Fitzwilliam Museum's Broken Vases Set For Restoration

By Paul Dance | 29 March 2006
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a photograph of a conservator putting a large vase back together

Ceramic Conservator Penny Bendall working on various stages of preliminary re-assembly of the Fitzwilliam's vases. © Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has confirmed that restoration has begun on the three 18th century oriental vases accidentally broken by a visitor in January.

After consulting museums and stately homes around the country, the museum has appointed Penny Bendall to carry out the repairs. Penny has previously worked on similar projects throughout the world including Burghley House and the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate how ceramic conservation techniques have improved in recent years due to the introduction of modern materials. This project hopefully will be quite straightforward.” said Penny.

The museum has asked Penny to restore the largest ‘baluster’ vase, weighing about 45 kg, first. She expects it to take two to three months and it will be a main feature in the museum’s ‘Mission Impossible?’ exhibition beginning in July 2006. This exhibition was planned long before the accident but centres on modern conservation.

a photograph of a windowsill with the shatterd remains of porcelain on it and grids written onto the floor that carefully mark out the shards

The pottery shards were carefully plotted and mapped out following the accident. © Fitzwilliam Msueum

Modern conservation preferences are not to hide the cracks, so after restoration they will still be visible. When asked if this affected the valuation of the vases, Duncan Robinson, Museum director, said that it was unlikely to make very much difference.

“Museums do not go in for valuations.” he said. “We have an equal duty of care to all the objects in the museum, irrespective of value.” He went on that he very much hoped to be able to display the vases in a similar way to the way they were displayed before.

“We calculated that about 9 million people had walked past them before they were broken,” he added.

The three Qing vases were among the best-known artefacts at the Fitzwilliam Museum where they had stood on a shelf for 40 years.

Visitor Nick Flynn is said to have tripped over his shoelaces and fallen down a staircase before crashing into the vases on a window sill.

a photograph of a woman in a conservation room putting together a shattered vase

Ceramic Conservator Penny Bendall working on various stages of preliminary re-assembly of the Fitzwilliam's vases. © Fitzwilliam Museum

Penny said that with some 400 numbered pieces from the accident, she was most nervous about “getting the right bits with the right vases”.

She explained that the first job was to re-assemble all the pieces temporarily and number them before taking them apart again. They are then carefully re-assembled with tape before an epoxy resin called Hxtal is used to fix them permanently.

“The important thing to remember is that it works by capillary action, running along the cracks,” said Penny. “It then takes two weeks to cure before the vases are polished using micromesh which is also used to take the cracks out of helicopter windcreens.”

The restoration is being sponsored by Hewittson’s, a Cambridge firm of solicitors, who offered to pay for it within days of the accident.

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Paul Dance is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the East of England region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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