When I first heard of AIC’s Members Research trip to Cuba, my initial reaction was ‘Why Cuba?’ Of all the places to experience conservation, what would a Caribbean island that has been isolated from the outside world have to offer? Not knowing what to expect, and curious to learn more about a place that was restricted for Americans, I along with some 30 other AIC members, signed up and put myself in the hands of our fearless leader Rosa Lowinger. Rosa, a well respected conservator (and author), was born in Cuba and relocated to the US following the embargo. She was an ideal resource and had planned an ambitious schedule covering museums, conservation labs, local artists, architecture, as well as an Angels Project in Historic Trinidad.
To really understand the allure of Cuba for a conservator, look no further than the iconic 50s cars that rumble down the street. Despite the embargo and a lack of supplies, the Cubans have managed to keep their beloved American made Buicks, Pontiacs, and Fords in working condition over 50 years since they were produced. As I sat in the back of an electric blue 50s Plymouth taxi, I listened to the driver speak passionately about how his grandfather, father, and now he, had maintained it over the years using only original Plymouth parts. The same holds true for conservation in the country. Although basic supplies like paint brushes and B-72 are difficult to obtain, conservators in Cuba take pride in their history and have managed to preserve it over the years.
Conservators are well respected in Cuba. Similar to the American training programs Cuban conservators train at the graduate level with internships/fellowships along the way. There are also highly skilled craftsmen who attend trade schools with apprenticeships. The Cuban government funds all conservation projects and established National Center for Conservation, Restoration and Museology in Havana (CENCREM). We visited the well equipped labs which included Paintings, Paper, Objects, and Book conservation along with Conservation Sciences (for more pictures). The most impressive aspect of the labs for me was a Biological Lab, set aside to identify and address two of the biggest problems faced by conservators in Cuba: mold and termites. However as impressive as the CENCREM labs were, not everywhere in Cuba was so well equipped.
On the 5th day of our trip, we hit the road for a four hour bus journey to Trinidad, designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988, and the site of our Angels Project. Trinidad, located near the Valley of the Sugar mills, was a major center for the sugar trade until the 1850s when it was surpassed by nearby Cienfuegos. From 1850 until the 1950s, Trinidad experienced a period of isolation and incidentally did not experience the growth of hotels and other buildings like Havana. Instead Trinidad is a well preserved testament of Colonial Cuban architecture and art. Conservators in Trinidad were trained like those in Havana and had labs for Paintings, Objects, and Archaeological conservation (Paper was done elsewhere). However conservators in Trinidad were very limited in resources and supplies in comparison to CENCREM. The aim of our Angels project in Trinidad was to learn how conservators there dealt with these limited resources and aid them with the donation of supplies and suggestions from our own experiences.
The conservators in Trinidad received donated books, publications, emergency management tools, inpainting brushes, gilding supplies, dry pigments, small hand tools, a large jar of B-72, along with other helpful supplies. The group divided amongst ourselves into areas of specialties and went to address projects the conservators there were working on. I, as an objects conservator, went to the archeological lab where there were objects labeled in boxes on shelves and large objects in a tub desalinating from burial in distilled water. The conservators were interested in finding ways to reduce the water changes since distilled water was not the easiest to find. Nancy Odegaard took a trip to the chemical room and came back with a simple spot test for chlorides recently presented and published with WAAC.
Other helpful advice came from the architectural and outdoor sculpture conservators who helped design a mount to elevate a colonial canon that was currently stored on the ground. Paintings conservators examined and suggested treatment procedures for a large canvas with tears, and paper/book conservators worked together with ethnographic conservators to address a painting on damaged leather. By the end of the day both the Cuban and American conservators felt a lot had been gained from our visit, and are hopeful that future collaboration will be possible.