British Museum organics conservator Verena Kotonski was tasked with a unique assignment last November: conserving a model boat made of cloves. The museum doesn’t know much about the boat’s history. They think it was made in Indonesia anywhere from 18th to the early 20th century, probably in the middle of that range. It entered the collection in 1972 but there are no records nothing how it made its way to the museum, who made it where and when, whether it was donated, purchased, etc. It’s such a rare and intriguing piece that despite the many questions attending its history the clove boat is the cover model for the British Museum’s Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange exhibition which is on now and runs through May 31st.
The boat is slim and long with a central canopy and a raised openwork prow and stern. Rowers with long paddles stand on both sides, back and front, and the canopy is topped with a pennant. A drawing of the boat made when it first arrived at the British Museum indicate there was a second pennant at one point as well. The boat is made of dried cloves strung together on threads or threaded together with thin wooden pins. The hull is formed of layered strands of cloves tied together. Charmingly, even after at least a century and probably two it still smells like cloves. The conservator said as soon as she opened the crate she was overwhelmed by the scent of cloves.
The artifact has never been on display before because of its condition issues. Already in the 1970s there were detached pieces kept in a box with it, and by the time Kotonski received it there were 14 detached elements, plus evidence on the boat that there were more pieces missing. It was also veritably caked in dust which she had to clean painstakingly with a brush, a vacuum to suction off the dust and conservation-grade rubber to extract the more deeply embedded particles.
Once the boat was clean, the damaged areas needed to be fixed and detached pieces reattached. The thorniest issue was puzzling out where everything should go. Out of the 14 detached pieces — five torsos, one standing figure, two pairs of arms and paddles (these were made as one piece and then attached to torsos), one long paddle (possibly a rudder), one pennant without its pole, three round objects of indeterminate nature — the standing figure, two of the torsos and their matching arms and paddles could be immediately identified as fitting vacant spots on the boat.
Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.
A similar boat in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection helped fill in some of the blanks. It has three figures on the roof of the canopy with round objects, most likely drums, in front of them. Kotonski examined the round objects under a microscope and was able to match the break edges of one of them to one of the torsos. It still wasn’t clear where the drummers and their drums were placed atop of the canopy. There are multiple holes allowing for any number of arrangements. The conservation team debated whether they should even reinstall the drummers without being certain about the original placement.
We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.
They made the opposite decision when it came to the long paddle, the pennant and one drum with an attached pole. In order to reattach these pieces to the model, they would have had to reconstruct significant missing parts. Since they couldn’t know their original positions nor what the lost parts looked like, the reconstruction and reattachment would have entailed more guesswork than they were comfortable with. The pieces were returned to the boat’s storage box.
They did reconstruct one piece: a teeny tiny little retaining collar that was important for the boat’s stability. These collars fit on top of posts on each corner of the canopy, keeping the roof from gradually inching upwards and coming off its poles. The replacement collar was made of Japanese tissue paper, one of the modern conservator’s best friends, to distinguish it from its clove-wrought brethren.
Because conservators are magical (and because the model is small), the entire process took just 34 hours. The boat is now on display, but conservation isn’t over yet. Verena Kotonski would like anyone with any information that might help them suss out the original positions of the detached pieces to email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.