Young Reporters: cleaning and repairing First World War posters

The Young Reporters being shown how to repair First World War posters

I first met some of the Young Reporters in March when they interviewed me for their Conservation podcast. I found them really interested and engaged when it came to discussing Conservation, so it seemed appropriate to actually demonstrate some of the skills that I use and give them the chance to have a go for themselves.

For the workshop sessions, I selected some of the First World War posters that I have been working on and we had very good facsimiles made of these. We tried to recreate typical problems by leaving the facsimiles in a very dusty part of the building and then adding various rips and tears.

During the sessions, we talked through every step a conservator takes when treating an object. This included discussing how we document the object and the details of its condition prior to beginning any work on it. The Young Reporters proved excellent at this, with their ability to quickly notice details such as the publishing company or country of origin proving that they definitely have the observational skills of good reporters! Following this, they learned how to use chemical sponge (sometimes known as smoke sponge) to clean away the surface dirt, invariably the first step of any conservation treatment. I was impressed by their carefulness and patience whilst doing this, especially as often very little visual improvement can be discerned so it can feel slightly unrewarding at times.

A Young Reporter carefully repairing a facsimile of the famous Kitchener recruitment poster.

The rest of the session involved instructing the Young Reporters in how to undertake tear repairs so that they could mend the damage to their posters. We used just two simple materials for this: wheat starch paste and Japanese tissue. Wheat starch paste is a strong but reversible adhesive frequently used by paper conservators: essentially it is a highly purified version of flour-and-water wallpaper paste.  It is used to realign tears, and then fine Japanese tissue paper is shaped into strips and adhered using the paste to the back of torn areas – the tissue is so thin that once it has dried it is almost invisible. Repaired areas are pressed under light weight, with bondina (a non-stick polyester fabric) and blotting paper either side in order to hasten drying and ensure that the poster does not ‘cockle’ (conservator-speak for wrinkle). Once again, the Young Reporters proved to be very adept at completing fiddly tasks, and impressed me with the way they considered their approach thoughtfully and selected appropriate widths of tissue to complete the repairs. Above all, this kind of work requires patience and high levels of concentration – it was noticeable that the room fell very quiet at times as they dedicated themselves to completing their conservation treatments!

Showing the Young Reporters the tools of the trade

Both sessions went extremely well and I think that the Reporters showed outstanding capabilities and patience. I have to explain my job so often to adults (“Paper Conservator? Does that involve saving trees?”) that it is wonderful to think that there is now a whole group of young people in Lambeth who know exactly what this work involves, and know how to do some of the treatments themselves – perhaps this will encourage some of them to consider conservation as a career.  I’m sure that when they come to visit the re-opened galleries they will know a lot more than most visitors about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting on an exhibition, but will also be aware that the function of a museum isn’t solely to display our collections; we also safeguard them for future generations.

1 comment
  1. […] I wrote up my experiences of the workshops for IWM’s own blog, which can be found here: Young Reporters: Cleaning and Repairing First World War Posters You can also find posts by my colleagues about the other workshops they ran, on objects […]

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