AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Archaeology!

June 14, 2011

Cool checklist of supplies to take in the field, find it on the ADG website!

This was a good conference for those of us involved in archaeological conservation.  The Objects Specialty Group and Archaeological Discussion Group gave a two-hour group luncheon, sponsored by Kremer Pigmente, with a panel discussion: “Ethical Issues in Archaeological Field Conservation.”  Whose idea was this??  Brilliant!  Nancy Odegaard, Rae Beaubien, , and Eric Nordgren each got up and gave their take on several questions that each had been given beforehand.  Angelyn Bass Rivera discussed site management for the Laetoli Hominid Trackway in Northern Tanzania, Maya wall paintings in San Bartolo Guatemala, and the Frijoles Canyon Cavates in Bandolier National Monument, New Mexico.  Tourism to see these sites is a powerful factor that conservation is trying to balance with methods like masonry support of tunnels in Guatemala that double as barriers to close access but still allow photographs, or solar powered environmental monitors.  Rae Beaubien talked about interfacing with archaeologists…how they can be empowered to do certain activities like block lifting, but it is helpful to have an understanding beforehand about the parameters of “fragile.”  She also discussed how we might better position ourselves as part of the research team in grants they write, and how we can help them meet the stewardship goals in the AIA code.  There was also discussion about being vigilant about not enhancing the market value of the material that is being excavated.  Rae has been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to help “authenticate” things that may be trafficked illicitly, but of course the term “authenticate” is tricky ethically for those of us in the museum world.  Resources museum have in conservation expertise, however, is helpful for law enforcement.  There are problems these days with illicit archaeological material coming into the US through Canada, and problems are compounded by the fact the US has not signed some of the conventions that would require objects to be sent back to source countries.   Eric Nordgren highlighted some of the issues faced in conservation of maritime material.  Cast iron, for example, is notorious for being permanently weakened by the corrosion process known as “graphitization” and may require considerable care and support after treatment.  Sometimes it cannot support its own weight anymore.  Treatment of maritime artifacts is often part of a shipwreck recovery, and the project can be really big…20 years is not uncommon…and it is crucial that someone is devoted to seeing it through to the end.  There is a lot of well-intentioned public interest in the field, and this needs to be leveraged ethically to help preserve the resources.  It is not ethical to recover material that cannot be cared for, including post treatment storage and display.  I asked later about the divide between conservators trained in AIC ethics and those trained in the Texas A&M and Eastern Carolina University programs.  Erik (and others I spoke to at the conference) felt that the culture is changing with the new generation, and the old divide is gradually disappearing.  Nancy Odegaard discussed some of the delicate aspects of human remains.  She was never seeking to do this kind of work, but has been pulled into it by circumstance.  Early in her education, conservators used to be asked to do reconstruction for measurements and other such intervention.  Now conservators are contacted more often for issues involving condition, documentation, expertise about preventing contamination, or preservation of associated material.  Did you know that Hollinger Metal Edge  now sells a partitioned archival human remains box?  Catalog number HBR-1 sells for $27.50 each. 

In another case, the Kennewick Man, she was asked to monitor any change in condition with study of the remains.  With 300-400 pieces, the solution was to design a custom box with individual cavities for the pieces and to monitor the debris and soiling between study sessions.  Part of the discussions in the Q&A was about interfacing with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs).  On a state-by-state basis, there has been some success in building those connections.  Virginia and Maryland, for example, and things are really going in a good direction here in Alaska thanks to Judy Bittner and Dave McMahan.  Apparently on the national level, the agency that coordinates SHPOs has not been terribly responsive to overtures from the AIC.  Looks like for the time being, going state-by-state will get the most momentum. 

Thanks, Kremer Pigmente, for sponsoring the OSG/ADG Joint Luncheon!

After lunch, Donna Strahan gave a talk, “Beyond the Field Lab: Emergency Conservation in the Granicus River Valley of Northwestern Turkey.”  Donna works in the conservation lab at the Bronze Age site of Troy (a German excavation) and they are often called upon to help with emergency treatment of looted tombs in the wider geographic area.  In order to still cover the bases at Troy, they’ve begun rotating teams of conservators to help with these incidents as they arise.  In one case, a drippy stain on the exterior of an alabaster vessel turned out to be swipe marks from ribbons dipped in murex purple pigment from mollusks as part of a funerary ceremony.  Details of a sarcophagus, including a chiseled off damnatio memoriae distinct from the looter’s tool marks (from Wikipedia: Damnatio memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning “condemnation of memory” in the sense of a judgment that a person must not be remembered. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State.  The result is to erase someone from history.”)  There seems to be thread running through some of these archaeological talks that conservators are valued as much for their interpretive and research skills as their bench skills.

Next was “Recovering Painted Organic Objects from Ancient Mesoamerica: Strategic Considerations in the Field and Lab.” by Rae Beaubien.  She’s dealt with many deposits that are confused through collapse, decay, and seismic disturbance.  Examining the fragments as well as ethnohistoric information and the persistence of traditional techniques in contemporary art gives an idea of the materials used and their properties.  For example, sometimes an organic substrate is painted on both sides (a bowl, perhaps) or there can be impressions of the lost organic material remaining in the stucco ground.  “Articulated lifting” is one technique that joins groups of fragments before lifting.  Selective use of methylcellulose/ Japanese tissue versus B-72 allows flexibility in the reversing of one adhesive and not the other in the lab.  Mylar sheets can help separate layers in the deposit as well as prevent seeping of adhesive where it is not desired.  Block lifting can buy time and keep fragments in the original position, but decisions need to made as to which adhesives are used how, and whether it should be dealt with top-down or bottom-up.

I was very eager to hear Emily Williams’ talk, “Deep Storage, Reburial as a Conservation Tool.”  There was some discussion of this at the 2010 WOAM conference regarding underwater material, and it seems that work in Marstrand, Sweden might be part of the vanguard, actually.  This reminded me of the curation crisis discussed at the 2011 Alaska Anthropological Association meeting…36 CFR 79 establishes standards for archaeological repositories, but there is not enough space for everything that gets excavated.  At Colonial Williamsburg, there are 60 million artifacts, and another million or so is excavated each year.  Only half the historic area has been excavated so far.  Emily’s  section was recently given some 50 pallets of excavated architectural material that plugged up 45% of their new storage growth space.  They opted for reburial of non-diagnostic pieces in the cellar of a current excavation on the Colonial Williamsburg property.  They divided the crates by site (used the old pine boxes but would have preferred to use HDPE crates), divided the material into brick/ stone less than 4”/ stone greater than 4”, bagged the material and labeled it with Tyvek tags and both Sharpie and pencil, filled around the crates with engineering sand and then backfilled the cellar.  The needs of this poorly documented architectural collection was out of balance with the needs of the collections as a whole.  I liked the quote about their approach, “holisitic rather than particularistic.”  In order to do this kind of reburial, access to undeveloped and protected land is necessary.

Suzanne Davis and Claudia Chemello gave some great data on the business end of things in “Get Your Fieldwork for Nothing and Your Sherds for Free: Compensation for Archaeological Field Conservation.”  The results of a survey!  66% of this data involves folks doing fieldwork outside the US, mostly the ancient Mediterranean and near East.  Salary data was optional in order to get more responses, and there were 116 usable responses that were analyzed from conservators who had done fieldwork in the past 10 years.  Less than half gave salary info.  Among the more interesting tidbits: 78% had a graduate degree, but 44% had been working in conservation for 5 years or less.  68% were on site for 1-2 months at a time.  All respondents had done terrestrial sites, only 13% had experience with underwater sites.  Most of the work done involved artifact processing, documentation, training, and consultation.  Almost a quarter, however, wrote no final report.  82% who gave salary data were paid a salary separate from travel and lodging.  That salary amount, however, varied a lot…from $58 per week to $8000 per week!  On average the typical figure was about $1000 per week.  69% reported they worked at reduced rates or volunteered.   Satisfaction rate was only about 41%.  Data does not reveal how many field conservators there are out there, and at this point AIC does not collect that information, either.  It is interesting that since the majority of conservators who do fieldwork have been in the profession less than 5 years, they cannot be listed on AIC’s Find-A-Conservator service.

Susanne Grieve, a pivotal person in the world between conservators and archaeologists, presented “Archaeologists and Avocational Conservators: Compromising Principles or Increasing Awareness?”  For me, this talk was HOTLY anticipated.  I’ve been treading these delicate waters in Alaska myself.  As I write this, there are bits of wood and historic sailcloth in PEG in collaborative treatments between non-conservators and the Alaska State Museum.  Suzanne described an avocational underwater club in Namibia along the Skeleton Coast who are passionate about preserving the heritage from the diamond mining era at very remote sites.  They were using outdated techniques and commercial products.  Suzanne provided guidance on the ethics of conservation and attempted to channel the huge pride they have in preserving their heritage into constructive activities, but described her concerns in trying to prevent harm from coming to the artifacts without encouraging aggressive interventive treatments in a place where access to conservation literature and supplies is scarce.

Noon on Thursday was the Archaeological Discussion Group business session, well attended by at least 25 people.  The group, founded at the 1998 Arlington Virginia AIC meeting, is trying to refine its mission statement and goals.  Someone told me Jeff Maish also led an AIC archaeological discussion group of some kind back in the late 1980’s?  That was before my time in the profession.  Wonder what happed that time around?  A lot of the focus right now is on outreach.  The Archaeological Discussion Group  now has a page on the AIC website.   Have you seen the FAQ they wrote about conservation for the SHA website?  It’s really good!  There is a Facebook page, too, but it’s a little bit sleepy.  There has been sporadic intense work on a “position paper” about unprovenanced material.  Vanessa Muros told us about Day of Archaeology July 29, an opportunity for anyone involved in archaeology to post to a weblog .  On another front, the ADG is working on having “booth swaps” between archaeological organizations and AIC.  Kent Severson worked hard to get an AIA booth swap.  More insights on the care of newly excavated material: archaeologists at Old World sites have limited time to do research on artifacts before they go into storage in national repositories and are harder to access.  This influences the decision to have conservators on site in order to process and assemble artifacts for study in a limited timeframe.  Also, many countries will not issue a permit without a conservator on board.  In the US, a conservator is more likely to be on board if they can contribute to the research goals and any planned publications.  Another angle is the repository contracts, which stipulate how artifacts have to be delivered in order to be accepted.  Check out the silica gel conditioning gadget Rachael Perkins Arenstein brought to the meeting! has a cool little unit for conditioning silica gel. Rachael Perkins Arenstein did a demo at the Archaeological Discussion Group.  The one she shows in the following photos can condition about 3kg of silica gel to a specific RH in about 36 hours.  There is also a bigger trunk-sized version.  I guess the bucket-sized unit costs a few hundred dollars, but as Rachael said, “that may well be the price of sanity.”


AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Mütter Museum Visit

June 14, 2011

I had long heard of this museum, devoted to a 19th century medical teaching collection of models, skeletons, fluid specimens and the like.  The abundant advertisements in Philly bill it as “Disturbingly Informative.”  I am fascinated by anatomy, bones, art, the history of science…always been attracted to the unusual. As an undergrad I considered medical illustration as a career.  But this place struck me all wrong.  On a collections care level, things were dusty and most of the LED HOBO dataloggers seemed to have dead batteries.  Exhibit design had a vaguely Vincent Price feel to it, with a wide mishmash of label styles, some including gothic font.  Dark wood, polished brass and red/black color schemes predominate.  I listened to some of the descriptions of forensic skeletal examination that could be dialed up on a cell phone, and thought those were quite good.  But the professionalism of the recordings was at odds with the overall tone of the museum.  It has a Coney Island freakshow feel to it, pandering to the titillating and weird, in a word: tawdry.  In general, I don’t mind tawdry.  Kitsch.  Camp.  Quirky.  I’ve got several tattoos, including my wedding ring.  One of my favorite bands is called “My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult.”  If it were just the gruesome medical instruments and the detailed wax models of tissue diseases, this approach would not bother me.  But it seems at least half of the collection is comprised of human remains.  Skeletons, skulls, desiccated flayed children, babies in jars, preserved body parts, etc.  Most of these people suffered considerably during their lives.  Few consented directly to having their remains exhibited.  Some labels describe prices paid for human remains.  There is an extensive skull collection, and I saw one label describing a bone as removed from a grave in Hawaii.  There is a lack of dignity in the interpretation of these remains.  Culturally, intellectually, and personally I found the interpretation disappointing.  My museum career as a conservator of ethnographic and archaeological objects involves a heightened awareness of the sensitivity of human remains, particularly issues surrounding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  I am aware that many cultures, ethnic groups, and religions would consider any display of their human remains offensive.  Most likely, some of those individuals are represented among the human remains on exhibit.  Intellectually, I was disappointed that the exhibitions seemed directed at my visceral response to the collections and not my intellectual curiosity.  Historical context, anatomy, and advances in medicine and forensics were not given the center stage that could legitimize the existence of such a museum.  This museum is part of the College of Physicians, founded in 1787 as the oldest professional medical organization in the United States.  It has a better story to tell than the one the current exhibition style is delivering.  On a personal level, it was a little mortifying to think of my child in a jar, or how my grandmother would have felt having her breast on exhibit.  For myself, I would be fine with having my own remains on exhibition.  I would not even mind being in the Mütter Museum.  I don’t have a sense that my own body is sacred.  But out of respect for the inherent dignity of those deceased human beings in the Mütter Museum collection whose remains are on display, I wish the museum’s interpretive mission were more aligned with the mission of the College of Physicians:

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia advances the cause of health, and upholds the ideals and heritage of medicine.

The specific mission of the Mutter Museum is to collect, preserve and interpret medical collections in order to engender curiosity and knowledge about the body and health; to increase understanding of medicine in its cultural context.

A search of the internet revealed a major factor behind the interpretive tone of the museum: Gretchen Worden.  She joined the staff in 1975 with a BA in physical anthropology, spending her entire career there.  She became the director in 1988, and took visitation of a quiet 5000 per year to an impressive 60,000.  She was much beloved in many quarters, and passed away in 2004.

AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: General Sessions

June 14, 2011

From karaoke night the eve before at "Yakitori Boy." I have photos and video of conservators doing karaoke. You know who you are...

The theme of the meeting this year was Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Ethical Principles and Critical Thinking in Conservation.  Barbara Applebaum kicked off the talks with “Conservation in the Twenty-First Century: Will a Twentieth Century Code of Ethics Suffice?”  I agreed with her that yes, it will.  I think the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice are among the best things ever to come out of AIC.  Lori Trusheim’s paper in the Objects Session a few days later illustrated that…she used those core AIC documents extensively in navigating treatment decisions in private practice.  I myself relied on those documents heavily when I was (briefly) in private practice, and I refer to them several times a year when educating the public and my constituents.  AIC’s written code is the most explicit of all the conservation organizations (did you know that back in the day IIC refused to ratify the original document?) and ours is the only one with commentaries.  I think of the commentaries as rather like the “rationale” section of a treatment report.  Barbara also suggested that after a decade or so of AIC being focused on internal affairs like certification, we ought to shift our view toward the outside world.  We ought to celebrate the 50 years of training programs and accomplishments.  We ought to be more people-centric, too.   Interestingly, when she said we should push for courses about examination in art history training programs and complained that art history has a problem of being taught from photographs alone there was spontaneous and vocal support from the crowd…

The AIC continues a happy trend of including non-conservators as general session speakers in philosophy professors James Janowski’s “Restoring the Spirit and the Spirit of Restoration: Dresden’s Frauenkirche as Model for Bamiyan’s Buddhas.”  Huge stone statues of Buddha, including on 50m high, were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.  The UN declared it a World Heritage Site in 2003.  There are now just empty niches where the 6th century sculptures stood.  The fragments of the interior sandstone are mostly available for reconstruction, but the outer layers of clay that made the surface and clothing were largely pulverized.  However, images and information about the statues exist, making reconstruction to an astounding 1.6cm accuracy possible.  Each sculpture would cost at least $30 million to reconstruct, but Professor Janowski compared that to the cost of a Formula One racing car, and apparently there is international support for rebuilding as well as an overwhelming majority of Afghans who want to see restoration.  There is a dilemma about the power of the site as it is with the empty niches, and also the question of whether or not there is enough stability in the region to prevent destruction from happening again.  The iconic Dresden Protestant church the Frauenkirche was used as an analogy.  Destroyed in WWII, it was a ruin and memorial to some 30,000 who died.  After the Berlin Wall came down, there was momentum to have it restored.  In 1993 they began to sort the pieces, in 2003 it was rebuilt (45% of the original stones were exactly placed) and in 2005 the church was reconsecrated. 

Textile conservator Deborah Bede’s talk, “Legacies from the Past: Previous Repairs”  included some fascinating historical repairs on flags, including the “Fowler-Ritchie Method” where Mrs. Fowler and her daughter Mrs. Ritchie would place a linen backing behind a textile such as a flag, then a silk net over the top and stitch them together with rows of buttonhole stitches over the entire flag, in essence creating a secondary net.  The examples Deborah showed looked quite acceptable.  There were also less successful historical treatments, such as Thomas Welter’s method of adhering the textile between layers of brown silk crepeline with ethyl acetate, stitching on a machine with nylon monofilament, washing out the adhesive, and then ironing.  Hmmm…not so good.  Contamination from the treatment would also make dye analysis tricky.  Here are some of the aspects Deborah considers before making treatment decisions on textiles: original maker’s repairs, repairs during the item’s useful life, historic repairs, desired interpretive state, cost, potential damage in removing old repairs, the aesthetic look, retreatability, potential for future analysis, time, and priority in the collection as a whole.

Gabrielle Beentjes of the National Archives of the Netherlands gave a presentation, “Digitizing Archives: Does it Keep or Destroy the Originals?”  We all know that digitizing archival collections can aid greatly with access and help preserve the original with less handling.  In this way digitization is a preservation activity.  Often, archival materials may be unbound to meet the needs of digitization technology.  However, there may be some situations that ought to give us pause.  Gabrielle has a flow chart for decision-making, as the value of the appearance of archival documents is not well researched.  Original binding, original stitching, and the original archival order and information about ways that people archived in the past may be destroyed by digitization requirements.  She used the archives of the Dutch East India Company as an example.  Another caution: will the digital records be accessible in 50 years?

At any conference, there are talks you miss and wish you could’ve attended.  Here are the top ones I’d like to track down later on the AIC blog :

“The Off-Grid Museum” by Dr Poul Klenz Larsen from the National Museum of Denmark and Tim Padfield, who has written great stuff on museum climates.

“Evaluation of Cleaners for Removal of Crude Oil from Historic Structures”  by Payal Vora at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The January 12, 2010 Earthquake in Haiti: Building a Conservation Foundation from the Ground Up.” By Stephanie Hornbeck, Chief Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Project.

“Comparative Study of Commercially Available Rust Converters” by Jason Church, Anna Muto and Mary F. Striegel of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

“A Comparison of the Use of Sodium Metabisulfate and Sodium Dithionite for Removing Rust Stains from Paper” by Seth Irwin, who did this research during his many months traveling around Alaska doing paper conservation and preservation training.

AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Objects, Textiles, and Wood

June 14, 2011

Majestic-looking shot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Vinod Daniel kicked off the non-archaeological OSG sessions with “Tangible vs Intangible Collections: The Journey of Two Objects”, co-authored by Dion Peita.  The Australian Museum dates back to 1827, containing some 60,000 Pacific collections among its 110,000 artifacts, one million archaeological objects and 13 million Natural History items.  He described artifacts that are allowed to be used in ceremonies and the kinds of programs that connect cultures to their heritage.  They have a Visiting Elders program, where access is open to touching and feeling the artifacts as well.  Artifacts were described as, “Handprints of the ancestors that continue to live, just as ancestors continue to live through their descendants.”  The museum is keen to connect with Diaspora kids whose ancestors are from the Pacific Islands, as these kids suffer cultural disconnection and are disproportionately in trouble more than other social groups.  Could increased access to artifacts in the storage areas help with that?  They are aiming for virtual access online for all that material, and have images and video on a monitor in a suitcase that is sent around to schools.  Vinod Daniel was candid about the investments required to really connect to these crucial constituencies.  The top of the list was developing people-to-people relationships with repeated in person visits, which requires time, genuine interest, and institutional frameworks in place such as memorandums of understanding with administrators and politicians as well as budget commitments.  On the collections care end of things, museum folks need to be willing to give a very high degree of access, including physical handling, use in ceremonies, and being willing to let go of complete control over the individual artifact.

Alaska’s own Chuna McIntyre presented a paper, “The Impact of Access: Partnerships in Preservation” describing his work with co-authors Kelly McHugh, Ainslie Harrison and Landis Smith to do right by Yup’ik artifacts included in the Arctic Studies Center exhibition in Anchorage.  Chuna is Central Yup’ik from the village of Eyk and teaches language at Stanford.  Ainslie introduced the project, which involves the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, and how consultations with experts like Chuna aimed to preserve knowledge, restore artifacts, and develop partnerships in decision-making.  Chuna described an experience in high school, looking at museum artifacts:  “I was always on this side of the glass.  I could never get beyond the glass to get to our objects…”  Being able to see them from the back, from all sides, gives the object a chance to tell its full story.  He did some restorations for a Yup’ik mask exhibition years ago, and used computer graphics to virtually do restoration as well.  He called it helping the mask “get back its proper attire.”  In treating a dance fan in the Thaw Collection in Cooperstown, he described the old repairs as static… “Dance fans are designed to move in space with you when you are dancing.  They come back to life when you give them back proper plumage and attire.”  In visiting ancient sites like Angkor Watt and Machu Picchu, he noticed how those monuments were actively restored, and described the Yup’ik artifacts as “our monuments to our worldview as Yup’iks….we are all in this together, this endeavor of bringing back what we feel is important for us and for future generations.”  He described some of the treatment solutions that had been implemented as collaborative decisions.  In a separate conversation with Kelly McHugh, she intimated to me how as a conservator she’d found it confusing which elements of a mask or fan were important to restore, and which ones might be less necessary.  Chuna and Kelly had discussed this, and the analogy of a car had come up…you can still drive a car with chipped paint, but if there’s no carburetor you’re not going anywhere.  I loved this description!  I have no idea what a carburetor looks like or even what it does in a car.  Likewise, I don’t understand the parts of a Yup’ik mask…I don’t know what makes it “go.”  Chuna wrapped up with a thank you song in Yup’ik that he learned from his grandmother…the meaning of which he described, “when we grow and we acquire accoutrements of responsibility we are to be thoughtful for all of these.”      

“When You Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk: Collections Access at the UBC Museum of Anthropology During the Renewal Project” was presented by Shabnam Honorbakhsh and co- authored by Heidi Swierenga and Maurau Toutloff.    The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver has some 38,000 objects, most of which were placed on visible storage in the 1970’s with the intent of 100% visual access.  In the spring of 2004, there was a renewal project, and the museum did considerable behind-the-scenes work as well as continued to consider collection access as an ever-evolving philosophy.  The hands-on work included survey, barcode assignment, digitization, testing for pesticides, mount making, packing, moving and finally installation.  It sounded like consultation with Native researchers was suggesting that 4 views was the average number of images needed to really see an artifact.  The collection can be searched online at MOACAT  Also check out how their collections section on their website starts off with some cool downloadable reference documents.  I’m definitely right-clicking on some of those!  There is also an exciting joint collaborative project to facilitate collaborative study of Northwest Coast artifacts called the Reciprocal Research Network.  Chilkat weaver William White (Tsimshian) was quoted: “One of the things that is very important to me is accessibility for my people to come into the museum and be treated with respect and honor.”  There was also an example of a bronze statue of Vishnu in the collection who was resanctified for worship by the Vancouver Hindu community.  The video of the ritual renewal involved water, honey, oil, milk, fruit and other substances being applied to the statue.  Afterwards, it was cleaned, dried, and treated in a desiccation chamber.  Marian Kaminitz of the National Museum of the American Indian mentioned after the talk that museums have a societal opportunity to enhance advancement of indigenous societies from a colonialist time to a regeneration time.  It seemed to me like there was a more intense focus on the human, social, and interpersonal aspects of our profession and responsibilities at this meeting.

OK, no crying over spilled milk. Can I cry over the scarcity of scrapple in Alaska? I HEART scrapple!

I jumped out after the break to catch some wooden artifacts talks, including Susanne Grieve’s “Preserving Wooden Materials in Isolated Environments: Considerations and Challenges.”  Did you know Suzanne is certified to dive down to 165 feet?  I do so enjoy the little intros to our colleagues before the presentations!  Suzanne used her experience in both Antarctica (Shackleton’s hut) and the coastal desert of Namib-Nauklift Park in Namibia to describe damage to exposed wood.  Indigenous wildlife cause damage, especially through droppings and nesting, and there is an added challenge in some of those animals being protected species (like penguins).  Smaller-scale biological damage comes in the form of bacteria, mold and fungi.  She showed a great image of the secondary cell wall being separated from the primary cell wall of the wood by colonies of biological growth in between.  Then there are the abiotic  factors.  (Let’s use this term more in conservation!  I love it!  From Wikipedia: “…abiotic influences may be classified as light or more generally radiation, temperature, water, the chemical surrounding composed of the terrestrial atmospheric gases as well as soil.  The macroscopic climate often influences each of the above. Not to mention pressure and even sound waves if working with marine, or deep underground, biome.”)  Salt from the sea, especially chlorides, is a major factor.  It causes a phenomenon known as “defibration” where the wood fibers visibly pull apart.  Precipitation would usually dilute them, but in places like the desert coast, they build up.  Snow can also be full of salt ions.  Abrasion is also called by windblown particles like salt crystals, sand, and ice crystals.  Softer earlywood cells in the grain pattern are preferentially worn away, leaving the higher surface of the latewood cells.  Suzanne described her work with the Windhoek Underwater Club on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, a self-funded group of avocational historians doing preservation work on remote sites from the German colonial period.  They have been applying linseed oil to certain artifacts abandoned at an old diamond mining site, which has caused darkening of the wood and acceleration of corrosion to metal elements.  The maintenance applications of linseed oil began rather recently, so the impact has not yet been observed.  Linseed oil application elsewhere has had mixed results and is not among the treatments conservators normally select.  But under circumstances such as these (remote, environmentally harsh, in-situ, limited access to conservation-grade materials, little funding) wood preservation is especially challenging.

Christina Bisulca presented “Consolidation of Alum-Treated Wood with Alkoxykilanes” co-authored by Nancy Odegaard, Susan Braovac, and Hartmut Kutzke.  I think I learned more from this talk than any other at the conference.  I had heard about the alum-treated Oseberg Burial Ship materials at the Viking Museum in Oslo during the WOAM conference in 2010 .  They were excavated and treated a century ago (!) with a hot saturated solution of alum.  The ship itself was heartwood oak and not treated with alum, but ornately carved sleds and other artifacts got the treatment and are incredibly fragile today after additional treatments with pins, putties, linseed oil, resins etc.  Sulfuric acid is generated in the alum treatment bath, so the pH of the wood is now around 1 and mostly just lignin remains.  Washing and impregnating with PEG works, but is risky to do with these really delicate objects.  TEOS (tetraethoxysilane) was investigated for this problem because it is low viscosity, non aqueous, chemically inert, acid stable, and polymerizes in situ (two-step hydrolysis condensation that releases ethanol).  It’s been used as a lumber treatment since the 1980’s, often functionalized to give it certain qualities.  Remmer’s product is a one part system with an internal catalyst.  Brand names Funcosil 300 and Funcosil 510.  TEOS does not go into pore spaces, only on the cell wall…evenly distributed and not gap filling over about 15 microns.  So the wood remains porous and there is the possibility of future application of other consolidants.  If I understand correctly, this is a big advantage of TEOS over silicone oil, which does not permit a retreatment with anything besides more silicone oil?  TEOS treatment forms a silica network, and multiple applications deposit more silica.  At about 7X, the surface gets rather darkened, perhaps from solvent effects bringing soiling to the surface?  Neat TEOS has less of the darkening issue.  You could consolidate the wood with TEOS as a kind of pre-consolidant and then wash in water to reduce the alum in the wood.  Even after 7 applications, you can still pull out alum.  The challenges to the TEOS method seem to be that the wood has to be really really dry, because water content can cause the TEOS to polymerize on the surface.  Also, silica is rather brittle.  The conservation world has been slow to embrace TEOS outside of architectural applications, but I do think there may be certain circumstances where it may be a good solution to tricky problems.        

Jeweler and metalsmith Joan Pracher presented “Beautiful Brass, A Fresh Look at Historic Furniture Hardware.”  Do you remember when conservator Paul Messier started collecting up examples of old photo printing out papers?  That collection ended up being a treasure trove and Paul’s work on it greatly expanded understanding of things like dating paper and the importance of the “baryta layer” and gave him lots of great samples to study.  Having a reference collection is just really cool!  So it is with the collection of brass furniture hardware that Joan has been collecting since about 2004.  She also has a collection of the metalworking tools used to make such hardware, and she understands where all the tool marks come from. Drops, plates, bales, casters…such an amazing collection.  Knowing the tool marks, typical shapes, and maker’s marks contributes significantly toward attribution and dating.  Not to mention these little utilitarian furniture parts are like little artworks in themselves, and display considerable craftsmanship.  Maybe you should start a little reference collection of some esoteric little aspect of something that captivates you?  What if we all had little specialized reference collections??

I jumped back to the Objects Specialty Group in the afternoon, catching Christel Pesme’s talk on “The Care and Display of Homogen Infiltration für Kontzertflügel (Joseph Beuys, 1966) Between 1976 and 1992 at the Centre Georges Pompidou.”  This reminded me that contemporary art and indigenous art share this important aspect of consultation to determine artist intent and cultural purpose that ought to be documented in the files to guide the conservation treatments for years to come.  In this case, the artwork was a performance piece and the artifacts involved a piano wrapped in felt with red crosses loosely attached and additional pieces like wax earplugs.  The treatment history included a range of consultations and lack thereof with the artist during his life.  The treatments were also influenced by the ideological/ political issues inherent in the museum’s mission. 

Lori Trusheim presented, “Balancing Ethics and Restoration in the Conservation Treatment of an 18th Century Sewing Box with Tortoiseshell Veneer.”  This treatment had a lot of backing-and-forthing between the kind of less-interventive stabilization objects conservators are most comfortable with and the needs of the owner with a sentimental artifact in a home setting.  The aspects of tortoiseshell manufacture were also riveting.  Understanding material and technology is key to a treatment like this, and Lori really did her homework.  For example, forming of tortoiseshell was often done by rendering the shell pliable in boiling salted water and applying direct heat in press molds.  Heat breaks the disulphide bonds in the keratin structure, but cooling allows them to reform and makes the material rigid again.  White ground between the tortoiseshell and wooden box was water soluble.  Mother-of-pearl inlays were mechanically fit into precut voids, taking advantage of the thermoplastic quality of the heated tortoiseshell.  Missing elements led to investigation of replacement materials to mimic tortoiseshell, which is part of the 1970 Endangered Species Act.  Epoxy, bulked acrylic, wax?  Furniture conservator Donald Williams is working with “tordon shell” which is a crosslinked imitation collagen, and Lori began to think of the box as a miniature piece of furniture.  With the less-interventive method, the owner lived with it for a while but wanted more.  The final solution hasn’t been hammered out yet, but the factors Lori is pondering for a more aggressive treatment  include: opacity or loss of translucency, heating during removal, possible presence of salts, original shell health of the tortoise, brittleness, and darkening.  Lori is taking some inspiration from a Korean Proverb: “A turtle travels only when it sticks its neck out…”

Tony Sigel, one of my all-time favorite conservation personalities…ooh, here is an opportunity to introduce a new phrase!  “Professional Crush.”  This term was mentioned to me in reference to J.P. Brown of the Field Museum…and I declare both Tony and J.P. as “Professional Crush-worthy.”  Tony is on some of the listserves I subscribe to, and anytime his name appears I read the post, no matter how far off Alaskan interests the subject might appear.  OK enough gushing….Tony presented “Deconstructing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Modello for the Fountain of the Moor. Really.”  Tony’s hands-on skills and creativity are killer, and it is always a treat to hear him take us step-by-step through his decision-making, discoveries, and solutions.  Tony is a Bernini sculpture expert, and was working on a terracotta model (for a fountain sculpture) for an exhibition he’s co-curating.  There are some 50 or so known Bernini terracotta models.  This one had soiling, alteration, repairs, even soluble nylon!  He had a great slide listing his main treatment concepts: progressive cleaning in graduated steps to avoid a piebald look, providing protection in the form of masking certain areas and providing bracing where needed during treatment, re-use of dowels/ fills/joins when appropriate, restoration of restorations where he was correcting previous work, mimicry of original tools and processes to give an authentic look, limiting the number of treatment materials to the fewest number of the most stable/ reversible/well-studied/best understood materials to reduce future interactions (according to the “Book of Koob.”)   He showed a little video of laser cleaning where you could really hear the moth-wing like flapping sound of the laser at work during the cleaning phase.  He had a technique for holding a can of DustOff upside down to get the frozen propellant to come out and stiffen a plasticine fill so he could remove it without distortion.  Mesh nylon screening was used to mimic the look of brushmarks in wet clay when the Plasticine proved too stiff.  Is there any doubt that Tony Sigel is the MacGyver of the conservation world?  Really!

My awesome co-author. Hi Hon!

Lauren Horelick and I wrapped up the OSG talks on Friday with the presentation of “The Alaska Fur ID Project: A Virtual Resource for Material Identification”  Its reviewed on the AIC blog (thanks, Ainslie!) but you can just go dive in at

I had ducked out of the OSG session earlier to hear Kathryn Jakes discuss the “Uses of the Fiber Reference Image Library.”  FRIL as it is known is quite complementary to the reference material Lauren and I are trying to present in the Alaska Fur ID Project.  FRIL is run out of Ohio State University.  The concept began back in 2003 intending to have some 20 international participants but evolved over time with funding issues and other factors.  NCPTT was the biggest supporter.  The site has mainly plant and synthetic fibers used in textiles, and seems strongly tied to costume and fashion collections.  They are connecting this to another project, Fashion2Fiber which will include fabric structures.  There is a distinct focus as well on how to do outreach and engagement with the website.  Some of the aspects highlighted during the talk included photomicrographs of brightfield and darkfield, sign of elongation, Herzog tests, images of historic cottons, and images of degradation features such as oxalic acid crystals in bast fibers.  Images are watermarked but image can be viewed and downloaded without the watermark if permission is given.  There have been requests to add in a section on feather ID, info on stitching threads, and information about materials that may have been used by restorers or conservators.

From the Philadephia Museum of Art gift shop...