39th Annual Meeting – Architecture Session, June 3, “Like Twinkling Stars: The Technical Analysis of an 18th Century Ceiling from Damascus, Syria” by Kirsten Travers, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

In the summer of 2009, Kirsten Travers and LeeAnn Barnes Gordon performed documentation and conservation treatments on the ceiling of the Turkish Room in Doris Duke’s Shangri La estate in Hawaii.  The ceiling was originally commissioned in 1797 for the Quwwatli family reception room in their home in Damascus, Syria, and was made using a technique called adjami.  The author provided a brief but thorough explanation of the traditional material, which, if I am correct, is made by nailing together thin slats of wood, filling gaps and holes with fiber, applying raised gesso ornament followed by layers of metal foil, tinted glazes and paint.  The ceiling was removed from its original location in the 1920s and spent decades in storage.  Doris Duke, a devotee of Islamic art and artifacts, purchased the ceiling in 1976 and installed it in her Hawaiian home in 1979, mislabeling it the Turkish Room. By 2009, the ceiling colors were dull and the adjami was deteriorated.

The author and her colleague performed conservation treatments during their summer workshop while students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.  While Travers breezed through her discussion of the treatments, which included injection adhesives and brush-applied consolidants, the real subject of her talk was the analysis of 50 finish samples from the ceiling.  She and her colleagues at Winterthur/University of Delaware tested the samples using eight different analytical techniques, including cross-section analysis, fluorochrome staining, PLM, XRF, SEM-EDS, FTIR, Raman and GC-MS.  The author described in detail her findings, particularly the blue, pink and green layers, as well as the varnish and tinted glaze layers.

While the author’s presentation was packed with information, she presented it in a clear and well organized manner.  She distilled a large amount of complex information into an easily understood whole.  This was my favorite talk of the ASG session, which was strong on its own. (Though perhaps I am biased, as I also perform paint investigations.)  I only wish that the author had had a full hour so that she could explain her subject in greater detail.  I would encourage the author to publish her findings.