Museum disaster!

Argh. The past week has been a nightmare.

We had a major disaster at the Museum last week; vibrations from hammering being done in a gallery under renovation behind our Oriental Arts area dislodged a late Qing period blue-and-white vase. It fell off its display shelf… and shattered.

Those of you reading this who know their Chinese wares, pick yourselves up off the floor, please and thank you. Here, let me help you up while I explain. You okay? Okay.

It was far from being as astronomically-valued as many might think — it came to us in fragments from an archaeological dig in Santa Ana, Manila (on the site of the Santa Ana Church), and was re-assembled. So when it broke, it broke along the original fragment lines, but it also fragmented into smaller pieces.

After I recovered from my heart attack, I had our maintenance guys remove the glass display panel, and we removed the pieces. Everything had to be fully photo-documented, of course, and was.

The thing about this disaster is that the building we occupy is the first earthquake-proof building in the country, built in 1927 using Japanese earthquake technology, such as it was at that time. The building itself is not one entire structure, but is in fact made up of forty (yes, 40) pieces, separated by about an inch of space, and the tower in the center discrete from the surrounding structure by about six. The spaces in between are filled with tar and gravel to prevent leaks, and this allows the building's pieces to just sway together instead of crumbling into pieces during an earthquake, when shear and vibration would simply crack a solid structure like an egg.

The Museum is located in the center of the building, and I've been there through three earthquakes, and we've never lost an object. Not once, not a scratch.

This is an inexcusable occurrence, and serves as a painful and valuable lesson in disaster preparedness and collection management.

So anyway, I took the pieces upstairs to the office and for the past several days, I've been documenting each fragment. Photographed, measured, cleaned, and the remnants of a horrible white epoxy cement originally used to re-assemble the original bits were ever-so-slowly chipped away.

The original "restoration" was a horribly botched job, and quite possibly the silver lining here is that the vase may be restored to a better condition than before this accident happened. I've sat hunched over my worktable, latex-gloved hands cradling a fragment, picking at the epoxy chunks for nearly a week now. It's slow going, but I'm very happy with the results.

Whoever had put the pieces together previously had just slathered on the epoxy and slapped the pieces together, without even cleaning off the amount that had oozed out on either side of the vase's surface. So you can imagine the chunks of uneven epoxy I had to chip away. You have to do it very gently, so as not to damage the glaze or the porcelain itself. The epoxy has to come off, if the pieces are to be put together again. Otherwise, the over-applied amounts of epoxy will create an uneven surface and the edges won't fit together exactly.

I'm about halfway done, with the largest fragments cleaned off, packed in aerogel, labeled and stored. The next few days will be murder, because I'm getting down to the smallest fragments, and the smaller they get, they harder they are to handle — the sharp edges cut into my latex gloves and I've gone through three pairs already.

It's a sublime experience, actually, caring for these objects. The disaster itself is heartbreaking for a museum worker like me, but being able to take care of the pieces and care for them properly is a tiny comfort. Some people may wonder how a person can be passionate about museum work, but when you see it as working at a crossroads of culture, history, science and art (all of which consume me), then it's no stretch at all.

Plus, it's a good thing I'm obsessive-compulsive… 🙂



  1. shepherd said,

    Saturday, April 8, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    I know this is long after the fact but wouldn’t a solvent have helped you dissolve the extra, uneven epoxy. I know some solvents are harsh but I work with some very gentle solvents. Maybe it was a time issue as these gentle solvents are slow to work but mixed with surfactants that issue can be helped.

  2. miranoriel said,

    Sunday, April 9, 2006 at 8:59 am

    I know — I was looking for a good solvent, but couldn’t find one that was gentle enough and easily available. Trouble was, the epoxy required a pretty strong solvent, which might damage the glaze or the porcelain itself. Dental equipment comes in handy for these situations, particularly when the fragments are really small, less than three-quarters of an inch across, but all gunked-up with that confounded epoxy.

    Sigh. I know the original restorer meant well, but good intentions are often not the same as the right actions to take. *shrug*

  3. shepherd said,

    Sunday, April 9, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    Base oil properly mixed with a surfactant would have done the trick but the process would have been painfully slow.

  4. miranoriel said,

    Sunday, April 9, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    Well, gee. NOW he tells me. LOL

    Thankya big-big all the same, sai.

  5. Shepherd said,

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006 at 12:56 pm

    Well ya’ have to use JUST the right amount of surfactant or you could really screw something up. I don’t measure so precisely as I don’t deal with such delicate items. I’d hate to advise as to the ratio.

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