The use of harmful adhesives in historic dollhouses is controversial as it poses risks to museum objects’ longevity. It is for this reason that a previous post on the dollhouse at Winterthur explained in depth the method we developed to avoid the use of any adhesives. However, many miniatures other than wall décor required innovative securing methods. To be clear, we could have chosen the easy way out, a plan that would have saved us days, even weeks, in our tight schedule, producing a final result that would have looked almost exactly the same. We could have secured everything with large amounts of museum wax. From its name, you may be able to tell that it is commonly used in museums and is widely trusted to hold objects in place in the event of vibrations, even earthquakes. But that wasn’t good enough for the dollhouse. Why you may ask?
First, the majority of our time has been spent cleaning excess wax off of the miniatures and out of the dollhouse. Excess wax isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it does provide a conveniently sticky surface for dust and grime to attach to and build up on over time. Second, as we learned from our own experience, wax loses its effectiveness on small surface areas. This means if the smallest miniatures in the dollhouse had been secured with wax, they could potentially break loose and become lost quite easily. This would be tragic as our smallest miniatures are also some of our most valuable. The tiny sterling silver flatware in the dining room posed the largest challenge. The pieces are so tiny, it was often easier to handle the 48 pieces of miniature silver, including salad and entrée forks, soup and dessert spoons, knives, and even napkin rings with tweezers rather than gloved fingers.
So how did we secure all these miniature pieces? We made placemats! Even though we were technically adding an unoriginal element to the house, we came to the conclusion that sewing the silver pieces in place would be significantly better for both the silver itself and the table than using a sticky adhesive or wax. Using one of the many handkerchiefs among the extraneous items donated with the dollhouse, we fashioned eight placemats from its lace trimming. In a way, we were following the lead of Nancy (the original dollhouse owner) because, as we later discovered, she had used a similar handkerchief as a bed sheet in the girl’s bedroom. After 18 hours, the flatware was sewed to placemats, and the placemats were sewn to each other, all with a thin, hardly visible polyester thread. Those teeny tiny spoons are not going anywhere now.
Another issue with wax is the way it embeds itself into textiles. Among the miniature textiles in the dollhouse, the most notable are the 17 needlepoint rugs made by Nancy herself. Apparently she was never without a needlepoint project in her hands. We recently learned that she had a regimen of creating one rug each winter for her beloved dollhouse, often consulting with friends over patterns and color choices. Unfortunately, these rugs slide when the dollhouse is moved, endangering the numerous pieces of miniature furniture resting on them. Preventing movement of the rugs during the migration from storage out into the stair hall for its display during Yuletide at Winterthur was of particular importance. Wax would certainly have solved this, but we wanted to create a barrier between the textile and wax. Our solution was to acquire 68, super-thin earth magnets, four for each rug, measuring ¼” x ¼” x 1/32″ thick. Two of these magnets were sewn under the front two corners of each rug. The magnets’ counterparts were then waxed to the floor. This solution, in addition to avoiding direct contact between wax and textile, carried with it the benefit that the rugs can be easily removed from the rooms. We would only need to release the magnets in the front and slide the rug out. Additionally, when we want to put the rug back in the same location as before, it simply snaps into place.
It is our hope that the methods we developed to secure these and other items in the dollhouse are equally safe and subtle. We can’t wait for the unveiling of the dollhouse on November 19, when we hope the public will be as captivated by this dollhouse as we are.
Post by Karissa Muratore and Amanda Kasman, University of Delaware Art Conservation undergraduates who completed a summer internship at Winterthur Museum preparing the dollhouse for display.
The unveiling of this fabulous 18-room dollhouse, charmingly decorated for the holidays, coincides with the opening of this year’s Yuletide at Winterthur on November 19!
[Sources for link to tiny magnets]