No Monkey tricks here! – conserving a Wirth’s advertising sign for Circus Factory

Before treatment photo showing the poor condition of object 2012/104/38
Before treatment photo showing the poor condition of the object

This advertising sign from the Wirth’s Circus collection is currently on display in the Circus Factory exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Wirth’s Circus was founded by the four Wirth brothers around 1880. It became one of the world’s great circuses.The sign, which dates from the 1930’s, would have been displayed in a prominent position in the town at which the circus had arrived. It is made from cardboard with a wooden frame and was in very poor condition. Paper conservator, Rebecca Main carried out a variety of treatments on this object to stabilise and consolidate it for display. As there were exhibition time constraints, the treatment involved cleaning and consolidation of weakened areas. Further treatment with infilling loss areas may be done at a later date.

The sign consists of two sheets of black paper, with cut out, printed illustrations adhered to it and hand painted lettering and line work. The black paper is adhered to the cardboard backing in most places, although there are wrinkles. The paper is quite distorted, has splits, areas of loss, extensive dirt, dust, insect or spider silk, silk cocoons, termite dirt and sticky deposits. Areas of the frame are rotten, with loose pieces and many termite tunnels.

Close-up of the termite dirt and lichen and the area after cleaning
Close-up of the termite dirt and lichen and the area after cleaning

The front of the object was initially surfaced cleaned by brush vacuuming. Further dirt and lichen were removed mechanically, using a scalpel and by swabbing with cotton buds dampened with deionised water. Some fragments and deposits were left as removing them would damage the paper object.

Before treatment and after cleaning and stabilising the hole with Japanese tissue paper and starch paste
Before treatment and after cleaning and stabilising the hole with Japanese tissue paper and starch paste

The loose, small paper fragments were re-adhered using dots of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate). Torn areas of paper that were curling up, were dampened and weighted with mountboard and glass weights to flatten them. Japanese tissue paper was inserted behind the areas of loss and was adhered with starch paste (a reversible process) to stabilise them. The tissue paper was not trimmed in places because it will be needed when the loss areas are infilled at a later date.

Before and after cleaning, stabilising and consolidation of the wooden frame
Before and after cleaning, stabilising and repairing the paper edges and consolidatng the wooden frame

The white lettering paint that was flaky in many places, was successfully consolidated with Bermacol EHEC (ethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose) 2% w/v plus ethanol 2.5ml.

The white, flaky paint was consolidated to prevent further loss
The white, flaky paint was consolidated to prevent further loss

The back of the object was surface cleaned. Large areas of termite dirt were removed with satay sticks, dental tools and a scalpel. The corroded nails were cleaned with a phosphor bronze brush and swabbed with petroleum spirits. The wooden frame was also surface cleaned and the frame was consolidated by injecting 20-80 Paraloid B72 in toluene into the rotten and fragile sections of the wood.

This object has had a harsh but interesting life, exposed to the outside environment. It tells a great story and it is wonderful to see it preserved and stabilised and on display in the Circus Factory exhibition.

The stabilised sign photographed in the exhibition
The stabilised sign photographed in the Circus Factory exhibition

Postscript: The after treatment photos were taken in the exhibition space, hence the difference in colour rendering.

Written by Kate Chidlow, Conservator

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2 responses to “No Monkey tricks here! – conserving a Wirth’s advertising sign for Circus Factory

  • Dear Kate,

    Thank you for publishing this information about this advertisement used by The Wirth circus. I found the information published highly useful for an assignment I am currently doing for my university studies. The Assignment I am doing is a on site performance piece based on the Wirth circus, I am interested in using this particular piece in the form of a poster/ re creation of the piece that I would create myself and was wondering where/whom I would contact in regards to copyright issues of the advertisement?

    Kind Regards,
    Emma Ring

    • Hello Emma,
      Great to know the bog was helpful for you. Our Photo Librarian will be in touch with you directly.
      All the best,
      Tilly Boleyn, Curator

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