How do you clean a historic house filled with irreplaceable artifacts? The answer is, carefully, and with professional help.
This summer, museum staff worked to give Yin Yu Tang, a Chinese home, a thorough cleaning. Just like with my home or yours, dust and dirt build up in this historic structure over time.
The Huang family lived in this stately 16-bedroom house in China’s southeastern Huizhou region, for more than 200 years, until 1982 when the last descendants moved from the village. The family’s well-documented genealogy and their accumulation of furnishings allow us to understand historical changes in China as they affect daily lives and cultures on a global scale.
The home was brought from China to PEM and re-erected on the museum’s property. While museum people work year-round to keep the house clean by regular dusting and vacuuming, after more than 10 years of visitors and coastal breezes sweeping through the house, it was time to give the YYT and its contents a deep cleaning.
Posters that show their age have been taken down and stored in the archives. Below, conservators Karina Beeman and Diane Tafilowski replace faded reproductions of posters with brighter versions. The original posters, too fragile for long term display, are kept in the archives.
Here Melissa Carr, an object conservator working with the PEM staff, carefully vacuums the lattice work of one of the many elaborately carved windows.
Each individual object on display in the house has been carefully dusted with a soft brush together with a vacuum fitted out with a micro-tool attachment nearby to capture the pollen and dirt built up over the years so that it doesn’t get dispersed onto objects nearby.
Here a basket has been carefully cleaned on one side and clearly shows the amount of dust that can accumulate over the years.
In some cases, the wax finish applied to the objects to protect them, had dulled over time. Carr carefully treated these objects to restore their finish. Two chairs on view in the downstairs reception hall are shown below. Each of these had become dull and waxy. The chair on the right shows the recent conservation of this finish producing a remarkably different appearance which is much closer to how it would have looked when in daily use in the house in China.
Here, Carr carefully applies paste wax to the table in the lower Reception Hall, increasing the luster of the well-worn wood surface.
Here is the reception hall after the completed cleaning. The space glows as it would have when lived in by the Huang family.
Preservation Carpenters Jan Lewandoski and Mike Cotroneo also worked in Yin Yu Tang this summer on some routine upkeep around the house. The kitchen window sill, exposed to the extremes of New England weather in an open air corridor, needed to be replaced. In this picture you can see evidence of rot in the upper right corner.
The bottom sill needed to be completely replaced as water infiltration has caused the wood to rot.
The top sill rot was removed and the exposed surface will be sealed with a water repellent coating and monitored. Here, rot is removed and the remaining section is prepared to accept a new piece of wood to complete the sill.
The bottom board had to be completely replaced and fitted to accept the metal window grill.
The stairwells on either side of Yin Yun Tang are not accessible to visitors today. However, if you look into the stairwell, you can see paneling along the courtyard wall. These panels are movable, creating a “secret” cubby between the upstairs floor boards and overhang into the courtyard. One of the panel doors no longer sat properly in place, so Lewandoski crafted a replacement. After taking measurements, Lewandoski returned to his workshop where he assembled the panel door using traditional Chinese joinery techniques. He employed both mortise and tenon joinery as well as a complicated mitered lap joint at the corner.
The panel required some small adjustments before it could be installed into place. With a hand plane, our experts shaved the wooden pintle hinge to size.
Starting with objects hanging from the ceiling and on the tops of beds, and finishing with the mopping of the floors, we think the results are well worth the time and hard work, but come see for yourself.
This fall, a special visitor came to see the house. Mr. Huang Binggen visited PEM for the first time in 12 years. While Huang Binggen never lived in the house, in the Chinese sense it is his home. It is where his ancestors lived. His father, Huang Zhenxin, was born in Yin Yu Tang and married there.
Throughout the house Huang Binggen placed many offerings, blessed by monks in China. In the reception hall he placed a banner for all his ancestors. In a bedroom upstairs where his parents resided, and their wedding furniture is stored, he placed pendants with the character “fu” — good fortune, as well as a group of Chinese opera masks.
These were left on display for a short while and will be kept in the Yin Yu Tang archive as we continue to document the ongoing lives of those who lived in the house. During his visit, Huang Binggen recalled his last visit 12 years ago for a ceremony. He said he felt grateful to the staff who take good care of his ancestor’s home.