Chinese puzzle: vase smashed by museum visitor is restored

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It was a heart-stopping moment for the staff of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when a visitor lost his footing and smashed three 17th-century Chinese vases.

But yesterday, less than eight months after Nick Flynn's fall down a staircase, the first of the vases to undergo painstaking restoration went back on display. The vase is now the star turn in an exhibition on the work of conservators, which was planned long before the accident.

Penny Bendall, the conservator, said she was thrilled the vase could go back on display in such a topical exhibition. "I think it's good for everybody to talk about this. It's very topical how far things are taken, whether repairs should be invisible - different parts of the world have different attitudes."

The Fitzwilliam's exhibition, Mission Impossible? has been organised to show the range of problems museum conservators and curators face.

Case studies, from the university's collection of fine art, antiquities and applied arts, provide examples of the self-destructing components of certain glass and paint pigments, the damaging effects of light and the ravages of pests. There are also examples of the damage caused by unsuitable storage and inappropriate treatments.

In some ways, the restoration of the Chinese Qing dynasty vases, worth an estimated £500,000, was straightforward as they had not been damaged or repaired before. Once the fragments had been sorted into the three vases, the pieces were cleaned.

The vases were then pieced together and held with tape before adhesive was added by capillary action where the glue was, in effect, drawn into the break lines. When that dried, a mixture of adhesive and pigments were added to make damage less visible.

The one-metre high, 45kg vase that has been restored was smashed into more than 100 pieces. The worst-damaged of the three is in more than 160 pieces and the other is in more than 40 fragments. They should be completed by Christmas. Hewitsons, a Cambridge law firm, has helped fund the restoration.

Mission Impossible? Ethics and Choices in Conservation is at the Mellon Gallery, Fitzwilliam Museum, to 24 September