Polishing silver at the museum

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

In period dramas like Downton Abbey, footmen or maids get the dreadful task of polishing the silver. Culbertson Mansion doesn’t have staff hidden in the basement ready to polish the silver; instead, that work is done in the Conservation Lab at the Indiana State Museum. Here in the Conservation Lab, we don’t think of polishing silver objects as drudgery, because we don’t have to polish the same object more than once every 10 years. How do we get away with it? We have a secret ingredient.

Tarnished silver: a punishment for footmen since time began.

Tarnished silver: a punishment for footmen since time began.

Removing the layers of corrosion on silver objects is entirely done by hand with just de-ionized water, precipitated chalk and small pieces of cotton wadding. Once the corrosion layers are removed, the object is carefully rinsed and dried. All of that is pretty much in keeping with Downton-style polishing. The trick up our sleeve is to apply a lacquer coating onto the freshly polished silver. The lacquer prevents a new layer of corrosion from forming on the silver, sealing the shiny silver from things in the environment that might cause corrosion to form again. Unfortunately, the coating isn’t

With all those stubborn nooks and crannies, we’re lucky it won’t need our attention again for a decade.

With all those stubborn nooks and crannies, we’re lucky it won’t need our attention again for a decade.

strong enough to withstand normal household use; it’s meant for objects that get the “white glove” treatment at museums and historic sites. Our most recent polishing project was this lovely silver coffee urn, which took three pairs of hands and many hours to complete.

So, bring out your silver, try on your British accent, and keep regularly polishing at home. Look for the coffee urn to make its appearance at Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site.

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2 Responses

  1. What type of lacquer coating do you use?

  2. Hi Jennie! Agateen Lacquer #27. It’s a cellulose nitrate in a mix of solvents. Application must be done in a fume hood or under some kind of drawn air situation. It takes several days to really set, because some of the solvents are so slow to evaporate. But the leveling is really nice for that reason.

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