I have not allowed people to polish our wall brasses, as I think they may get damaged. But when we open up our church on a daily basis for local groups, are there measures we should take to ensure that the brasses stay safe and undamaged?
There is a very good organisation called the Monumental Brass Society; it was pointed out to me by a churchwarden who had much the same challenge as you. I will simply précis some of the society’s very useful advice, and recommend that you go to their website and look at the conservation section, for more detailed help. In addition, there are specialists at English Heritage who can offer advice.
Any work planned for your brasses should be undertaken subject to advice from your diocesan advisory committee, as this needs the attention of specialists. A helpful volunteer may do more harm than good.
Protect your brass from theft by removing it when it becomes loose, and getting advice on how to proceed. For replacement in location, or moving them to a wall, brasses should be mounted on a chemically inert wood such as cedar of Lebanon. Brasses should be fixed to their mounts with rivets or security screws, which have special heads.
Protect brasses from damage from a variety of seemingly innocuous causes. Brass-rubbing carefully and proficiently undertaken will not damage the brass; but ensure that no part of the brass is loose (tap it and listen for a hollow sound), or the flexing that results will stress and crack the brass. People who are rubbing should not kneel or lean on the brass to work, nor stick anything to it to hold their paper in place.
Allow no one to walk on floor brasses. Surround them with a rope, or use a chemically inert felt, covered by woven carpet. Never use coconut, rubber, plastic, or foam-backed carpet — it can easily trap grit or dirt that will scratch the brass. Never place candlesticks, vases, or furniture on a brass.
Dampness is an enemy, and anything mounted on or near the dampness could be corroded. If the stone or plaster on which the brass is mounted is itself suffering from dampness, you will need a specialist conservator to repair the brass (it can be damaged on the back without the damage’s being visible), and advise on remounting.
Never clean brass with polish or other chemical cleaners. Simply dust the brass, or, if it is especially dirty, rub with a soft cloth dipped in paraffin, and wipe it dry.
If you are remounting a brass on the wall (on its inert wood mount), it may be necessary to leave a small air gap to prevent a build-up of condensation behind the brass, as this in turn may activate corrosion by the damp plaster or stone.
When there are building works in progress, the brasses must be covered or even temporarily removed. Putting them back may be an opportunity for a more secure and safer mounting process.
Bats can be a big problem for brasses; so brasses will need to be covered for their protection from the droppings. English Nature and English Heritage have further advice available.
Then, finally, ensure that you know the history of the people memorialised by your brass, and make a leaflet available to members and visitors. In these days, when the school curriculum encourages visits to ancient buildings, having a version available for children is an excellent plan.
The Memorial Brass Society makes a few small grants each year to help conserve brasses in churches. For more information visit their website: www.mbs-brasses.co.uk.
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