Notes from the Mini Museum: Royal Wedding Cake Specimen
"Only do what your heart tells you."
Posted December 1st, 2017
The marriage of HRH Charles Windsor, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer was an international sensation. Watched by an estimated 750,000,000 people around the world on July 29th, 1981, the wedding was the culmination of a fairy-tale in which an assistant kindergarten teacher became a princess overnight.
The clip above comes from the British Movietone documentary "The Royal Wedding". This original film was recently remastered and released in 4K by the Associated Press in the summer of 2017. The entire film can be viewed on YouTube, and includes a short, behind-the-scenes segment detailing the transfer to 4K.
Yet, what seemed to the world like a beautiful story would become much more complicated as the years passed. Despite the birth of their two sons, Princes William and Henry ("Harry"), intense media pressure and infidelity drove the couple apart. Charles and Diana divorced on August 28th, 1996. Just one year later, on August 31st, 1997, Lady Diana died in a car crash while fleeing the paparazzi in Paris. She was just 36 years-old.
On September 6th, 1997, a global audience of more than 2,500,000,000 people watched the funeral held at Westminster Abbey. Diana's brother Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer, gave a very emotional speech, the heart of which might be summed up in this quote:
"Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic."
In the years since Diana's passing, there have been many books written about the relationship between the Prince and Lady Diana, as well as their own private lives as individuals. Given the myriad interests which swirl around the Royal Family it is difficult to parse the truth from the opinion. However, what is clear is that Charles and Diana tried very hard to raise a family in the midst of singular pressures only they could truly understand. The heart of their story speaks to the struggles we each face as human beings as we move through our own lives.
Creating the Specimen
The specimen in the Mini Museum is a piece of the Royal Wedding Cake, a traditional fruit cake. The layers of the official cake took 14 weeks to prepare including an identical twin held in emergency reserve.
For display, each cake was sliced and placed into individual monogrammed gift boxes. These prepared slices were then placed into larger, hand-painted boxes and finished with sugar paste icing to form the decorated layers of the cake.
The tradition of preparing cake slices in this fashion goes back generations, as has the tradition of selling and collecting these literal slices of history. How far back you ask? The slice pictured here is over 176 years old!
Auctioned by Christie's in 2016, Queen Victoria's cake shows just how well a traditional fruitcake can hold up. Some 141 years fresher, our slice was also purchased at auction . As with other slices from past royal weddings, it included a monogrammed box.
Looks pretty rugged, right? Still as durable as the royal fruitcakes may be, we took no chances in preparing this specimen for inclusion in the Mini Museum. Instead, we turned to science and replicated a process used to preserve delicate organic structures called plastination.
The plastination process involves replacing water and lipid within an organic structure with curable polymers. It is commonly used to preserve body parts (or even entire bodies) for study. As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has ever tried it with a slice of royal fruitcake.
The process normally involves four steps: fixation, dehydration, forced infusion, and curing/hardening. Fixation involves soaking the material in a preserving solution, such as Formaldehyde. In our case, we didn't need to do this because fruitcakes are already fixed with a generous amount of brandy, including "feeding" the finished cake additional brandy over a period of months to keep it from drying out. This allowed us to skip straight to dehydration.
Once the cake was dehydrated, we soaked it in a freezing cold bath of acetone. Under these conditions, the acetone draws out any additional water within the fruitcake and replaces it at the cellular level.
The acetone-soaked pieces are then submerged inside a resin bath and placed in the vacuum chamber. In a vacuum, the acetone boils at lower temperatures, vaporizes, and draws in the resin as it leaves the cells. The end result is deep resin infusion that preserves the structure and ensures the material will be even more durable for the process ahead!
I'm happy to report that the process was a tremendous success. We stabilized the cake in such a way that we could create precise micro-slices and the final specimens retained their texture after inclusion in the Third Edition.
I have to admit that this is one of the most complex and time-consuming specimens we've ever created. I think the results show it was worth the effort. It really is a beautiful addition to the 29-Specimen Third Edition Collection.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about this incredible specimen. As mentioned above, there are many books about Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Below, I have noted several of the books I read while researching the article for the Companion Guide.
- Hans Fex, Creator and Chief Curator of the Mini Museum