Dilemmas in transporting unstable ceramics: A look at cyclododecane

Sara Caspi and Emily Kaplan


The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is in the process of transporting its collection of over 800,000 artifacts from the museum’s Research Branch in the Bronx, NY, to the new Cultural Resources Center (CRC) facility in Suitland, MD. Conservation Fellows supported by a grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation researched the appropriate method for packing and transporting a number of ethnographic and archeological ceramic vessels suffering from severe soluble salt-related damage. These vessels, over 40 in number, are primarily from the North American Southwest and South America. To varying degrees, they exhibit salt efflorescence, actively spalling and flaking surfaces, powdering ceramic paste, and some exhibit deformation. Without some kind of consolidation, these ceramics will experience significant damage during transport; damage that specialized packing alone will not prevent.

The “traditional” conservation laboratory treatment of consolidation followed by desalination may not be appropriate for some of these ethnographic/historic vessels due to the possibility that the salts were introduced during manufacture or use. Severe time and space constraints at the Research Branch prevent the necessary research to determine if these vessels can be desalinated.

As a result, the focus of this research project has turned to the investigation of the use of a temporary consolidant to stabilize sensitive areas prior to travel. Cyclododecane, a waxy cyclic hydrocarbon (C12H24) is promising; it has been used with success by other conservators for various applications. Cyclododecane is applied in liquid form, and sublimates over time, leaving the fragile substrate intact. According to published literature, cyclododecane leaves no residue behind. Transport tests on mock-ups and treatment of one artifact have shown that cyclododecane can protect the unstable areas during transport.

It is our hope that cyclododecane can be used for these ceramics, allowing us to safely pack and ship them to the CRC, where further determination of treatment can be made. However, test applications of cyclododecane on glass microscope slides show that some material, possibly an impurity, remains after sublimation. Characterization of this residue will inform our treatment decision. To this end, both the residue and “raw” cyclododecane from different sources are being analyzed with microscopy, FTIR and GC-MS. Results and implications will be discussed.

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