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Saving the life saver 30 November 2009

Lifebuoy from the Ellan Vannin 2009It is almost 100 years to the day that the SS Ellan Vannin, one of the Steam Packet’s passenger ships, sank at the mouth of the Mersey. On 3rd December 1909 all the lives of the people who were travelling to Liverpool were lost and most of the wreckage was never recovered. There has been much research into the circumstances of the tragedy and the passengers and crew who were lost that night, but recent investigations at the Manx Museum add a different perspective to the story.

Christopher Weeks is the Conservator for objects at the Manx Museum and he has been undertaking an in depth technical examination of one of the lifebuoys salvaged from the SS Ellan Vannin.

Christopher said “It has turned out to be one of the most physically complex and significant objects I have worked on at Manx National Heritage. “

Investigations have revealed that the lifebuoy is made of a painted linen fabric wrapped around a cork core. Although in a fair condition, the lead paint was starting to crack and the buoy was very dirty and discoloured. It was clear the lifebuoy needed professional conservation.

Christopher began by taking paint samples and examining them under a microscope. At least 11 repaints were identified with dirt layers between each. He also found evidence of a ship’s name beneath the layers of paint. Future infrared analysis will establish exactly what it says.

So how do you clean an object that is over 100 years old and irreplaceable? Not with a damp cloth! The lifebuoy was cleaned with a 5% solution of tri-sodium citrate and cotton swabs which took Christopher a whole week. This particular cleaning agent targets certain portions of the dirt layer without damaging the object itself, and is well-suited to this kind of unvarnished paint surface. The paint and canvas were strengthened with an acrylic resin and solvent solution, injected into the canvas with a syringe; this is intended to reinforce the bond, weakened in places, between the canvas and paint.

Once the lifebuoy was clean Christopher focussed on its future preservation. The sea salt content of the buoy was tested as this can have an effect on the corrosion of the paint. Christopher then assessed the best conditions for the future display and storage of the object. A new display case has been designed and constructed from chemically inert, lightweight aircraft flooring and UV filtered Perspex. This will enable MNH staff more easily to move the lifebuoy without removing it from its case, and will protect it from the most harmful of the sun’s rays. The new case will be completely sealed and will contain hidden environmental logging and conditioning equipment designed to maintain the case interior at a constant humidity, and so to avoid movement of the canvas and associated paint loss in the future. All very high tech for an old lifebuoy!

But this lifebuoy is priceless; it is one of the few items to be salvaged from the Ellan Vannin. As the song goes “Few Manxmen now remember, The third day of the month December, The terrible storm in Nineteen-nine, Ellan Vannin sailed for the very last time” but thanks to the conservation work that Christopher Weeks is doing at Manx National Heritage we will have a tangible reminder of the Ellan Vannin story for many years to come. Image Captions: Ellan Vannin Lifebuoy undergoing conservation in 2009 Ellan Vannin Lifebuoy on the ship

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