Coming clean

by Alexis North, Williams Project Conservator

The renovation of our Mexico and Central America gallery will involve the conservation and installation of over 200 objects. Some are currently on display in the gallery, but many have never been exhibited before. One of these “new” objects (actually acquired from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893) is this carved stone figure from Ecuador. It depicts a human man, possibly a king, seated on a throne.

Before treatment views of 12676, a stone figure from Ecuador.

It has an overall dark, somewhat shiny surface. At first glance, it looks like it may have been carved from a smooth black stone like hematite. However, once I was able to look at the figure more closely in the lab, I could tell there was something suspicious about its surface and overall appearance. The surface had a waxy feel, and upon closer inspection, I could see spots of wax on the surface. These waxy areas were very visible under ultraviolet light:

UV fluorescence image of the proper right side of the figure. The bright yellow-white spots are wax.

When I looked at the bottom of the figure, my suspicions were confirmed. Here you can see the bottoms of the feet of the figure and chair, which appear lighter and grey, and much more like stone than the odd waxy sheen of the rest of the surface.

Before treatment image of the bottom of the figure, showing the true surface and appearance of the stone.

I talked to the American section curator, keeper, and other conservators here in the lab, and we all agreed that this type of figure would not have had any sort of surface coating applied during its original use. It is likely that at some point after excavation, the piece was coated to give it more of an even, dark, shiny surface, which was seen as desirable by art dealers and collectors at the time, followed by a wax as a “protective” layer.

In order to prepare this object for display in our new gallery, the old surface coating had to go. It was misrepresentative of the object’s appearance, and the wax was collecting dust and grime. After our incredibly successful gel cleaning workshop with Professor Richard Wolbers, I decided that an emulsion gel would be ideal for removing this old coating.

I started by testing a number of aqueous cleaning solutions in a rigid agar gel. Small punches of gel with each solution were placed on the surface of the figure, and allowed to sit for 20 minutes. The small pores in the agar gel help it act as a sponge, holding the solutions against the surface and pulling the surface coating into the gel using capillary action.

During (left) and after (right) testing different cleaning solutions with a rigid agar gel.

The agar gel samples, after removing them from the figure’s surface.

And the results of my tests were pretty clear! All the solutions tested were successful in removing some of the surface coating (which is unusual!) but Solution A (deionized water with 0.5% citric acid, buffered to a pH of 6.0) clearly pulled the most grime and surface coating away. I performed a second test using Solution A in a xanthan gum gel, which is viscous but not rigid, resists penetration into the surface it is applied to, and has an emulsifying behavior when agitated which helps to pull out and hold on to the material being removed.

I also tested several solvents on the surface, and found that iso-octane would remove the wax, and acetone and benzyl alcohol both cleared some of the grime. I decided to make a xanthan gel mixture utilizing both cleaning Solution A and a combination of iso-octane and benzyl alcohol. This mixture, when tested on the surface, very successfully removed the surface coating better than Solution A on its own, revealing a lighter, gray-green micaceous stone underneath.

The results from testing xanthan gel mixtures by swabbing them on the surface.

Once the cleaning method was identified, it was simply a matter of systematically removing the coating. I worked in sections, by first applying a layer of octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4), a silicone-based solvent which does not mix with water or the solvents used in the gel. The D4 fills the pores of the stone, and acts as a barrier that keeps the gel, solvents, or surface coating from penetrating into the stone during cleaning. Then I brushed on the xanthan gel mixture, and gently agitated it with a paintbrush over the surface to pull up the surface coating. Once the gel had turned a dirty brown, indicating that it pulled up the coating (see below), I removed the gel with cotton swabs and then cleared the area with deionized water. It was an extremely satisfying, if a bit goopy, process.

Left: After the left side of the seat was cleaned using the xanthan gel. Right: The cleared gel, you can see how dirty it got!

And here are some before and after photos of the figure. The difference is so clear! I believe the coating may have been applied to obscure the scratches you can see on the front of the figure, but overall it looks so much better now that the original material is visible.

After treatment images of the figure.

Front view after (left) and before (right) cleaning.

You can see this figure when we open our new Mexico and Central America gallery in late 2018!