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Tracking, Polishing, Repairing: Behind the Scenes of Christmas at Biltmore

For the Home 11/14/16

Written By Amy Dangelico

To say that decorating for Christmas at Biltmore is an enormous task would be an understatement. Of course, the amount of décor brought into the house is staggering, but have you ever wondered how exactly we make room for all of it?

Meg Schloemer of our collections team

That’s where Meg Schloemer of our collections team comes in. Meg is responsible for tracking every item moved in the house for the holidays. She was only about halfway through the process when we visited her, but we estimate her to have tracked more than 300 items by the end.

Some of the items are put into storage for the season. Others—like the Banquet Hall silverware set, for instance—are taken to our objects lab, where conservators preserve and repair pieces in the Biltmore collection.

“Biltmore House is a conservation anomaly,” explains objects conservator Renee Jolly. “Unlike traditional museums, our environment is not controlled and our displays are generally on-going, which can be tough on the collection.”

The Banquet Hall Silverware Set

As the Banquet Hall silverware set arrives in the objects lab, Renee first surveys the condition of each piece in the set, checking for discoloration and tarnishing. If you look closely at the salt cellar pictured below, you can see a small, darkened mark where the miniature spoon has scratched the protective lacquer coating and tarnished the dish.

As typical silver cleaners can contain damaging chemicals, Renee polishes the set with chalk, a basic calcium carbonate mixture, and cotton swabs.

The Candelabra from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom

Renee is also in the process of repairing and treating a candelabra set from Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom.

A damaged decorative arm on one of the pieces is being repaired and reattached. The gold components of the pieces are cleaned—not polished, as that can actually remove the gold—with a gentle gold-specific solution.

The ceramic parts of the pieces are cleaned with human saliva. (Yes, you read that right.)

“The natural enzymes of saliva are nature’s gentle solution for breaking down solids without damaging the surface,” explains Renee. Artificial alternatives are available but don’t work as well, and commercial cleaners are often too concentrated and corrosive.

It seems that while there are some advancements in conservation methods, it is often best to keep it simple.

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