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The Winter Deep Clean

Conservation in action at Shakespeare’s Houses, part II: the winter deep clean process

Katie Morrison

Now is the winter of our deep cleaning
Make glorious the houses that host the Bard;
And all the dust that lay upon the room
In the deep cracks of the beams buried.
Now will be found with victorious vacuum;

– From Richard III… reimagined slightly…

Visitors to the SBT sites over the winter might be privy to some significant activity going on throughout these colder months; the annual Winter Deep Clean.

What does this mean?

Our Conservation Teams will be getting into every corner, looking behind every piece of furniture, and putting their heads up chimneys, to get rid of the dust, dirt, and debris that naturally builds up in our historic houses as we welcome so many visitors throughout the year.

But why the winter?

In the winter we are generally quieter, and our opening hours change to reflect the fewer hours of daylight that we have as well. This means that the conservation team can begin their work early in the morning, and make a huge mess before visitors begin to arrive!

So how do we do it?

Smaller pieces of furniture, artefacts from our collections, and our replica pieces are removed from the room being cleaned. These have to be left in safe areas, often on protective plastazote foam, and in spaces where they won’t be accidentally knocked over. These will be dusted down separately before they are placed back in the room. Larger pieces of furniture that are simply too big to be quickly and safely moved are covered with dust sheets to protect them from the fallout of the deep clean.

If necessary, when tackling particularly large areas, barriers are set up to ensure that visitors don’t find themselves walking into an unsafe area, or an area where dust is falling like snow! Our conservation teams wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), including dust masks and goggles, to ensure their safety when working in particularly grubby areas, such as attic spaces and chimneys.

Wooden beams, ceilings and walls are brushed down with long handled brushes, gently removing built up dust and spider webs without damaging the delicate plaster or paintwork. Once the top of the room is finished, skirting boards, areas under or behind pieces of furniture, and our few modern additions such as radiators are also brushed down. Even the window frames are brushed down, using a much softer pony hair brush, to ensure that the glass is not inadvertently scratched.

Where it is safe and possible, a valiant member of the team will place themselves inside the fireplace and brush down within an arm’s length, being careful not to dislodge any loose pieces of brick, bringing down a veritable cascade of dust, soot, and dirt. Though we do not encourage climbing up the chimney akin to a Victorian sweep!

Chimney Nash's House
A rare view up one of the chimneys of Nash’s House, the historic house that forms the Exhibition Centre at our New Place site.

All the fallout from this activity ends up on floor, where it is then hoovered up. However, even this process must be done with care, as many floors in historic houses contain loose or wobbly parts, which we don’t really want to be rescuing from a dusty vacuum bag. If any pieces of wall, plaster, brick, or floor, are found to have come unattached through the year, these are carefully bagged, labelled, and stored.

Once the room is clear of all this flotsam and jetsam, it is time to gently dust and bring back in any furniture that was removed, followed by smaller items. Some, such as any metal work, might be given a coat of Renaissance Wax, a microcrystalline wax that stops dust and other abrasives adversely affecting the surface of collections items.

Finally, barriers are removed, signage is replaced, we put all of our conservation tools away, and have a well-earned cup of tea!

Conservation sign
One of our conservation signs, if you spot one of these during your visit, a member of the Conservation Team is near!

Sometimes work at the sites is finished before our first visitors arrive, but more often, our conservation teams are busying away while guests are enjoying their visit. If you do see one of us during your visit Shakespeare’s Houses, feel free to ask any questions about how the Trust takes care of these important historic sites. We are happy to chat!

(Conservation Team members are identifiable by their uniform, the sign they put out in areas they are working in, and a fine layer of dust that clings to them at all times.)

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