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Tiaras - Mount making and installation

Joanna Whalley
Metalwork Conservator

Roy Mandeville
Associate Director - Exhibitions, Plowden and Smith

Figure 1

Figure 1. Inserting the mount into backboard. Photography by Joanna Whalley (click image for larger version)

 ‘Tiaras’ is an important temporary exhibition at the V&A which displays a glittering array of approximately 200 tiaras. The range is diverse and comprises not only the more traditional materials of precious metals and gemstones, but also the more unusual such as carved horn and even fish scales.

The V&A’s designer for the show, Catherine Byrne, wanted the tiaras to appear to ‘float in space’. With this in mind, three companies were invited to provide samples of mounts in both acrylic and brass. Materials specifications were provided by Conservation.

Plowden and Smith Ltd were appointed as the mount makers for the project. The company developed a generic mount style in metal that suited most objects in the exhibition. Although acrylic is often the preferred choice of material for mounting museum objects, the thickness of acrylic required to support a tiara was found to be obtrusive, and its reflective, light channelling properties were distracting. In contrast, the fine brass mounts offered both strong support for the objects and were visually unobtrusive.

The mounts for the show consist of a brass ring or part ring fitted to the internal diameter of the tiara, with a straight central rod returning to the back wall of the showcase for fixing. Brass is very malleable when annealed which enables accurate shaping, and strong soldered joints can be achieved at reasonably low temperatures. The internal ring has brass ‘u’-shaped attachments at intervals to give the object support where required (see illustrations). Oxyacetylene equipment was used for the work as it gives a controlled, finely adjustable, hot, clean (carbon-free) flame.

Figure 2

Figure 2. The tiara installed. Photography by Joanna Whalley (click image for larger version)

In order to ensure that the fittings were precise, each tiara had to be offered up onto its mount during fabrication. However, handling was kept to a minimum and the mount makers worked with extreme care. Prior to installation mounts were sandblasted to remove grease and flux and then coated with an acrylic formula spray paint. The support armatures were coloured to suit the object and the fixing rods were coloured to match the showcase panels. Where mounts came into contact with the objects, they were lined with clear heat shrink tubing, and where this was not practical a polyester lining felt was applied.

The mounts were installed by drilling the backboards of the cases to the same diameter (usually 5mm) as the rod to be inserted, and friction fitting the mount into the drilled hole. To enable this system to work, the case panels were manufactured in ZF MDF sealed with 3 coats of Dacrylate acrylic lacquer. The fabric covering was attached to the case panels using a neutral PH adhesive, and this prevented any snagging when  the panels were drilled.

 As a result of the detailed planning and meticulous execution of the design brief, the visitor is afforded an unobstructed view of the entire object, and the tiaras appear to be supported effortlessly.


Andrew Rush and John Baxter, Plowden and
Smith Exhibitions.