The Childhood Cube – creation and conservation

Through 1998 and 1999 Sarah Raphael worked with schoolchildren to make this intricate and absorbing sculpture, to be displayed in the Millennium Dome. It is a metal cubic grid, six squares wide by six high and six deep, making 216 little rooms. Each of these was furnished with inventions, characters and actions by Raphael and her young collaborators.

Sarah Raphael in her studio with the Childhood Cube, courtesy CliveJames.com

Sarah Raphael in her studio with the Childhood Cube, courtesy CliveJames.com

Raphael was primarily a painter, of great reputation and growing fame. She was 38 when she worked on the Childhood Cube, and only lived 2 more years. In his heart-warming obituary in the Telegraph, Clive James described her “short but lavishly fruitful career” and her trend-bucking figurative painting.

William Packer’s 2013 book brought together Raphael’s work and life, describing her grid-like strip paintings from the late 1990s and the unremitting migraines that beset her for months on end.

'No Comment', etching, 1999, Sarah Raphael, courtesy Marlborough London

‘No Comment’, etching, 1999, Sarah Raphael, courtesy Marlborough London

The Childhood Cube came to the Museum of Childhood in 2003, and has been in the galleries ever since. A dense, dramatic display of disparate scenes and detail, the Cube is an arresting sight. However, over time it has accumulated dust and deterioration, so the time had come this year to reach inside the Cube and tackle its cleaning.

The rest of this post comes from Adriana Francescutto and Mark Kearney, conservators from the sculpture and science departments who worked on this unusual project.

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The Childhood Cube at the V&A Museum of Childhood in the early 2000s

This complex multi-media artwork is composed of a steel frame structure, of 216 cubic spaces. Most of these smaller spaces are filled with intricate scenes that resemble small theatrical sets.

Each little set is installed on a base and sometimes a backdrop made out of Perspex carefully painted with different colourful patterns. Some of the scenes are connected by balsa wood ladders that project across different levels within the cube, like game of snakes and ladders. Some of the figures sit outside the Perspex, on the steel structure.

One of the Plasticine figures stuck directly on the steel structure

One of the Plasticine figures stuck directly on the steel structure

Some of the ladders are tiny little staircases!

Some of the ladders are tiny little staircases!

There were gaps between the protective glass and the cube itself, which allowed a lot of dust in. We were asked to carry out conservation treatment on the cube and its contents.

The variety of the themes and compositions is astonishing. We were constantly surprised by these quirky and funny scenes, finding something new every day.

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When we arrived at the Childhood Museum, we found that the inside of the cube was extremely dusty, especially in the bottom scenes. Also, some of the figures and sets had completely collapsed or dislodge from their original location.

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Very dusty collapsed figures from different scenes

Very dusty collapsed figures from different scenes

This wide range of modern materials such as Plasticine, Perspex and plastics can be challenging to be conserved. We carried out preliminary research on the type of materials present and also tested adhesives and cleaning methods to make sure we would not cause any damage during conservation and to guarantee their future preservation.

After preparing our tool kit: lights, conservation vacuum cleaners with suction control, brushes and adhesives, we went to work on site at the Museum of Childhood for two weeks.

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We designed a method to identify each scene based on a North, South, East and West view of the Cube. Outer layers were labelled ‘A’, inner ones ‘B’ and ‘C’ respectively. It was important to have a strict system of numbering and labelling so we could return the scenes to the same place within the cube structure and in the same orientation, as we were planning to remove all the scenes for conservation.

We started the conservation and cleaning from the top, extracting the scenes level by level to have better access. Then we cleaned and re-assembled each scene at the same time that the metal structure of the cube and the top glass were cleaned. We had to consider very carefully, how to remove some of the complex scenes, particularly when they occupied more than one cube.

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Removing a large constructed staircase from within the cube

The cleaning process was very successful, the scenes immediately came back to life, their colours re-invigorated.

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Cleaning in progress! Notice dust on right hand side

Some scenes were difficult to be clean as they contained delicate materials such as loose sand, fine plastic and small elements suspended from thin threads.

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Dusting grains of sand…

The collapsed figures were reassembled in their original position.

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Before and After views of some of the multimedia items in the Cube

We had some detective work to do: there were pieces missing from some scenes, and other parts didn’t really belong where they were found. We followed traces of old glue and looked at the position of collapsed figures, this provided us with the clues to their original placement.

Some of the scenes were simple decoration, but others showed several meticulous details.

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While we were working in situ, little observers enjoyed looking in at us, with great curiosity, as if we were inside a giant dolls house or a massive fish tank! They loved seeing conservators in action!

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