AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Objects, Textiles, and Wood

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...


One Response to AIC 2011 in Philadelphia: Objects, Textiles, and Wood

  1. […] originals.  My other posting involves talks at specialty groups for objects, textiles and wood .  Alaska’s own Chuna McIntyre, (Yup’ik artist, dancer, and scholar) presented a paper in […]

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