Mysto Magic

The lid for the Mysto Magic set, on display as part of CHF’s exhibition Science at Play.

Science History Institute/Corine McHugh

Presto Chango

A recent addition to our collections reveals the magic of conservation.

In the waning days of the Great Depression, a child woke up on Christmas morning and tore off the wrapping paper from a new magician’s set. Inside were red interlocking rings, playing cards, a magic wand, and an instruction booklet showing dazzling illusions to amaze friends and family. In 2015 CHF added this very set, the Mysto Magic Exhibition Set No. 2, to its collection.

Manufactured around 1938 by the A. C. Gilbert Company, CHF’s new magic set was showing its age: the box lid was warped and punctured, and a fragment had completely detached. Things inside were a jumbled mess, and the red paint on the interlocking rings was severely flaking. But on inspecting the underside of the set, the museum team found a little gift from Christmas past: a snowman sticker with a small piece of wrapping paper attached.

The object is one of 43 chemistry sets, science kits, construction toys, and other educational playthings featured in CHF’s new exhibition, Science at Play. Before it could go on display, Mysto Magic required some first aid. Corine McHugh, a Philadelphia-based conservator, stabilized the set with wheat-starch paste and mulberry paper, mending the torn box corners, reattaching the broken-off piece of lid, and closing the puncture. Using a heated spatula, she carefully removed the snowman sticker and fragment of wrapping paper.

Choosing to remove the sticker and wrapping paper—which to the outside observer may seem like an arbitrary decision—touched on a debate conservators, curators, and collections managers consider very carefully. By removing these items, would we be losing the object’s story? Would leaving the sticker (and its adhesive) in place cause further damage to the cardboard box? How do we save the object and the story? In the end museum staff decided to remove the sticker, reasoning that doing so would prevent future harm to the magic set and would reduce the risk of the sticker falling off and being lost.

Deterioration is a natural part of an object’s life. However, the work of collections managers, who closely monitor the environment where museum collections are stored, and conservators, who aim to apply reversible and invisible treatments, help slow the rate of deterioration and prolong the life of artifacts like the Mysto Magic set. Now future children may enjoy them.