As creator of the dollhouse that will go on display November 19 at Winterthur, Nancy McDaniel sought perfection in every detail, down to the miniature wall decor. Among the 128 tiny pieces positioned on the walls are watercolor and oil paintings (signed and dated by the artist), antique ambrotypes and tintypes, needlepoints, clocks, mirrors, and even bell-pulls.
When Winterthur received the dollhouse, all of these items were secured to the wall with a combination of wax and Blu-Tack, also known as poster putty, which reflects a common practice among miniature enthusiasts. While wax is a non-toxic, non-acidic, microcrystalline material, it is not very strong and remains sticky for a long time. The problem with excess sticky material is that it provides the perfect environment for dust and grime to build up, which we would like to prevent as much as possible. Blu-Tack, on the other hand, is novel in its strength, being able to suspend heavy objects on vertical surfaces, while remaining reversible. However, research suggests Blu-Tack poses risks to dollhouse interiors as it deteriorates. The material, coined a “re-usable adhesive” by Bostik, the corporation that makes it, is not designed to last several decades, ultimately losing its adhesive quality. Additionally, chemical decomposition of Blu-Tack can lead to staining of porous materials such as wall paper and the paper backs of the tiny paintings. Both loss of adhesion and staining were observed on pieces of miniature wall decor in Nancy’s dollhouse, so an alternative to Blu-Tack and wax was desired. Not only would this new method of hanging need to be resistant to change in the years to come, it would also have to withstand vibrations since the dollhouse needs to be rolled between its place of storage to its place of display in the stairhall of the museum galleries at least twice a year, if not more.
In the end, we came to the same conclusion as the conservators at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green; the miniature paintings should be hung like full-size paintings, from nails and wire. While we are not exactly sure how the V&A implemented this technique on their own dollhouse collection, we fashioned custom-made, stainless steel, T-shaped armatures to gently clamp around each piece of wall decor. Each armature also included a stainless steel eye pin at its top that interlocked with a head pin, which acted as a tiny nail. Though these small head pins are inserted into the wall, forever altering the dollhouse, we decided the advantages of hanging with corrosion-resistant wire armatures outweigh the dangers of sticky materials that would permanently stain the hanging decor and walls or attract dust and grime. Ultimately, the wall decor would not be moved or rearranged because it was decided that the house should stay as close as possible to the way it was originally decorated. Thus, the possibility of having to fill and inpaint the tiny holes, though easily done, is highly unlikely.
The only piece of wall décor that we intentionally changed, in fact, was upon the request of Nancy’s husband Jack McDaniel. In the year 2000, a friend of theirs, Molly Dickinson, made a lovely miniature portrait of Nancy as a gift and entitled it Lady of the Manor. While Nancy loved it, she was too modest to hang a picture of herself in the dollhouse. Now, replacing the lovely gold mirror that once hung over the dining table is The Lady of the Manor. We hung Nancy’s portrait using the same method we hung all the other pieces of wall decor, and the solution appears to be a success. The pieces of wall decor can swing but pose no danger of falling and damaging items below. We hope we have arrived at the best solution to keep these miniatures “hanging in the balance.”
Jensen, Karen. Autumn 2014. “Small Stories: Dolls’ Houses Exhibition.” In Conservation Journal 62: 3. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/autumn-2014-issue-62/small-stories-dolls-houses-exhibition/. 02-13-2016.
Miller, Steven and Susanna Pancaldo. “A Sticky Problem Resolved – The Removal of Blu-Tack and Other Putty Adhesives from Objects at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.” In Icon News: The Magazine of the Magazine of the Institute of Conservation, Issue 4 (04/27/2006): 47.