A spoon full of care: conservation and packing for delicate sherbet spoons

Blythe House Decant
April 6, 2020

by Boudewien Westra, Furniture Conservator

Much of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection is currently stored at Blythe House in West London but will be moving to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, where the Museum will open two interconnected sites in 2023: a Collection and Research Centre (CRC) at Here East and a new museum at Stratford Waterfront. Consequently, this will create an extraordinary opportunity for the public to see more of the V&A’s collections.

Over the past two years, the Blythe House Decant Collections Project Team have been preparing the collections for this move. Part of this team is a group of conservators who treat and prepare objects to stabilise them before they are packed and transported to CRC. Two furniture conservators have been working steadily on over seven hundred objects assessed as requiring treatment, including pieces of furniture and other wooden objects such as picture frames, carvings, architectural elements, gilded objects and puppets. Most of the treatments involve stabilisation of the objects to minimise potential risk of damage during transport. Every object is unique and therefore the conservation work can vary from structural treatments to consolidating decorative surfaces and less interventive approaches such as providing bespoke packaging or handling boards. Sometimes a combination of these is carried out to achieve a satisfying and safe result for the object. This article will focus on a group of fragile and awkwardly-shaped Sherbet spoons as a good example to illustrate a combination of interventive treatment and simple but effective specialist packing as the best solution for their safe transportation and future storage.

Sherbet spoons are used in the West Asian, Indian subcontinental and Indonesian tradition surrounding sherbet. Sherbet is a sweet cordial drink prepared from fruits or flower petals and is usually served chilled in a ceramic basin. The spoons were placed on the side of the bowls, with their handles balanced, floating on top of the sherbet. Guests would drink from the spoon then place the spoon back in the basin for others to use. The V&A’s collection of Sherbet spoons is extensive and highly decorative, and it is thought to have been used by the well-to-do. Sherbet spoons are generally made of pear- and boxwood and consist of two parts: a long handle joined to the bowl-section by a socket. A large carved rosette is usually placed on top of the socket. Occasionally spoons were decorated with paint and finished with a clear varnish. However, the majority of these spoons remain unfinished. Most of the spoons in the Museum’s collection originate from Abadah in Iran and were made between 1800-1900.¹

Figures 1 and 2. Transparent tray with Sherbet spoons (L) and Sherbet spoon 1289-1874 (R), before conservation treatment (Photography by P. Kevin and B.C. Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The spoons are very fragile as they are carved from very thin sections of wood and have delicate pierced work, so it is important to store them correctly to avoid damage. Storage conditions were not ideal as the transparent trays containing the spoons were crowded and the spoons lacked sufficient support; therefore, to ensure safe transport to CRC, it was necessary to perform conservation treatments and provide bespoke packaging for the twelve spoons.

Some of the highly decorative pierced carvings in the very thin bowl-section of the spoons were fractured (Figures 1 and 2). Some spoons had residues of old glue and supportive facings from previous repairs. Old paper tabs had been used during previous repairs to bridge gaps and strengthen joins on some of the bowl-sections. These had to be removed because they were too small and the adhesive had failed, resulting in a loss of their supportive function (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Detail of broken bowl-section and old facings on spoon 1282-1874 before conservation (Photography by B.C. Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 3. Detail of broken bowl-section and old facings on spoon 1282-1874 before conservation (Photography by B.C. Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Several elements of the decorative carving were broken and had been re-adhered in the past during previous treatments. However, most of these glue joints failed or fragments were out of alignment. Therefore, it was necessary to remove the adhesive residues and to reposition the loose fragments.

Due to the thin and fragile nature of the bowl-section of the spoons, it was decided to apply Japanese paper facing adhered with wheatstarch to support the breaks. In some cases, the facing was applied to bridge the losses and achieve more unity of the bowl-section. A few layers of Japanese paper provided enough strength to hold the bowl-section together and the water-based starch can be removed easily in the future without damaging the object (Figure 4).

Figure 4. 1282-1874 with Japanese paper after conservation (Photography by B.C Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Figure 4. 1282-1874 with Japanese paper after conservation (Photography by B.C. Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

After conservation was completed, a bespoke tray was made for each of the spoons using Plastazote foam. Parts of the foam were ‘scooped-out’ to form a rebate, enabling the bowl of the spoon to rest into the foam. The spoons were then secured with cotton tape to avoid any undesirable movement within their Plastazote tray (Figures 5 and 6). This combined approach of treatment and bespoke supportive packaging will provide a safe and secure way to transport them and ideal storage conditions for the future.


  1. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O109573/sherbet-spoon-unknown/ [Accessed 7 January 2020]
Figures 5 and 6. Range of Sherbet spoons after conservation treatment and positioned in a Plastazote tray (Photography by B.C. Westra © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

About the author

Blythe House Decant
April 6, 2020

As Decant Conservation Liaison, I work closely with the wider Blythe House Decant collection team and transport contractors to prepare our collections stored at Blythe House for their move to...

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