Go back to article: Doping at the Science Museum: the conservation challenge of doped fabric aircraft in the Flight gallery

Doped fabric aircraft at the Science Museum

As discussed above, for conservation to be successful it requires a thorough understanding and consideration of an object’s value and significance. This requires knowledge of the object’s history, how it may have been interpreted and used at different times, and an appreciation of its current setting, condition and context. This section therefore provides an overview of the aircraft in the Science Museum’s collection, assessing how they are currently displayed and the archival materials of relevance kept in the Museum.

The majority of information relevant to the Museum’s aircraft is kept in technical files, where notes, articles and correspondence about the objects are maintained and added to, usually by curatorial staff. Information of relevance to this project kept in the technical files for three of the Science Museum’s doped fabric aircraft is summarised in Table 3 (see Appendix for details of additional doped fabric aircraft).

Table 3  Summary of information found in the Science Museum’s technical files relating to three of the Museum’s doped fabric aeroplanes

Some description

The majority of the Museum’s doped fabric aeroplanes are on display in the main museum at South Kensington in the Flight gallery. This gallery has little in the way of environmental control and an initial analysis of environmental data indicates considerable fluctuations in RH over time which, as discussed above, could be contributing to deterioration. Many of the aircraft are suspended from the ceiling out of reach of visitors, yet several, notably the Vickers Vimy and Supermarine S6B, are at floor level and easily within reach.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a Vickers Vimy aircraft in the Science Museum Flight Gallery

Vickers Vimy (object no. 1919-476) in the Flight gallery

Figure 9

Colour photograph of the Supermarine S6B aircraft in the Science Museum Flight Gallery

Supermarine S6B (object no. 1932-532) in the Flight gallery

The majority of aircraft not on display at South Kensington are in storage at the Science Museum’s large-object storage facility at Wroughton, Swindon. This is a former airfield, and the aircraft are kept in repurposed aircraft hangars. These provide varying levels of protection in the way of environmental control for the aircraft, and more details of the site, and the environmental monitoring and research being undertaken there, have recently been published (Leskard, 2015). This environmental monitoring is important so that conservators can better understand the conditions in which the objects are kept and, using knowledge of how the environment can induce degradation reactions, make decisions on how the environment might be altered to limit them.

There does not appear to have been an explicit strategy or objective in the collection of aircraft at the Science Museum. Aircraft have been collected and considered significant for a variety of different reasons. Several are valued because of their role in specific events in aviation history or for their connection to a particular individual. Such aircraft include the Vickers Vimy, which made the first transatlantic crossing in 1918, and the Supermarine S6B, which won the Schneider Trophy in 1931.

Other aircraft within the collection are significant because they provide information about ongoing and broader processes in aviation practice. This might include both technological development, such as early flight designs, and changes in social practice, such as early aircraft for mass transport and commercial travel. The collection therefore has no single interpretation but represents numerous different aspects of flight, in terms of its social history and technological development.

It is difficult to assess the extent of previous conservation, restoration and repair work carried out on the Science Museum’s aircraft owing to a lack of detailed record-keeping up until the 1990s. It is important to gather as much information as possible about these earlier interventions, however, in order to make judgments about concepts such as the ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ of the objects. This is important as it could have a meaningful impact on how the values of the objects are interpreted – for example how important it might be in any given treatment to ensure the doped fabric is left unaltered and intact, or whether it could be treated more drastically if not felt to be ‘authentic’ or of great significance.

Correspondence from the technical files makes clear that many of the aircraft donated in the 1920s and 1930s were re-covered when accessioned into the Museum collection. This might have been for several reasons, such as repairing damage from the working life of the object or simply to improve its appearance. Unfortunately specific details of these re-coverings, such as the materials or processes used, and how closely these were meant to match the earlier doped fabric, are rarely given.

The technical files indicate that the majority of doped aircraft at the Museum were then again re-covered in the 1960s and 1970s to prepare them for display in the new Flight gallery. Some of this work seems to have been undertaken by apprentices at the original manufacturing companies who built the aeroplanes, such as at Hawker.[4] Again, however, no documentation was kept regarding the materials used or the extent to which original techniques were used in these re-covering practices.

In addition to these re-coverings, ad hoc interventions have been undertaken by Museum staff over time. It seems that the aircraft were treated by re-doping them periodically to re-tauten and stretch the fabric. A note from an external adviser researching the colours of the Hawker Hurricane in the 1970s makes clear that, in his view, staff planned to apply inappropriately pigmented dopes to re-tauten the fabric of aircraft on display.[5] It is not stated which, if any, of the dopes the Museum staff actually applied or how often this process might have been undertaken.

It is also likely that doped patches were attached to cover tears, given the aged appearance of some of these interventions, though no references to this have been found in the documentation, and it is not clear who applied them or when. In more recent times the documentation and recording of intervention work carried out on aircraft has improved significantly, and the current approach is still to use doped fabric patching, as discussed above.

The interpretation of the Science Museum planes, therefore, and the elucidation of their value and significance, is a complex process. The objects certainly represent a very important, varied and significant collection, but their treatment and management means that the fabric coatings on most aircraft are almost certainly not original in the sense of having been in use when the aircraft were operational or first produced; though exactly how much intervention has taken place over the years is generally unclear.

This raises interesting ethical questions regarding the doped fabric material on the aircraft, such as how far it should be valued for its own sake, and how justifiably it might be removed, patched or left untreated without fundamentally changing the interpretation or significance of the objects. As stated above, such debates often have no objectively correct answer, but require thought and discussion if an informed conservation decision is to be achieved.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160605/013