There’s a benefit to being married to the person who determines the order of the talks: you can get your over with right away! My paper, “PEG Treatments at the Alaska State Museum” started the talks with a description of the challenges to treating waterlogged archaeological basketry with polyethylene glycol (PEG.) I’ve written about that elsewhere on the blog, so won’t repeat it here. I have to admit, I was so intent on taking notes on the next two talks (also involving PEG) that I neglected to capture even fuzzy images of them to add visual amusement to the blog. So above I show you a bit of one of the coffee breaks. We had two sponsors for the breaks, Optium and University Products. WAAC was very grateful to them for their sponsorship.
I don’t know if you can make it out, but this was the weather in Juneau’s local newspaper: hot and sunny throughout the lower 48, but chilly in all of Alaska, and rain for us all week. The real temperate rainforest, live.
After I chatted about PEG, Susanne Grieve presented a paper “Conservation of Waterlogged Wood from the USS Monitor” that was co-authored with Elsa Sangouard. The talk was similar to the one she presented at the 2009 AIC annual meeting in Los Angels, so I think you’ll be able to find a published version soon. Don’t be mixing up the Monitor with the Hunley...that’s a different project. Up until recently, Susanne was part of the treatment team, but now she teaches in the graduate Maritime Studies program at East Carolina University. The Monitor is an 1862 ironclad vessel famous for its rotating turret that became the precursor to all subsequent turrets. It was also part of a famous battle against the Merrimack. In addition to complicated treatments for the metal and the sensitive issue of human remains found in the turret, wood treatments have been challenging. Susanne described how hydroxide groups released by the degradation of cellulose make wood more hygroscopic as it deteriorates. Acid-base issues are catalyzed by metallic salts in the water. Bacteria lead to hydrolysis, and the cellulose reacts with seawater, eventually leaving only lignin. In wood associated with iron, sulfur-reducing bacteria are catalyzed by the iron to make sulfuric acid. Amazing that wood survives from the marine environment at all! The sulfur problem has been well publicized by those fighting it on the Swedish warship Vasa, but the Monitor seems to have even higher levels. Susanne described a treatment for a wooden chest that was horribly deteriorated. It was made of poplar, walnut and pine. It was impregnated with 20% PEG 400 and 5% PEG 1000 for 2 months. Ammonium citrate was used to chelate the iron. Three other artifacts, a hardwood shot ladle, a gun sponge, and some oak gun carriage parts were treated with a low concentration of PEG 400, around 10%. Some of the info relating to treatment of composite artifacts with PEG in a way that wouldn’t corrode metal seems to be part of someone’s thesis, so I won’t blab about that here. Likewise, it seems that information about treating Lignum vitae, a very hard wood sometimes used on ships, might be part of an upcoming WOAM conference and I shouldn’t jump the gun on that either. I was relieved to hear that Susanne prefers not to use biocides in the water if she can avoid it, which is my preference as well.
Monica Shah from the Anchorage Museum discussed the challenges of treating objects in Barrow, Alaska in a talk titled “Treating Ipiutak Objects Remotely: A Work in Progress.” Areas of coastline in Northern Alaska are actively eroding into the sea during winter storms due to changes in the climate. This has led to some stunning discoveries near Barrow by archaeologists and scientists working for the local Native corportation. Among these discoveries were artifacts found below a Thule-era cemetery. The Thule are the precursors of the modern Inupiat inhabitants of the area. However, the artifacts dated back even further to the Iputak era instead, and the previously known extent of the Iputak territory was considered to be Point Hope and not Barrow. So this discovery extended the range of the known Iputak territory, making these very important artifacts. They included the only known intact Iputak sled runners, each made from a single log. There were also some associated long wooden poles and a paddle. This wood was wet, not fully waterlogged. Dr. Claire Alix of the Univeristy of Alaska Fairbanks happened to be on site. She is a wood specialist and archaeologist studying driftwood in the area. Her research sounds very interesting. The interpretation possible for Native artifacts if we knew patterns of driftwood distribution might be really groundbreaking. Apparently, the sled runners, a wooden plank, and the paddle were spruce. The poles were willow. The facilities available for treatment of the wood had some wonderful walk-in freezers of different temperatures, but there were challenges in the availability and cost of supplies. For example, it would cost more than $1000 to get a 30% solution of PEG to treat one sled runner. Clean water was also a challenge. Monica had to mix various molecular weights of PEG together to get up to a workable concentration, which might not have been more than 10% in the end. However, since the wood was not fully waterlogged, this was enough. For the treatment of the poles, which sublimated quite a bit in the freezer and were no longer wet enough for PEG nor robust enough physically, Rhoplex was available and worked well in conjunction with teflon tape and distilled water from a spray bottle. One image showed what seemed to be a long skinny piece of wood hopelessly splintered and shattered, but then the next image showed it all back together again and bandaged up extensively with the Teflon tape, as if Monica reassembled a big 3-D jigsaw puzzle. From what I understood, Monica was able to work with these artifacts in person twice so far, with the rest of the work and monitoring done remotely through email and telephone conversations.
After lunch, Dave Harvey presented, “Things Shouldn’t Go Bump in the Night! Paranormal Research and Investigations in Museums and Historic Sites.” Certainly this was the most exotic of the papers following the conference theme: ”Where the Wild Things Are: Conservation in the Extreme.” Dave described some of the ground rules that are helpful in protecting collections and historic structures, not the least of which is taking into account that some people want to wander about in the dark. But he went on to describe the mutual benefits possible. These patrons of course want access to your facility, and could be well served by our assistance with the fundamentals of the scientific method and the rigors of documentation. But many of them are rigorous themselves, and copies of their documentation may enhance the files at your institution. Furthermore, some researchers have expensive equipment that might have applicability to our work. Dave demonstrated how a thermal sensing gadget revealed locations of windows that had been covered over, or leaks in a historic building. I was also taken with the idea that whether or not one believes in whatever presence is being hunted, it should not be permitted to be removed without the thoughtful consent of the caretakers/ owners of the property. It would be part of the history of the site. Paranormal tours are very popular, and creative public programming takes advantage of this interest. There are over 700 paranormal research teams around the country. Some of the hallmarks of good paranormal research are worth thinking about: recording all possible versions of oral history, since some change and some capture various aspects of the same tale. Appreciating the value of historical images, but being skeptical since images can have contaminants like light, dust, bugs, silvering on mirrors etc that could give a false image. Not making assumptions (so important with ethnographic material!) but in this case, just because something feels creepy doesn’t mean it is. Some things to beware of when working with these paranormal research teams: touching, cords/cables, walking around in the dark, insurance, food/drink, public use of confidential information, and their habit of sitting on historic chairs and beds. Finally, Dave mentioned I book I want to read: “Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” by Drew Gilpin Faust. Dave mentioned it in the context of understanding the time period of the site or event, but it just sounds like a good read!
The next talk, “Repair and Restoration of Two Sculptures by Benny Bufano,” was presented by Jonathan S. Fisher, an objects conservator in private practice in the San Francisco area. The talk began with a little art historical info about the artist, who I must agree is quite wonderful. Apparently the Mondavi Winery put out a nice catalog of his work, but he deserves to be more widely known. The first sculpture treatment involved a painstaking fill to hide the crack in a stone bear that had broken in half. Adhering the two halves with Akepox epoxy was the first step, but it took considerable patience and skill to prevent the fill area from “spreading.” His studio took advantage of a turntable for rotating the sculpture and socks full of old pennies as sandbag weights. Simple but effective. Chalk pencils were an especially useful tool in his arsenal of materials for hiding fills. He needed to match color, sheen and translucency in all angles in different light. I was especially taken with the whole debate on how far to go and when to stop. Where is the line where “better is the enemy of good?” The second treatment involved fabricating a faux marble ear on a very large owl sculpture. It began with a cleaning, using steam and towels. Jonathan likes to collaborate with artists in his treatments, in this case a sculptor he knows. The two of them were pondering a solution at lunchtime, and the local tradition of pouring the salsa over the chips instead of dipping led them to experiment with casting chunks of polyester resin mixed with pigments in ice cube trays, then smashing them up to serve as inclusions in a translucent matrix. It reminded me of Tony Sigel talking about marble or alabaster chips in some of his fills to give the desired translucency. Another good tip: cutting off a paintbrush to make a “stubby ” brush is an excellent tool. The shape for the ear was first made from plasticine, smoothed with rubbing alcohol and the coated with vaseline so the mold-making material would not stick. He used RTV silicone bulked with cabosil, a couple of coats’ worth, to make the mold. He likes Akepox 5010 because it is a water-clear gel often used as a stone epoxy, quick setting and doesn’t shrink or drip. I need to check with him about posting this information…even though it was discussed in public, the etiquette of blogging is still new to me regarding the conservation field and if Jonathan isn’t comfortable with it being here, I’ll pull it.
I was greatly looking forward to Dennis Calabi’s talk, “Backward Glances: Radical or Conservative” and I was not disappointed. As a paintings conservator for the past 40 years, he has seen many new products come into use, and many old ones disdained. He emphasized the need for more tools in our toolbox, not fewer. The old methods had flaws and limitations, but at least those were known and could be compensated for in a skilled treatment. New products are embraced enthusiastically, but often at the expense of the previous method. One example was the traditional wax resin lining. Knowing little about paintings, I did my best to follow him, but it sounds like wax resin was largely replaced by BEVA. Dennis says BEVA has a tendency sometimes to auto-reverse and the problems that arise when it does so can be difficult to correct. Furthermore, it seems that wax resin allows a certain amount of control in application not afforded by BEVA, requiring a lower temperature, allowing a person to line a painting by hand, and more reliable in unstable environments. Dennis was particularly disturbed when artworks with perfectly serviceable wax resin linings were removed in order to be replaced with more modern materials…putting the artwork at risk for little gain. The talk was illustrated with various photos of wild critters, for the amusement of multi-taskers in the audience, and some great shots of the interior of Dennis’ studio. I could look at images of other people’s studios all day…it is kind of like window-peeping or reading somebody’s diary…a workspace can be a little bit of a glimpse into someone’s head and from what I could tell, inside Dennis’ head is a whimsical, thoughtful, lovely place indeed. Dennis thought the profession could sometimes be too quick to dismiss those who place a premium on hand skills and intuition, labeling those who don’t rapidly embrace experimental new materials and techniques as “tired old hacks.” He reminded us that we are all building on the experience of our elders, and some treatments by those much-maligned “restorers” saved countless artworks from total loss. Some materials have been eliminated from the toolbox because of their homespun nature…saliva for example, was often avoided before Richard Wolbers made it acceptable again. Another excellent example involved the use of linen to line paintings instead of synthetics. Linen requires a lot of labor, like removing the slubs and sizing with rabbit skin glue (which is later drowned in wax.) But you can achieve a range of stiffnesses and the wax bonds well. With synthetic materials, sometimes it is difficult to come up with the right stiffness/thickness combo, and they sometimes fail to adhere. I’m sure we’ve got many analogies in the objects conservation world for old stuff we might have thrown out of the toolbox too hastily. At the end of his talk, he showed a cartoon of a man tied to the railroad tracks, saying to a plein air artist, “Dammit man, does it look like I have any yellow ochre?!”
When Scott Carrlee found out Chris Stavroudis wasn’t going to be attending the WAAC conference, he panicked a bit. The first thing I said was “you’ve gotta assign somebody to do AV!” He assigned Dana Senge, and that was one of his best decisions of the whole conference. This woman actually read the manual for the powerpoint projector before she arrived! At one point, a speaker said “Can I lighten this image??” and without missing a beat, Dana just reached over, clicked a few buttons through a couple of menus, and POOF she took care of it. Damn impressive. As far as I could tell, AV went off without a hitch. Well, except for my laser pointer finally dying after a dozen years of reliable service. Thankfully, Susanne Grieve lent hers to the cause.
The talk after the coffee break was “The Conservation of the Frances Davis Paintings from the Holy Trinity Church” by Carmen Bria, Camilla Van Vooren, and Hays Shoop. Carmen presented. This was the most locally relevent of all the talks, and the granddaughter of the artist was there. The treatment of the paintings was fairly straightforward…some cleaning, relining and putting a rigid backing in place. But the story of the artist and the chain of coincidence that saved these paintings was quite dramatic. The six large liturgical paintings had been in the Holy Trinity Church, and shipped to the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Art in Denver for treatment after many years of fundraising. They were slated to be shipped back when the church burned to the ground. These paintings are one of the few things that survived from the original church…a historic church where the artist was a founding member. I knew this story well and was even a bit player in the drama, but an unexpected treat was the very friendly joking Carmen did with Dennis, since Carmen used all the new-fangled materials on these paintings that Dennis had been discussing in his own talk just before the break.