Powerful Encounters: Surveying and Treating Paediatric Plaster Casts at the UCL Pathology Museum

By Thea Christopherson

Photos courtesy of Maria Melendez, Emilie Tréhu, and Jan Cutajar

This autumn, the MSc Year 1 students ventured to the Royal Free Hospital to survey new ‘patients’ for treatment – a collection of late 19th century plaster models of paediatric patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), now housed in the UCL Pathology Collections. The casts have a ‘sober’ aesthetic, painted white and lacking ornamentation, that matches their subject matter. Originally used by physicians and students at GOSH in the 19th Century for teaching, learning, and research about contemporary medical practice, they continue to provide three-dimensional representations for UCL medical students of physiological deformities and ailments that remain prevalent today.

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Two of the plaster casts of late-19th century paediatric patients from GOSH. Above: the arm of a 12-year-old girl with rickets. Below: the left leg of a 7-year-old boy with talipes equino-varus (a club foot).

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Our work with the plaster casts began with a full in situ collection survey, conducted every Friday for five weeks, to investigate the condition and packaging of the casts, and to aid the Curator, Subhadra Das, and UCL Museums’ Senior Conservator, Susi Pancaldo, in selecting specific casts for a planned exhibition at the museum. The main expectation for the project was to determine if the casts were safe to be handled, stable, and fit for display. Initially, we conducted a pilot survey of 10 objects in order to discuss encountered issues and establish categories of information to include. As pairs of two students surveyed the pilot objects, each team came back to the group with slightly different recommendations. Integrating each set of observations was an illuminating learning experience when we realised the need to agree on very specific definitions for words we were used to using casually, such as ‘abraded’ vs. ‘scratched,’ in order to ensure consistency across teams when conducting the full survey. This process proved to be very helpful for creating a survey form customised specifically to the plaster cast collection. We also decided that the surveying would continue to be conducted by groups of two, with the remaining student acting as ‘quality controller,’ moving between the groups to ensure consistency of method.

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The three teams of two, hard at work carrying out the survey at the UCL Pathology Collection in the Royal Free Hospital.

During the survey, we were confronted by the powerful impact of the deformed body parts of children hidden away in archival boxes and acid-free tissue. In contrast to a photograph, the physicality of each individual cast certainly portrayed the pain and suffering of the individual patient very vividly, and affected many of us emotionally. While examining each cast with an eye for structural and surface damage during the survey, it became possible to let the fact slip that these pieces represented the forms of real children. Notwithstanding this, we made an effort to treat the objects with respect for their history, aided by the ability to identify some of the patients by name and age in the collection records.

After the survey, each student chose an object (from those already selected for exhibition) for individual treatment. As a group, we formulated a collective conservation approach based on Subhadra’s request that the objects retain visual evidence of use and manufacture, including years of disuse in museum stores, but also be stable enough for handling and display. We agreed on a treatment of gentle, superficial surface cleaning to a minimal extent in order to preserve the casts’ historic appearance while also highlighting the clinical aesthetic of the white painted surfaces. Additionally, we had to remove enough soiling that it would not become mobile during surface relaying, which we undertook with white spirit and a 50% v/v mixture of Lascaux MFC (an aqueous acrylic dispersion) in de-ionised water.

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Emilie doing surface relaying with white spirit and 50% v/v Lascaux MFC in de-ionised water: with a no. 10 brush (left hand) white spirit was used to flood the area beneath an area of paint delamination, then a no. 0 brush (right hand) was used to deposit a small amount of consolidant at the edge of the flake. The consolidant was drawn underneath the flake by capillary action and, remaining on the plaster surface due to the saturated apolar environment beneath it, adhered the paint back to the surface of the cast as gentle pressure was applied.

Future work will focus on repackaging the cast collection. It is hoped that the collection will continue to be in use and retain their informational value, aesthetic, and associative power to visitors and students alike for generations to come.

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Emilie’s object, the cast of a child’s face with a harelip, before (above) and after (below) treatment. The surface was lightly cleaned and delaminating paint was stabilised, but not all soiling was removed, and surface loss was not replaced in order to retain the cast’s historic appearance.

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