Holy Kreuzer Konigsberg! Conserving a Lilliputian Battleship Model

Whether massive in size or delicate in material, many projects taken on by The Conservation Center pose unique challenges for our team of expert conservators. Recently, the Robert R. McCormick Museum located in Wheaton, Illinois, brought us a curious object from its collection: a wooden model replica of a naval cruiser named the Kreuzer Konigsberg, commissioned during the WWII era. The amount of detail and veracity in the ship’s execution is staggering. However, upon closer examination, the model—which measures a miniscule 15” wide, 3” depth, 6” high—was found to be in poor condition, with broken segments throughout and worthy of a thorough cleaning and treatment effort.

The surname “McCormick” is often seen on major Chicago landmarks and buildings without quite considering the man behind it. Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955) was appointed the president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune in 1911, and he helped shape the company into one of the most prominent media hubs in the nation during his 44-year tenure. He was able to create a self-sustaining empire for the Tribune by expanding into print, radio, and eventually television with the creation of WGN—the “World’s Greatest Network.” Though sometimes controversial in his actions, McCormick was a staunch purveyor of his paper’s First Amendment rights, and even argued to this effect successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. An exceptional influence over Midwestern media, McCormick was also a philanthropist and world traveler. Upon his death, he donated his personal fortune to start Chicago’s McCormick Foundation, and transformed Cantigny, his Wheaton home, into a museum and public park.

Little is known about the provenance of the Kreuzer Konigsberg model ship, or how Robert McCormick came into ownership of this memorabilia. However, during WWII, the Tribune Company owned extensive paper mills in Canada, and used these sites to house German prisoners of war. Perhaps the handcrafted ship came to McCormick by way of this enterprise. 

The Center’s conservators worked diligently to repair the structural damage on this fragile wooden replica—clocking over 30 hours on the conservation process alone. The model appeared as if it had been left untouched, accumulating dirt and grime over the years. In addition, the ship sustained some sort of impact damage, so that many of the intricate parts were left loose or missing, and needed much stabilization and reattachment.

However, before this could be done, the entire surface of the ship had to be meticulously cleaned so the conservators did not inadvertently adhere the film of grime to the wood when reattaching pieces. Because the interlocking parts of the ship are so tiny and numerous, our conservators had to work extremely slowly to avoid further damaging the loose pieces. In order to remove the dirt from the surface, the affected areas had to be brushed bit by bit with a conservation grade detergent until the brush came away clean.

Once the surface of the wood was rid of grime, the process became even more difficult with the task of reattaching the separated pieces that comprised the masts, riggings, and railings of the ship. This job quickly proved itself to be more than it initially appeared for a number of reasons. For one, this is an actual working model—so almost every toothpick-sized part actually moves and rotates like they would on a real ship. The loose parts could not merely be adhered down in their rightful place. When repairing and lifting the mast, the broken rigging also had to be aligned at exactly the right angle and length, which took a leveled amount of preciseness and skill to replicate.  

A second major issue encountered by our conservators was that the model parts were so tiny, any attempt to adhere and hold them to the surface would also adhere their tools down as well. However, with some quick thinking, they were able to create a new device that specifically aided them in this process. As is often the case, much thought and care goes into creating a specific treatment plan for each individual object. Utilizing a moveable “arm” equipped with first-aid tweezers, our conservators were able to re-adhere the pieces without having to hold them upright as well, ensuring their stabilization.

For example, many of the posts comprising the railing of the deck’s perimeter had snapped. After drilling tiny holes with a modeling drill, the posts were able to be dropped in and held straight by the tweezers, while our conservators apply the adhesive without fear of slipping or adhering down their instrument. Separately, The Center’s paper conservators also assisted in the effort to help stabilize the dry and brittle flags that adorned the top of the three masts. Due to the minute size of these pieces of paper, handling and reattaching them back onto the model ship proved to be quite a feat. 

Once finished, the ship was placed into a brand new vitrine with a black metal base, in which the conservators fastened the original base for the ship. This vitrine will help ensure its longevity for the enjoyment of future visitors to the Robert R. McCormick Museum.

After the project was complete, our conservators succeeded in stabilizing the entirety of the ship without replacing a single piece of wood—every single piece is original, and still moves and operates as its original craftsman intended.