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William Brown gets a make over!

18 January 2010 by Lisa

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s always good to start the new year by having a bit of a spruce up – whether it’s spring cleaning or a bit of a make over! We’re used to giving important objects a new lease of life here at National Museums Liverpool and this week we have Sculpture Conservator, Lottie Barnden, to tell us about the work she’s been doing to help celebrate the World Museum’s 150th anniversary


Half cleaned marble bust of William Brown

William Brown sculpture during cleaning

To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of William Brown’s gift of a library and museum to the city of Liverpool, a marble bust of the man himself has been brought out of storage for conservation treatment, prior to going out on public display. This portrait bust by Isaac Jackson was sculpted in 1851, just nine years before the William Brown Library was completed.

When it arrived at the sculpture conservation studios, it was thought to be one of the filthiest objects we’ve had in for a long time! I suspect that it hasn’t been cleaned since it was first made. The bust section is attached to a socle (a type of small round plinth) using a section of copper dowel. The plaster fill around this dowel has become brittle and loose and the bust now wobbles and turns on its base, making it quite unstable and unsuitable for going on public display as it is.

The first thing for me to is to take the bust off the socle and remove the copper dowel. This is a procedure we often perform on the older marble busts as the copper or iron pieces that were used as fixings in the 18th and 19th centuries corrode over time and the rusting can migrate into the marble causing deep staining. The dowel will be replaced with a new one in stainless steel.

Next I can begin the cleaning. When an object as dirty as this comes in it is very rewarding to see the dramatic difference that a good clean can make to it. It is often the case that the layers of dirt can obscure the fine detail of the carving or the cleaning process can reveal more problems with the sculpture than you originally saw. Happily, with this bust, the marble itself is in good enough condition that I can use a type of precision steam cleaner to gently clean away the years of soiling and museum dust. There are some paint splashes found below the dirt but these can be cleaned off using a solvent treatment and there are no other nasty surprises to be found.

Once the bust has been cleaned and restored back onto its socle, all that remains is for it to be given a protective coating of wax to keep the dust and dirt separate from the marble surface. 

This will help to keep Sir William Brown looking his best for the celebrations! The bust should be ready for display in February, so keep a look out for him at the World Museum.


If you have any memories of the World Museum from either the past or present, then we’d like to hear from you! If you have a specific date that sticks in your mind, then all the better. You can submit your memories as a comment at the bottom of this post.

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