The WAAC newsletter intends to publish abstracts from the conference, so I won’t repeat them here.
Albrecht Gumlicht introduced the morning sessions by saying how much he enjoys the mix of information presented and the courage to look at the profession from different angles. He feels these interesting and controversial talks are what make WAAC special. I am reminded of a talk I once heard by Elaine Gurian, who said that a museum should be a safe place for unsafe ideas. Indeed, the friendly, casual atmosphere of open-mindedness and excitement at the conference was palpable. I think when people consume alcohol and Red Bull, they are seeking the same sensation of relaxed, focused sharpness. I saw neither of those substances in evidence, however.
Seth Irwin presented “A Comparison of Two Soot Removal Techniques: “Dry Ice Dusting” and Rubber-Based Chemical Sponges” co-authored by Randy Silverman. Seth spent a good part of his last year and a half at the Queen’s graduate conservation training program working on this project, which sought to compare techniques for fire soot recovery techniques. Disaster recovery companies train their crews to an industry standard that involves wiping with rubber-based soot sponges, commonly known by brand names such as Absorene or Gonzo, and then cutting off the dirty area to reveal fresh sponge. FTIR confirmed that their composition is identical to your common household rubber band. Randy Silverman suggested dry ice dusting as an alternate method, one that was used for the removal of lead paint on the Utah State Capitol building. Randall Heath is the owner and operator of the company “Cold Sweep” and this dry ice technology was the one tested. The sample set was 20 books…5 leather covered (both sheep and calf), 5 open weave cloth, 5 tight weave cloth and 5 paper covered books. There were a few more books that had no analysis but were books to practice on. The books were all cut in half and analyzed with surface metrology/ profilography by topographic scanning at the Novalus aluminum manufacturing company. It uses a laser to read the surface and give a 3-D scan on a nanometer scale. Takes three hours to scan a single square centimeter! They also did colorimetry at CCI. The National Fire Lab in Ontario was able to include the books in a test burn to make good sooty deposition on the books. Can you imagine how fun that was? This presentation (and I am hoping the published paper will appear in the 2009 AIC annual meeting Book and Paper postprints?) includes a ton of great info about many details of getting reliable results. For example, the way they packaged the books to prevent disturbing the soot. Or the clever Mylar templates to make sure they could line up the exact same areas for analysis again. The specifics on the Alpheus Precision Series Model T-2 dry ice dusting machine and its use were also described, and operator experience is important. Seth described how the dry ice dusting machine works. For the fine mist, a brick of dry ice is placed in the machine and a blade shaves it to the size of a sugar crystal (or you can go up to the size of a grain of rice) and a compressor blows that through a nozzle. 30 psi was the lowest pressure setting for this machine. Bigger things like walls and sculpture require pellets to be loaded into the machine. The dry ice crystals expand to 700X their size and cause the soot or other deposit to pop off. Dry ice sublimes (that’s right from solid to gas) so there is no moisture unless you are working on something that might have a temperature issue, like metal. Since there are no residues like from sand or walnut shells, you don’t have the containment issues. The metrics for describing the results of this study are fairly sophisticated. The conclusion seemed to be that if you had a little bit of surface abrasion, that correlated to the soot being gone. The soot sponge was better at removing soot for this reason. Dry ice was better at preventing abrasion, but didn’t always remove all traces of soot. However, it outperformed the sponge in dealing with 3-D surfaces like spines, edges and crevices. Both did well with mitigating odor.
When I saw the title of Karen Zukor’s talk, “Undocumented Worker” I expected some WPA or CCC-era artwork about some long-suffering 1930’s worker and the rise of unions and the complicated paper treatment she had to do on the valuable print by some artist I wouldn’t know. In fact, her talk was a fascinating account of three different major projects she has worked on that have challenged her professional ethics because she was forbidden from fully documenting her work. The talk was full of intrigue, code names, and secrecy. In one case, it involved working for a wealthy patron. In another it was the Federal Government. And the third case was so sensitive I am afraid to mention any details here at all. Working for the Federal Governement involved bizarre working conditions that limited not only documentation, but also bathroom breaks, supplies available, and even what she wore. Aside from feeling compromised on AIC ethics for documentation, it has been difficult for Karen because some of this work has been the most rewarding of her carrer, but she can’t discuss it with colleagues because “I’ve never worked on it and I was never there.” So you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was a fascinating talk.
Jennifer McGlinchey presented “Photograph Conservation Internship in Alaska” describing her last few months working in the Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections (including a survey) and doing trainings around the state for the Archives Rescue Corps, a program funded by a Connecting to Collections IMLS grant. A 2006 Heritage Health Preservation Survey identified only 26 archives statewide in Alaska. Since Frances Field began working on the ARC project, she has found more than 105. 60% are in poor-to-fair condition, and 90% said they needed training in care and storage. Apparently, at these trainings Jennifer included a terrific short synopsis of photography as it applies to techniques used in Alaska, and I heard from many people how terrific that talk was. There was also instruction for the caretakers of these archives on testing for cellulose nitrate, the Beilstein test for chlorides in PVC plastics, pH testing for acidic enclosures and testing for light levels. I really liked her presentation technique for this talk…she would show images of historical events, and say “I saw the Pipeline built” and “I experienced the Klondike Gold Rush.” What a clever way of describing both the material and also the effect the images had on her. She identified some issues on the Alaska State Library’s historical collection, like cellulose acetate netgatives stored with prints, camphor plasticizer recrystallizing on the surface of cellulose acetate negatives, and some silver mirroring and intereference colors appearing as the negatives deteriorate. The collection also had several thousand gelatin glass plate negatives that were starting to flake around the edges. She showed library staff how to do basic consolidation around their edges with warm gelatin and a small soft brush. Monday August 17th was supposed to be her last day, and a small going-away party, but alas that was the day the Archives flooded and she was called upon to lend her expertise. Her images and description of the event were riveting, and then I realized that somehow between wrapping up her internship responsibilities, helping with the emergency, and getting ready to leave Alaska, she miraculously found time to re-write her WAAC talk to include this info! Impressive. Red Bull perhaps? Jennifer is now in the third-year internship at the MFA in Houston. Lucky them!
Valery Monahan presented “The Ice Patch Archaeological Collections: Conserving 9000 years of Yukon Hunting History.” I was thrilled to hear this talk and finally meet Valery. The ice patch phenomenon is yielding some amazingly preserved ancient artifacts. If you haven’t heard about this yet, it is mindblowing. In 1997, some Dall Sheep hunters were on an alpine ridge in the SW Yukon territory, and got whiff of a barnyard smell. Coming out of the ice, they saw vast black areas of caribou dung in a place where there had been no caribou for 80 years. It was a north-facing slope at considerable elevation, and snow had covered it for thousands of years. Around 100 of these ice patches have been identified in SW Yukon alone…revealing 9000 years of layer stratigraphy of caribou dung. And where the caribou go, so go the hunters. Artifacts are being found, as well as the remains of ancient caribou, birds, and small mammals. Approximately 180 artifacts have been found in cooperation with First Nations representatives. The youngest artifacts are Gold Rush era, but the oldest artifact is a dart fragment dated 9,450 BP (calibrated.) Valerie is responsible for the conservation of these artifacts, which have included antler, wood, sinew, hide, feathers and paint. The preservation is so remarkable, some of the artifacts look to be only 100 years old but are in fact thousands of years old. The recovery of the artifacts is salvage-only at this point, with helicopters checking the sites during the short thaw period, which may only last a couple of weeks and does not happen reliably every year. This year, for example, was not a good year despite the warm temperatures in many places. The artifacts are generally not waterlogged, in spite of the threat of running and pooling meltwater. Slow drying in the freezer has been successful so far. The artifacts are of such age and importance it is preferable not to consolidate or add anything that might interfere with later analysis. While the range of dates for the artifacts covers 9000 years, the artifacts represent a single activity: big game hunting. They therefore show the changes in that activity over time. Study of the artifacts also reveals the resources available in the area through time, such as forest succession from hardwoods to softwoods. As the world gets warmer, ice patches are being found in many other areas, including Alaska, Wyoming, and Norway.
Susanne Grieves presented again! This time a talk called “Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: The 2008/09 Ice Mitigation and Artefact Conservation Programme at Scott’s Terra Nova Hut Cape Evans, Antarctica.” The author of the talk was Lizzie Meek, but she couldn’t be at WAAC, so Susanne was presenting. Susanne was at the site from February to October of 2008. She was at Scott base in the Ross Sea area, the New Zealand base…McMurdo is the American one nearby. Scott base is painted green to be visible in an emergency, and McMurdo is red. Scott base has about 120 people working there in the summer and 12 in winter, and the buildings are connected by hallways. McMurdo has about 1500 in summer and 150 in winter. The Antarctic Heritage Trust is a charitable trust begun in 1987…it doesn’t own the huts or the artifacts, it only exists for research, conservation and education. One way in to the area is from Chile, another is from Christchurch in New Zealand. The huts were prefabricated in Australia or England and then hauled ashore, which is why they aren’t far from the coast. The time period is right around 1900…a few years before, and a little more than a decade after. Last inhabitation of the huts was around 1917. The conservation challenges are numerous. From 1950 to around 1980, the area saw a rise in tourism, up to around 3,800 people each year. Trash was long thrown in the channel, and souvenirs were taken from the huts of the early explorers, especially the huts that were easy to reach. There is a penguin colony in the area who have also made themselves at home, and unfortunately penguin poo is nasty, stinky stuff that dries hard as concrete. In the 1960’s and 70’s many potentially historical items were burned during “cleanups.” Chlorides and salts from the seawater corrode metals and damage wood…seawater has about 35,000 ppm but the snow has almost 33,000. There are thought to be around 18,000 artifacts, but 10,000 are in the Terra Nova hut. The AHT lab has treated about 2,538 objects so far. Susanne described the ethical, personal, and professional challenges she faced working in that difficult environment. In the hut, there were challenges with the weight of the snow, the snow getting inside, the meltwater flooding, the moisture and humidity,and even ice heaving up under the floorboards. Manually removing snow and ice was incredibly time consuming…it would take 7 days just to dig out and begin work. Recently a snow groomer was employed to help with the digging, and a breakthrough occurred when solar gain from dark material was shown to have a huge effect on melting the snow away. They used volcanic gravel for this purpose. Amazing futuristic vortex generators were also employed to change the course of the wind and thus minimize snowdrift. A remarkable project was undertaken to pull up the flooring and floorboards and remove all the snow and ice below that was causing heaving. They were able to re-lay the flooring materials with such accuracy that they reused the old nail holes. There is a blog for the ongoing conservation work as well as a website for the work that the AHT does.
Michele Austin Dennehy presented “On Again, Off Again: Conservation Aspects in Accessible Display Case Design” about the exhibit cases for the artifacts on loan to the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. The artifacts discussed by Michele are coming from the National Museum of Natural History, with the Arctic Study center exhibit planning to open in spring 2010 and be on display for at least 7 years. The intent is to allow the artifacts on display to be removed from exhibit and taken behind the scenes for up-close study by researchers. To accomodate this, the mounts and display cases had to have unusual engineering and planning. The cases have floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open with actuators. The mounts are related to vertical rods that tie into the ceiling to meet seismic code. The cases are double-sided, and objects are displayed at use-height according to the purpose of the artifact. A stem on the artifact mount fits into a bracket that extends from the vertical rod. The bracket arm has a thumb screw to hold the mount stem, and mounts have allen screws as well. The engineers wanted a mechanical tightener, such as a screwdriver. But that means tools in with artifacts, so tethers were made for the tools, and additional threads were added to the screws to make the delicate task of accessing the hardware without dropping screws easier. The mount-makers were the heros of the project. Benchmark did the first phase and then it was Ely, Inc. Some folks worked for both companies. Sounded to me like there were maddeningly typical issues where the desires of designers were prioritized over the well-being of the artifacts…not installing double doors to consultation rooms where artifacts would need to go, trying to avoid plexi, trying to avoid any mounts touching the deck, designers wanting things to be as vertical as possible, etc. But it also sounded like many of the fears of the conservators were unfounded, and the artifacts were not as difficult to access as feared. Special carts were designed to carry the artifacts to the viewing rooms as well as hold the artifact while viewed up-close. It will be interesting to hear how this all goes…the exhibit aims to provide a very unusual level of access to the artifacts, and has taken great pains to do so safely. There is a huge community of Native artists, scholars, and students in Alaska for whom access to this material would not have been possible without this project. From what I have heard, the concept is pretty groundbreaking and many entities are going out on a limb to make it happen. Expect to hear more about this in the coming year.
Albrecht Gumlicht presented “Sand or Snow? Preparation of an Archival Model by Renowned Modernist Architect John Lautner for a Traveling Exhibition.” The Getty Research Institute was recently given a huge collection of sketches, drawings, photos, and architectural models from this important artist, who died in 1994. He was famous for modernist, geometric, often futuristic-looking buildings in both sandy desert and snowy mountain environments. The buildings played to their surroundings beautifully. The collection came with some issues, both in terms of conservation and because many items were committed for a traveling exhibit through the Hammer Museum, “Between Earth and Heaven: Architecture by John Lautner.” The model Albrecht discussed was very futuristic, with a veranda living room that swivelled outdoors James-Bond style by push button. It also had a tent-like roof with three points of contact with the ground. The roof on the model was detachable, and the conservators left it that way to make transport easier. The building was sited in a mountain environment, so the artist used table salt to indicate snow on the roof and the surrounding topography, but much salt had been lost or turned a disfiguring splotchy yellow by the adhesive used to make it stick. There were many aspects to the treatment, but the most fascinating was how to reintegrate the look of the snow, since it looked rather ugly as it was and could easily be mistaken for sand. Because the architect had buildings in both sandy and snowy locales, it was really important to get the snow right. But maintaining the original material and adding more without facing the same adhesive issues was a big challenge. The eureka moment was provided by colleague Nancy Yacoo Turner, who suggested that the new “snow” did not need to be permanently attached…a method was simply needed to apply an appropriate product when interpretation or exhibition was desired. The magic substance ironically was white Sonora desert sand sold as “Vita-Sand” for pet lizard enclosures. The product has a white color, similar grain size to the salt, and was easy to apply with a sieve. For the curved roof, a “wig-like” secondary cover was made of Tyvek with the sand attached with PVA adhesive. After exhibition, the “snow” could be removed in about 20 minutes with a soft paintbrush and a Nilfisk equipped with a rheostat. The packing job was really nice, too, employing Tyvek straps that attached to foam bumpers with stainless steel T-pins and foam disk washers. Near the end, Albrecht had a hilarious statement that went something like, “We used sand to cover up salt that was meant to look like snow that we didn’t want to have mistaken for sand but that tempted the visitor to taste it because it looked like sugar…”
The WAAC business meeting went very quickly, since many officers were not present and many reports were not submitted. Marie Laibinis-Craft is the new President, Dana Senge is the new Vice-President, Brynn Bender is the new Secretary, Natasha Cochrane continues as secretary, Chris Stavroudis (aka Mr. WAAC) will continue as a member-at-large (and a sort of untitled and unpaid Executive Director, it seems?) and new members-at-large will be Rhea Carter and Bev Perkins. Apparently, elections this year were very close. It is a rather strange experience to agree to run for the board and then not get elected, but I have to admit I take elections much more seriously when I have a choice of candidates. Next election will try to incorporate an electronic ballot, from what I hear. Perhaps some paper ballots, some electronic ones? And next year’s meeting? September 1-3, 2010 in Portland, Oregon. And finally, even though the out-of-the-way-gosh-the-economy-is-in-the toilet-right-now conference in Juneau had only about 40 attendees, it didn’t lose money for WAAC. WHEW!