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Cleaning the "Poesje" Puppets

March to December 2003

In March 2003 the Antwerp Heritage Volunteers started on a fascinating and unusual new project for the "Volkskunde" museum of Antwerp: cleaning and recording a collection of puppets.

It is difficult to find information on the history of individual Poesje puppets and the props for the plays in which the puppets took part. We do know that the puppets we cleaned were bought by the museum in 1961 from the theatre De Poesje and that they were made in the period between 1909 and 1930 when Louis Deschamps was leading the company.


 Taking inventory

Volunteers making an inventory of the props

First we had to check and update the existing inventory of wooden puppets and all the props in the museum itself and in the Reserves.


Old puppets before cleaning

Next we measured and cleaned about one hundred puppets (of 75 cm average length) which are all manipulated by two iron bars; one attached to the head and the other one to the hand. In that hand many puppets used to hold a weapon (dagger or cudgel) which was used in fights that were part of almost every play. As a result, many of the puppets are no longer in a very good state of preservation. 

The unrestored puppets


The soldier puppets

The soldiers: puppets from the series cleaned by the Antwerp Heritage Volunteers

The Heritage Volunteers worked in two groups of about four ADFAS members on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. We cleaned the wooden and painted faces, legs and hands with distilled water and used a small vacuum cleaner to clean the costumes of the puppets. The biggest problems were the painted leather collars or shoulder straps, from which the paint came off at the slightest touch and the straw stuffing of legs and arms which is in a very fragile state. Fabric covers are now being made for each puppet so that they can be stored separately.


ADFAS Volunteer Gilberte Du Bois cleaning the clothes of a puppet with a vacuum cleaner

For the conservation cleaning work we were instructed by Elsje Janssen from "Beheer en Behoud van de Antwerpse Stedelijke Musea".

A volunteer cleaning puppet clothes


Vacuuming the clothes

Martine Baines busy with the vacuum cleaner

Note the inventory cards and a book on restoring and cleaning textiles!

Sadly we had to work in the Depot of the Antwerp Museum, out of the view of possible visitors, and not in the museum itself. We worked under the guidance of Micheline Van Driessche, who is in charge of the Depot. As she was the only person working there, when she was absent at meetings or lectures on archiving and preservation matters, we were unable to work.


Puppets cleaned by the Antwerp Heritage Volunteers

Having done the inventory we thought the project of cleaning all these puppets and props would take us a very long time. However, as we cleaned only one series, which was in reasonably good state, the project was completed in December 2003. Perhaps we will be able to continue this project in the future. Elsje Janssen, together with other restorers, has yet to study and decide on a method of preserving the oldest and most damaged puppets and props.

 The puppets after cleaning