How to clean a 124-year-old model ship

We have recently completed the conservation of two of our ship models. It may sound unusual that the National Railway Museum collection includes maritime artefacts – but bear in mind that over the past 100 years, ferry services played a significant role in maintaining links with Continental Europe and were usually owned by railway companies.

Both objects (paddle steamers Paris – built in 1888 – and Whippingham) are on long term loan to the Bluebell Railway Museum in Sussex. Bluebell Railway comprises three preserved railway stations: Sheffield Park, Horsted Keynes and Kingscote. The museum has been recently given a full revamp and is definitely worth a visit.


In October 2009, Tony Drake, the curator of Bluebell Railway Museum, contacted us about the need for conservation treatment of the models, and improvement of the display.

We responded with a conservation plan that included the transportation of the models to Blythe House in London (one of the largest storage facilities in the country), showcase refurbishment in Bluebell’s famous wood workshop, and conservation treatments.

Without getting into the specifics, the treatments included:

  • careful vacuuming of fragile rigging and deck components
  • removal of stains caused from a water leak
  • the painstaking reassembly of tiny planks, paddles and hooks on Whippingham’s lifeboats.
  • identification of several detached parts and fitting them back in place
  • removal of nickel and copper corrosion from railing, portholes etc

At the same time, Bluebell joiners carried out a sympathetic refurbishment of the showcases in compliance with our conservation specification.

The last task of the whole operation was the return of the models back to Horsted Keynes, where they were reunited with their showcases. We also applied a UV/safety film on Whippingham’s showcase to protect the model from the effects of direct sunlight until it’s moved to its new light-controlled home in Sheffield Park station.

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About Stathis Tsolis, NRM Conservator

Conservation Manager (NRM) MA Historical Archaeology, University of Bristol, 2007 BA Conservation of Antiquities & Works of Art (TEI Athens, GR)
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