Fake it ‘til you make it

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Here in the Conservation Lab we’re pretty serious about artifacts. When we treat an artifact we’re guided by a code of ethics that tells us, among other things, that our actions should not permanently remove, alter or obscure any part of an object. But what happens when vital parts of an artifact are missing? That’s when we fake it, and it’s the point where ethics become really important. We’re not trying to create forgeries or be fraudulent; our goal is to stabilize the artifact without creating visual distractions. Sometimes it’s more work than using original materials.

We recently had to “fake it” while treating losses on an early 19th century beehive. The hive is made of coils of straw bound together with flattened sapling “stitches.” Along a section of the lower edge, the sapling stitches were broken with part of each stitch missing and some of the original straw also missing (figure 1). We couldn’t use new saplings to stitch the straw back in place because then we would have to remove the original bit of sapling stitch remaining in each stitch hole, and we didn’t want to use new straw to replace the losses because it might be mistaken for the original.

Fake straw was made by cutting thin strips of Japanese tissue paper, wetting the strips, twisting them in to shape and drying them under tension. We made about 100 pieces of fake straw. After drying, the fake straw was adhered to the broken ends of the original straw along the outer edge of the coil. Additional fake straw was simply inserted into the core of the coil to provide bulk and approximate the original size of the coil. In Figure 2, you can see that some of the fake straw has been attached, and some is still on the table. Strips of sanded polyester film were adhered to the remaining pieces of sapling stitches to secure all of the original and fake straw into the shape of a coil.

The strips of sanded polyester film holding the coil together were disguised by small pieces of two-ply mat board that were cut and painted to match the appearance of the original sapling stitches. They were then adhered to the surface of the polyester film. In the close-up of Figure 3, you can see original straw and an original sapling stitch on the left and to the right is the fake straw and several fake sapling stitches.

When complete (figure 4), the strips of fake saplings stabilized the original straw to prevent additional loss of straw, and the fake straw gives the correct shape and support for the damaged coil. Once upright again, the beehive was ready for exhibition (figure 5). You can see the beehive in person in our Level 2 galleries.

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