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  • Mark Minor

Repairing the Upside Down

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

OK, I'll confess. “Stranger Things” was binge-watched at our house, with a good deal of enthusiasm. For those not familiar with the show, there was a “parallel world” with the name “the upside-down.” Little did I know, once I started watching that show, that an artifact from the “upside-down” would find its way into my life.

I have seen some moving company blunders during my years in conservation, but the delivery of this turn-of-the-20th century folk art model has to reign as the worst. It literally arrived, after a cross county trip, upside down. Ouch. But as the old saw states: “stuff” happens.

The model had been created by a relative of the owners, to commemorate the time he served on the Chattanooga. The detail that was lovingly recreated was utterly astounding. Needless to say, the owners were horrified by the condition this prized possession arrived in. I assured them that the model could be made whole again, and arrangements were made with the shipping company that turned this little world over. This ship lost the battle, but hope was great that it would win the war.

I can probably trace the very beginnings of my career to 5th grade Model Airplane Club at Castlemont Elementary School in Campbell, California. A very brave teacher at my school stayed after two afternoons a week and guided the nerds like myself that joined the club in the building of those balsa stick and tissue airplane models. Painstaking, detailed, fragile, the use of sharp tools...all the things that you want to coax rambunctious kids through. Not. I hope that teacher was canonized after that set of miracles. But the experience really cemented (pun) a love for detailed craft that eventually found its outlet in museum conservation. So, yeah, models have always been close to my heart. Thank you teacher, whose name I have long forgotten.

There were some very creative modeling techniques the creator used. One that impressed me was the use of compo (a mix of hide glue, chalk, and linseed oil) to model the ocean waves. Thin sheets of mica were made into tiny window panes. What seemed like miles of black thread was formed into railings and rigging (the ship was a fascinating “hybrid” battleship that had both steam power as well as masts). Cannons were carved by hand from wood. The portholes on the sides of the hull appeared to be grommets, like those for laces in boots. In fact, I believe they may have actually been boot lace eyelets. These had shiny pieces of mica, carefully cut into tiny circles by hand, and inserted in each eyelet to mimic glass panes. And on and on and on and on. I have no idea how many years the builder spent on this model. I'm sure it was a few.

Here are some shots of the progress on the treatment:

This job was pretty much a hybrid of doing a jigsaw puzzle and doing a rather straightforward—but arduous—repair. Just figuring out where the mountain of small bits and pieces went was as, or more, difficult that doing the repair. Tweezers, magnifying glasses, a syringe with liquid fish glue---and a lot of patience was basically all that was required. Mending torn rigging lines with painfully small strips of Japanese tissue and adhesives. The techniques used often had to be fairly creative. But that's where the fun lies.

And of course, as the pile of “parts” got smaller, the location of some of the pieces became ever more puzzling to figure out. Ultimately, all parts were placed in what is hoped are the correct locations, the “cracks in the ocean” filled and toned, a pane of glass in the case was replaced, and myriad small touch ups were undertaken.

The final result:

The clients were understandably happy, and confessed that my assurances of the model being able to be put back together had initially seemed a little cavalier. But I love jobs like this, ones that have a profound family value and history, and also are just damn amazing examples of craft. And ones that are challenging. These are the projects that make all the toil worth it.

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