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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: agatha christie (2)

Agatha's cold cream

by Kate C
Publish date
4 September 2012
Comments (2)

Legendary crime writer Dame Agatha Christie may have sold more novels than any other writer, but did you know she was also a pioneer in object conservation? Working in Iraq alongside her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan, Christie used improvised tools and cold cream originally intended for her own face to clean thousands of excavated fragments known as the Nimrud Ivories.

lid of cold cream container Lid of a 19th century ceramic cold cream container excavated from Little Lon, Melbourne and part of MV's Little Lon Collection.
Source: Museum Victoria

Cold cream is a mixture (or emulsion) of water in oil used to clean and soften the skin. Its name originates from the cold feeling left when the water component draws evaporates from the skin. But why was it useful for ivory? And is it still used for that purpose today? Senior Conservator Helen Privett helps to preserve objects in Museum Victoria's collection and she was happy to talk about contemporary tricks of the trade.

'We wouldn't use cold cream, but we use moisturising agents like it, such as polyethylene glycol which you find in modern cosmetics," says Helen. "The reason why you might use something like that is that you don't want to get ivory too wet, because it absorbs water and then expands to different degrees in different directions... a kind of multidimensional swelling which can cause cracking and distortion."

"We've got data loggers in the Mesopotamia showcases to monitor the environmental conditions. The showcases containing ivories are all set to about 55 per cent relative humidity to make sure they don't get too wet or too dry."

Approaches to artefact conservation have changed profoundly since Agatha Christie's time, and not just in terms of technological advances. There have been philosophical changes too: now the focus is on the long-term stability of the objects, which sometimes means a hands-off approach. Importantly, conservators don't necessarily clean artefacts any more.

"One issue in archaeological conservation is that you're removing objects from where they've sat for thousands of years," explains Helen. "Sometimes they're actually quite stable in that environment, and it's better to leave something buried than to bring it out of the ground." In the case of shipwrecks and certain archaeological sites, reburial of artefacts is becoming an accepted technique for preservation.

When cleaning or other treatment is required, conservators turn to a variety of materials. Many are chemicals that you might have in your own home, such as methyl cellulose (found in toothpastes, artificial tears and moisturisers) which is a useful adhesive and a poultice base, and citric acid (found in soft drinks) which is a gentle way to remove corrosion.

Woman with bucket Senior Conservator Helen Privett holding a giant bucket of citric acid in the MV Conservation Lab.
Source: Museum Victoria

Helen describes the global community of conservators as open and willing to exchange information about new conservation techniques and materials through articles and online forums. "There are some adhesives, for example, that are made specifically for the conservation industry but because it's such a small field we tend to use materials from other industries. We do a lot of testing ourselves, particularly for new environmentally sustainable display materials."

Becoming a conservator usually requires a sound background in art history combined with broad training in materials science and applied chemistry. Then there's the tricky decision about which sub-specialty to enter; conservators can specialise in particular fields such as paintings, paper, or objects. For Helen, it was a single moment that led her to object conservation – seeing the Portland Vase in the British Museum. "It's very deep, intense translucent blue glass with a carved white relief. They've never been able to replicate how it was made. This amazing object was smashed into hundreds of pieces and has been put back together numerous times, so it's got this extraordinary history of manufacture, collection and conservation. It's my inspiration."

blue and white Roman vase The Portland Vase, perhaps from Rome, Italy, about AD 5-25.
Source: © Trustees of the British Museum

Not every object is as monumental as the Portland Vase, and Museum Victoria's collection encompasses many types of materials, including a few that are notoriously difficult to conserve. When asked about her least favourite material, Helen doesn't mince words. "I love plastics, but I hate PVC. It's got what we call 'inherent vice' – it will deteriorate under any circumstances and was never meant to last. Because of the chlorides in the polymer, when it starts to deteriorate it forms hydrochloric acid and basically eats itself to death. PVC objects start to get sticky or tacky, or stuck in a certain shape and they're just a nightmare."

Further reading:

The Art of the Conservator (1992). Andrew Eddy (editor), British Museum Press, London.

Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure (2010). Amanda Adams, Greystone Books, Canada.


Murder in Mesopotamia: Agatha Christie and Archaeology forum at Melbourne Museum on Sunday 9 September

'British Museum buys 3,000-year-old ivory carvings Agatha Christie cleaned with her face cream' (Daily Mail, 8 March 2011)

Australian Historic Shipwreck Preservation Project

Conservation OnLine

Murder in Mesopotamia forum

by Bernard
Publish date
23 August 2012
Comments (2)

Bernard works part-time at Melbourne Museum devising and delivering presentations for visitors. The other part of the time he has his nose in a book, most often a comic book.

Man dressed as Hercule Poirot Bernard/Poirot with a copy of Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia.
Image: Amanda Linardon
Source: Museum Victoria

Once upon a time, I went through a voracious Agatha Christie period, and immersed myself in a fictional universe of murders daring and domestic, and solutions logical and astonishing. I still return to the Queen of Crime from time to time, for a dose of ordered worlds turned upside down, with order (and an enlarged sense of that world) reinstated by Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.

So when the chance arose to develop a forum around Agatha Christie's experiences on archaeological digs, which directly led to her happy marriage to Max Mallowan and her1936  novel Murder in Mesopotamia, I stuck on my second-best stick-on moustache and leapt in!

Drawing of man and woman Drawing of Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie in 1946.
Image: Bernard Caleo
Source: Bernard Caleo

Chairperson for the forum, Melbourne crime writer Angela Savage, explains that the idea for the forum came out of friendly banter about what to read in preparation for our Mesopotamia exhibition. "Someone suggested Murder in Mesopotamia, which I was intrigued to learn was Agatha Christie's most autobiographical novel. The more I learned about Agatha's links to archaeology, her marriage to Max Mallowan and the time they spent together on digs in the Middle East, the more intrigued I became."

Setting the scene of Agatha Christie's visits to the digs in Mesopotamia will be Henrietta McCall of the British Museum, joining us via an exclusive pre-recorded interview to show us on-site photographs of Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, and Leonard and Katherine Woolley, the leaders of the archaeological expedition.

People at archaeological dig Leonard and Katherine Woolley excavating in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, 1928
Source: By permission of the Trustees of The British Museum

Another of our panellists is crime writer Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher series of crime novels set in 1920s Melbourne (recently adapted into an ABC TV series), who will speak about the 'golden rules' that determine Christie's particular style of crime writing. Kerry will also speak about the fascination that the ancient world holds for her as a fictional setting – both she and Christie have set murder mysteries in Ancient Egypt.

The CEO of Museum Victoria, Patrick Greene, also an experienced archaeologist, is our other panellist. Dr Greene's experiences on archaeological digs and his recent travels to Egypt will figure in the panel discussions.

"The relationships between life and art, between detective fiction and archaeology, and how the allure of ancient worlds finds expression in popular art forms suggests rich material for discussion," says Angela Savage. "To be able to assemble such a distinguished panel feels like quite a coup."

It's great to have an opportunity to fill out my knowledge of the fascinating life of Agatha Christie, and I have it on good authority that our friend M. Poirot may indeed make an appearance at the forum, exercising his famous 'little grey cells'.

Man dressed as Hercule Poirot Hercule Poirot. Or some manifestation thereof.
Image: Amanda Linardon
Source: Museum Victoria

The Murder in Mesopotamia forum is presented by Melbourne Museum and Sisters in Crime Australia on Sunday 9 September, 2.00-3.30pm.

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