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The New Place Big Clean and Conserve Project

154 white bronze plaques line the site of Shakespeare’s New Place. How do we keep them ship-shape and shiny?

Katie Morrison

In 2017 New Place was a hive of activity. Through the summer months, the Conservation Team began a project to clean, protect, and conserve the white bronze plaques, or ‘Sonnet Darts’, that line the site. The darts memorialise each one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, and we have 6 markers for his longer poems as well. White bronze is an alloy containing zinc, alongside the usual copper and tin, and this creates a beautiful white shiny metal, more akin in looks to silver than traditional yellow bronze. 

The challenge we faced; battling against the build-up of tarnish that was making the darts difficult to read. We needed to find a way to bring the Sonnets back to their shining best, and keep surface scratching scarce. 

The plan; to test various methods of tarnish removal, and ways to seal in the darts to keep them clear and readable. 

Uncleaned Sonnet Dart
The cleaning process underway

Starting in June 2017, we began a period of testing with some of the darts that were a little more tucked away, and that had gathered a large amount of tarnish due to their proximity with surrounding flowerbeds. We used a substance called ‘PreLim’, a museum grade metal burnisher that is used to polish collections items at heritage sites across the UK. With a bit of elbow grease, and quite a few cloths, we found that this was successfully removing the tarnish, without causing any obvious scratching to the dart’s surface. 

With the tarnish removal sorted, we now looked to seal in the shine. Many museum items are waxed, to protect their surface from dust and debris. ‘Renaissance Wax’ is often used for this purpose, and has been used to protect many of the items that are on display across the Shakespeare Houses. However, to withstand the rain, hail, snow, and shoes of our wonderful visitors, a tougher solution was needed. 

The first substance that we tried was a liquid ceramic usually used on car paintwork. This claimed to be water repellent, scratch resistant, and boasted years of durability. Throughout July 2017, differing amounts and thickness of the ceramic was applied to our tester darts, to see how it would hold up in busy conditions. It did quite well as the summer crowds began to appear. However, we needed a more permanent solution.

Come August, we began testing a second type of liquid ceramic; this one originally designed for the metalwork of sports cars. This substance was designed to create a more permanent bond with the metal surface, was hydro-phobic, and resistant to heat, and also boasted a chemical resistance that should limit the presence of tarnish or rust. We found that rather than applying several layers of our first ceramic coating, with this, we could apply one layer and be done; after 4 hours of drying, the sonnet was sealed. 

On 7th September 2017, we held a Big Sonnet Dart Cleaning event, inviting colleagues from around the Trust to join the Conservation Team for the day to polish, shine, and seal the darts. At the close of the day we had gotten through roughly 30% of the site, and over the next couple of weeks ended up making it a third of the way through in total. Unfortunately, the beautiful weather we experienced in early autumn was on the turn, and before long cold temperatures and rain put the project on pause. 

Over the winter the darts were put through a wringer of freezing conditions and snow. There were times when we were worried our experiment would fail. What if the seal isn’t thick enough? What if it cracks in the cold? Then, as the ice melted away, we were able to see that the darts hadn’t just survived; they had thrived. Although not quite as shiny as before the winter, when compared to the untreated darts, the difference was clear. Our testing had been a success, and we now had a clear and concise treatment plan to keep the darts in tip-top condition.

Cleaned Sonnet Dart
A finished dart, with perfectly timed rainbow

This year, we relaunched this endeavour bigger and better than ever as The New Place Big Clean and Conserve Project, and if you visited New Place over the summer you may have come across our team, with volunteers from around the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, hard at work. Each dart can take between 15 minutes, up to an hour, dependent on anything from its proximity to plant-life or angle of the floor, and each needs 4 hours kept free of footprints and rain to allow the seal to set; no small task! 

The New Place Conservation Team would like to extend a big thank you, firstly to all the volunteers who have helped with this project, and also to the wonderful visitors to New Place for their questions, support, and patience, as we occasionally had to re-route them around the garden to avoid stepping on freshly cleaned darts!