Conference Review for AIC 2004 in ICOM-CC ethno newsletter

Conference Review AIC 23rd Annual Meeting Portland, Oregon June 9-14, 2004.

By Ellen Carrlee and Scott Carrlee

There were many talks of interest to ethnographic conservators at the 23rd Annual AIC meeting in Portland, Oregon, June 9-14, 2004. The theme of the conference was the Art of Cleaning: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Philosophy. The antagonistic speech from keynote speaker James Beck of Art Watch and the even more aggressive rebuttal from Kirby Talley Jr. focused on paintings conservation and emphasized issues of making assumptions, outside collaboration, original condition, and invasive treatments that have been central to ethnographic conservation for some time. The general session began with a talk by Landis Smith about the complexities of cleaning surfaces of Pueblo pottery. Loaded with useful technical details, this presentation emphasized the importance of combining documentation, ethnographic accounts and insights by curators and potters to make a decision regarding cleaning, noting that how a vessel should look is a moving target that changes with time and the viewer. Generally, there is a consensus that pots made as Western art can be cleaned to a higher degree than utilitarian wares. The type of clays and pigments used, firing conditions, surface finishing, “lime popping,” the impact of use on wear patterns and residues, coatings applied by potters and dealers, and old cleaning and repair methods for Pueblo pottery and are discussed in detail. Theresa Heady spoke about the ethics of working in the field and dealing with indigenous objects with cultural sensitivity. Her work at two Buddhist temples in Mongolia attempted to introduce our conservation values while respecting traditional practices that included resident artists re-painting old works, feeding resident birds as a religious ritual, and continuing replacement of old images with new ones. Students from the University of Mongolia were recruited to help with condition reporting. Deborah Bede presented the work of Mary Brooks and Dinah Eastop, “Matter Out of Place: Analyzing Conceptual Shifts in Preservation Values.” The core of the paper involved four models of dirt: “domestic” (related to household,) “Sacred” (such as relics,) “Art Historical” (particularly for authenticity,) and “Evidential” (including historical, forensic and legal significance.) Items with social ambiguity can be of greater interest, and the difference between soiled and clean object can impact its social significance. Virginia Green discussed the decision making process in her lab for determining if an artifact has museum dirt or ethnographic dirt and some successful cases of reducing soiling. Her experience with the Hopi, for example, included the concept that history is unified and there was not a distinction between pre- and post-collection dirt. This led to an unexpected opportunity to save time in treatment. Other groups felt it disrespectful to the maker to display an object in less than perfect condition. Green found covering cotton swabs with crepeline for cleaning wood with ethanol kept cotton fiber out of the wood. She urged caution when cleaning opaque vs translucent beads, since the inaccessible dirt inside translucent beads can make them appear gray after cleaning in contrast to the easier-to-clean opaque beads. Feather cleaning with non-ionic detergent and water followed by blow drying gave a nice appearance, but resulted in minor loss of barbs near the bottom of plumose feathers. The objects session began with fascinating research from Amber Tarnowski, Chris McNamara, Kristen Bearce and Ralph Mitchell about the nature of sticky microbes and dust on objects in historic houses. In this study, microbial populations were surprisingly greater indoors than they were in the soil outdoors. They feed on dust itself, with hydrocarbons from smog and pollution as sources of food as well. Most microorganisms are bacteria that produce a biofilm of exopolymers (mainly polysaccharides, proteins, and nucleic acids) that form a sticky film. This can make dust adhere to surfaces and becomes the food source for additional biological growth such as mold and fungus. Experiments testing effective methods of removal are now underway. Sara Moy presented her research on the potential of Groom/Stick to deposit residues. The product is more likely to leave residues of titanium dioxide and silicone when it is aged or used at elevated temperatures. Using soiled Groom/Stick to take advantage of reduced tack is discouraged because it can transfer contaminants. Instead, reduced tack should be achieved from lower temperature. Storing Groom/Stick in the refrigerator reduces tack and also prolongs its useful life. Stephen Koob gave a thorough review of why and how to clean glass from ancient to modern. He prefers Triton soaps 15:1 with a rinse in deionized or distilled water. Almost all glass can benefit from one good Museum cleaning during its lifetime, even crizzled glass, since washing removes the surface alkalis that can dissolve silica and free up more alkali over time. To extrapolate Steve’s information to bead disease, it would prolong the life of the bead to clean the alkali from its surface. Joanna Minderop, Cheryl Podisiki, and Ruth Norton offered their reflections about deinstalling and cleaning the 1950’s ethnographic and archaeological galleries at the Field Museum. Mounting methods were documented before deinstallation. Only 5% of 460 objects tested for arsenic were positive. Removing problem mounts from artifacts included the use of acetone poultices and vapor chambers to swell or dissolve adhesives. Wooden dowels were sometimes inserted into holes drilled into artifacts. These were removed by breaking the dowel flush with the surface, pricking a pilot hole with an awl, and drilling out most of the wood, followed by soaking the hole with acetone to facilitate picking out the remaining wood and adhesive bits. The wooden artifacts session included at talk by Alan Levitan about preserving large wood artifacts that do not fit in cases but are not architectural. Desert climates pose risk from erosion by windblown particles and exposure to sunlight. Fluctuations in temperature and RH can cause popping of nails and loosening of joints. Carpenter ants like fungally rotted wood, and termites can be found up to the border of Southeast Alaska. Generally, insects are the most severe problem in the Southeastern US. The fermosid termite is a new threat because it does not need to return to the soil on a daily basis as do our more common termites. In very cold zones, snow loading is a danger, but even painted surfaces can be preserved for 70 years or more. Sodium borates are an excellent line of defense against fungi and insects. They are water soluble, however, and leech out over time, even faster with soil contact. Softwood tends to decay from the inside out, and in one example of a large decayed interior cavity, mixing a foaming agent with the detergent helped to fully wet the surfaces. For repairs, Poly vinyl butyrols (PVB’s) are useful indoors for good penetration and better reversibility than epoxies. Used 1:1 in alcohol, PVB is a good adhesive. For exterior use, epoxies hold up better but have limited reversibility and penetration. The latter can lead to an “eggshell” effect where a surface layer is hardened and brittle with soft, untreated material below. Wooden or acrylic cradles help store and preserve oversize wooden items. Francesca Esmay and Roger Griffith contributed insights about cleaning methods for untreated wood. Although they were talking about plywood used by Donald Judd, it was interesting to hear how wet cleaning changed the color of the wood and could raise the grain. Dry cleaning by moving a blanket of crumbs along the grain with a large bristle brush or the use of a French polish rubber followed by vacuuming were preferred dry cleaning methods. Evaluation in the force of the rubbing revealed huge differences in personal style between conservators during treatment. Spectrophotometry showed a slight decrease in surface reflectance on some test panels after cleaning, but no drastic visible change. The buzz during the coffee breaks included a debate whether or not the approval of a curator was carte blanche to proceed with cleaning. Another topic was the possibility that the practice of making a sharp distinction between cleaned and uncleaned areas for the purposes of a DT photograph may leave a “cleaning line” after treatment. In the exhibitor’s area, a new product called “dry-gel” shows promise for both dessication and humidification procedures. The active ingredient is a corn starch based polymer that may be able to absorb more than 50 times it won weight in water, becoming a gel in the process. It is packaged in various sized paper packets. Artifex Equipment Inc is developing this product in conjunction with the National Agricultural Library of the USDA for use in book and paper conservation, but creative applications in ethnographic conservation may include humidification and disaster recovery.


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