look on face and wearing white lab coat.
Examining object under lamp after/before treatment with concerned look on face and wearing white lab coat.
Examining object under microscope with slightly.. ..and much less concerned look on face. Reassuring!
Twice a year, our conservation technicians, shipwrights, and any other willing volunteers from the staff spend a few Sunday evenings after hours vacuuming the whole ship. It gets surprisingly dusty with the numbers of visitors we have passing through. Last Sunday, I was delighted* to be assigned to transom cleaning duty with Håkan. This meant that we would be up on the after platform crane, starting at the very top (which, I must say, is quite high, borderline vertigo inducing) and working our way down. I was assigned to the starboard side, since the crane controls are to port and I had neither the training nor the inclination to operate the lift. It took us about four hours to clean everything; I already had a healthy respect for the level detail in the transom sculptures, but this point was driven home by the need to carefully brush every single dust-loving wrinkle.
This scribble is from the following day. Can't you just tell how much cleaner it looks?
But that lion there, he's one of the creatures who still has visible gilding on his nose and cheeks, as well as some red pigment in his mouth that you can still see through all the PEG. I had heard this from guides and read about this in the Vasa literature, but it is rare to have an opportunity to get close enough to see such a thing for yourself. I tried to take a photo with my phone while I was cleaning, though it was quite dark. Even so, I hope you can pick out those few specks:
* Really, honestly. Museum nerds unite.
This is a promise for the shipwrights stateside: I'm working through the braces at the moment, but as soon as I get that little sweetie Dutch style plane drawn up I'll post the measurments. In the meantime, you can practice converting from mm with this one.