The conservation work discussed in this blog was carried out for the Transforming IWM London Project (TIWML) – the installation of new Second World War and Holocaust Galleries opening in 2021, along with new learning spaces.

Many of you will be familiar with the all-encompassing smell of wet dogs and the constant battle to eradicate the aroma from homeware or the boots of cars. The conservation lab has also had its own unique ‘scent related campaign’ recently involving that of a rather potent Second World War dog harness.

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Photographer Richard Ash has had the privilege of photographing the object, albeit at a distance! © IWM
Photographer Richard Ash has had the privilege of photographing the object, albeit at a distance! © IWM

The leather harness and lead was associated to a special canine named Rex, a Second World War home front ‘rescue dog’. Rex was awarded the Dickin medal (EPH 3546) from the PDSA (The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) on 25 April 1945 for outstanding bravery in finding bomb victims, trapped under fallen debris. In addition to the medal he was given a suitably adorned harness, featuring two brass plaques which were engraved with the words: “HARNESS PRESENTED BY PDSA FOR SERVICES AS COLLECTOR MADE BY BAINBRIDGE & Co.” and “REX V.C. 1945 FOR GALLANTRY WE ALSO SERVE. A.F.M.C. 1026” (fig 1).

The harness was worn and enjoyed by Rex in subsequent years and is now scheduled to be exhibited in the new Second World War galleries. Alongside Jenna (Senior conservator), Lucy (paper conservator), Julie (textile conservator) and Rachel (objects conservator) our role is to assess and treat all of the objects due to be exhibited.

On arrival to the conservation lab the harness and lead appeared to be in fair condition, with only small areas of leather deterioration and no active corrosion products on the metal. The major concern was the noticeable smell that came with it. It can be described simply as a dog harness that was well used but not has not been cleaned for 70 years.

As conservators this presents a unique scenario regarding the ethics of conserving the smell. Should the smell be removed, even though it is part of the object’s history? Is the smell originating from deterioration or causing deterioration to the object? Would the smell migrate to other objects whilst on display? These are all important factors to consider prior to deciding on a treatment.

Research on the conservation and preservation of smell is limited, maybe because of the intangible aspect of an odour which is difficult to measure and dependent on each person. However a journal article published in 2017 in Heritage Science (Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours) focuses on the connection between olfaction (sense of smell) and heritage and the processes used for identification, protection and conservation. These range from sensory evaluation through use of an odour wheel, which characterises odours from woody to pungent and chemical information from volatiles organic compounds (VOCs) samples. Most odours are composed of VOCs. Many historic artefacts emit VOCs from materials such as paper, wood or plastic. This is as a result of material degradation over time, with some VOCs, particularly organic acids known to accelerate the degradation of museum artefacts. VOC analyses are carried out using solid phase micro extraction gas chromatography mass spectrometry (SPME-GC/MS), in which the SPME fibers are analyzed in a laboratory.

Whilst Rex’s lead and harness did not undergo such rigorous smell analyses many conclusions could be made through the condition assessment. Firstly the condition assessment revealed small amounts of inactive copper alloy corrosion on the reverse pins located on the surface of the brass name plate and on the brass rings and D-shaped ring for the lead. This green waxy corrosion is a common side effect of metal and leather contact caused by the exposure of copper alloy to organic acids from coatings in the leather.

There are also localised areas where the leather is brittle and slightly cracked in comparison to the rest of the harness, which is more supple, however the deteriorated areas are stable.

There was surface dirt overall, and large amounts of ingrained mud and dirt uncovered behind the name plate, and inside the metal fixtures.

Any deterioration to the object was not a result of the smell nor was it connected to it. The smell would have been a combination of the ingrained dirt encased behind metal fixtures but also from the porous leather which would have absorbed the sweat from Rex, in addition to mud and other substances affiliated with a dog.

The smell was so strong and pungent, that it could even be described as offensive.

The aim of the treatment was to try and reduce the intensity of the odour, but this was a compromise because it was deemed important to retain the aroma, as it was authentic to the object and emitted Rex’s aura. It was also unknown as to whether the smell could have even been eradicated completely, had this been desirable, without using more invasive solvent or aqueous treatments which would not be suitable for metal or leather!

The mildly interventive treatment comprised of a surface clean with a soft bristle brush and museum vacuum cleaner to remove loose particles and a micro-fibre cloth used on the metal. Large amounts of dirt that was encased behind the large brass plates were also removed. Small quantities of petroleum spirit were used with a non-abrasive sponge to remove ingrained dirt absorbed into the leather.

A final attempt to reduce the intensity of the odour was tried with the use of the portable extractor fan. The object was encased in an air tight polythene chamber, and the extractor nozzle inserted through a hole in the polythene. The fan was activated a few times over the course of the week. This concluded the treatment of the object.

There is still an odour associated to the harness and lead, however it is considerably reduced and is suitable for display. Would the smell migrate onto other objects during display? It is considered that this won’t happen as all loose particles and ingrained dirt have been removed. The object will not be in physical contact with other museum objects, therefore no molecules will be transferred.

It can’t be denied that the aura and authenticity of the object are both intact, as is the ongoing legacy of Rex, the four legged war hero.

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Rex (left) sits next to another furry hero, Thorn (right). © PDSA
Rex (left) sits next to another furry hero, Thorn (right). © PDSA

Isabelle Hetherington