Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Flying High In The Conservation Lab

Recently through the doors of the conservation laboratory has been a set of three kites from China and Japan. These objects had been on display for many years but, as they have been flying high on the ceiling of the first floor gallery, you probably have not had a close look at them.

A beautiful butterfly kite that winged its way into the lab, PRM 1898.79.2 
© Pitt Rivers Museum

When the kites arrived in the lab, immediately apparent was the wonderful use of pigments to decorate the extremely thin paper bodies of the kites. All had beautifully hand-painted designs in pinks, oranges, blues, blacks, greens and even gold. You could readily imagine them lining the walls of a shop or floating delicately and colourfully through the sky before they came to live here at the Pitt Rivers.
Butterfly kite,PRM 1899.22.6
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Exactly who collected the kites is a little unclear, but documents tucked away in the Museum manuscripts collection hint at a possible exchange between Leonard Arthur Lyall and Edward Burnett Tylor, both collectors active in the late 19th century.

In one document, dated 21 February 1898, Lyall informs Tylor:

"I am now sending you a few specimens of Chinese kites, which I hope will arrive safely and prove what you wished for."

Tylor owed him 8 shillings for the kites.

"It seems hardly worth remitting so small a sum, but as you ask I tell you the amount. Can I at any future time be of any service to you, I hope you will make use of me."

What a great bit of history to come across whilst looking into the background of the kites.

We suspect the kites were framed when they were acquired by the Museum between 1898 and 1899, and as such they were not mounted in an ideal way.

A dragonfly kite in its original frame and degraded backing board,
PRM 1898.79.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
The original mounting method with metal 
pins hammered through the delicate paper 
and bamboo © Pitt Rivers Museum

The boards the kites were attached to were degrading and likely to cause damage, plus the poor kites had been hammered onto their mounts with metal pins and hooks that were a little corroded and had punctured holes in the delicate paper and bamboo.

The first task was to get the kites out of the frames, a challenge in itself as they were heavily nailed shut. Once out though, the pins holding the kites down could be gently removed and it was a chance to have a good look at the kites out of the frames for possibly the first time in over a century.

Turning the kites over was a real treat, as you can see so much more of how the kite frames were made, different sections of flexible bamboo tied together to make the light structural frame that the thin tissue was then carefully glued to. Looking at the back you are able to see the much brighter colour of the original painted decoration, which was so vivid and almost fluorescent in places.

You can see the bright colours of the painted
decoration on the reverse of this kite,
PRM 1898.79.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Often colours in objects fade due to light, especially if they have been displayed for a long time - it is one of the problems museums battle with and is why they are often quite dark places!

One of the kites had become quite heavily soiled with particulate dust so this was cleaned using a porous sponge that traps dirt when pressed against the surface of dirty things. Some of the kites were also a little torn and broken, so some careful work to repair and back tears took place using a Japanese tissue paper which was matched in thickness and colour to the original kite paper or bamboo, depending on where the damage was and held in place with a starch paste adhesive (sodium alginate arrowroot starch paste).

The kites have been re-mounted on safer archival card backings and have been flipped so you can see the wonderful bamboo structure, as well as the colourful pigments. They will soon be re-displayed in the Museum in their safely cleaned original frames. In the meantime, you can see other examples of similar kites on display in the Lower Gallery on the first floor of the Museum.

A tear before (left) and after repair (right) PRM 1898.79.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

If you are not able to visit the Museum you can still explore the Chinese and Japanese kites in the collection via the online Museum database. Just select kite under 'keyword' and select either China or Japan under 'country' and then search.

Sophie Louise Rowe
Conservation Intern

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