43rd Annual Meeting – Objects Session, 16 May, "Beloved Treasures: Assessing the Effects of Long-Term Display on Models Containing Wax" presented by Marissa Stevenson

Marissa Stevenson presented on the effects of long-term display on the “Libbey Dolls” in the Toledo Museum of Art. The dolls were created in 1915 and are named for the collector who purchased them. They depict characters popular in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century using multiple types of media that include wax, plaster, feathers, fur, human hair, lace, plaster, cotton, plant material, wire armatures, and more. After full-time display for over fifty years, along with two interventions that date to pre-collection in 1917 and to 1951, the dolls were showing damage. During that time, the dolls were exposed to incandescent lighting with the associated light and heat conditions, fluctuating environment, and lack of support on display. The result? Disfigurement, cracking, light damage, and other structural damages, topped off with a healthy dose of dust and grime.

Before treatment photograph of 1917.650, a Libbey doll in the Toledo Museum of Art. Photo provided by Marissa Stevenson.
Before treatment photograph of 1917.650, a Libbey doll in the Toledo Museum of Art. Photo provided by Marissa Stevenson.

The conservation study focused on the wax and included identification and treatment. Through IR analysis, the wax was identified as bee’s wax, which was observed to become brittle and darken. It was applied in four layers, with two layers of plaster supporting it. Cleaning tests of 1% ammonium citrate, saliva, methylcellulose with deionized water rinses, and gels, showed that wheat starch paste and saliva were the most effective. Adhesive tests with Jade 403, Aquazol 500, Rhoplex AC33&N58, Avalure UR450, Avalure AC120 showed that Avalure AC120 and Aquazol 500 preformed best. The Avlaure also supported good pigment dispersion, so this was used in areas that needed pigmented fill material. Since Avalure has not been tested as an adhesive, Stevenson chose to use it to adhere a broken leg in her case study. The leg’s hidden location will allow them to observe how the resin holds up over time without compromising aesthetics should it prove to be problematic in any way. Since the head is in a visually prominent location, and Aquazol has been tested as adhesive with good results, it was used there.
With the wax issues under control, the next step will be to investigate what the clothing’s needs and to address them. Finally, storage mounts need to be made. Solutions will need to consider how to fully support the dolls, and will in some cases necessitate horizontal storage, and in others vertical storage. Fosshape is a likely candidate for helping to create these supports, forming it on Ethafoam model. An audience member brought up the idea of using Varaform fabric for the mounting system since he said it is less bulky than Fosshape, comes in 3 weights, and though it is heated to use, it is not thermally conductive. This was a new material for Stevenson, who said she would investigate. This also led to a brief discussion regarding to long-term storage. Since Fosshape has pass Oddy testing, it seems like a good idea, but we do not know about its aging properties, so question was raised about it being appropriate for long-term storage.

5 thoughts on “43rd Annual Meeting – Objects Session, 16 May, "Beloved Treasures: Assessing the Effects of Long-Term Display on Models Containing Wax" presented by Marissa Stevenson”

  1. I’m grateful for your recap of this presentation, Nina. Was there any more discussion about how Avalure polymers are used in conservation? I think I’ve heard them mentioned as options for coatings and consolidants in architectural situations, so it is interesting to hear about them being considered as options for filling and inpainting.

  2. Hi Nancie,
    Marissa did briefly mention that this was a new use for Avalure, but because it preformed well in her adhesive testing and did a good job with pigment dispersion, she chose it for areas that needed aesthetic compensation. It sounded like these were shallow areas of surface loss. I’m interested to hear about how the fills and joins hold up over time!

  3. Hi Nancie,
    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, Avalure products have been used previously in conservation as a coating for masonry at the National Building Museum by Richard Wolbers. It has also been studied as a marble coating for indoor and outdoor sculpture by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (A Comparative Study of Protective Coatings for Marble Sculpture by Laura Kubick and Jennifer Giaccai) and students at WUDPAC. We had originally obtained the products for this purpose as we looked at coating a marble outdoor sculpture. But based on the working properties of the Avalure AC-120 like flexibility, breathability, translucent appearance and good adhesion to organic substrates it made an ideal candidate for testing as an adhesive for wax. However, Avalure polymers had additional advantages that made it a desirable product. As a commercial makeup filler and binder, Avalure has good pigment and bulking agent dispersion properties. This proved true when we added micro-balloons and a dry pigment to create a fill material which was added to the areas where the wax/plaster had been distorted with the expanding/contracting rates over time. Overall, Avalure AC-120 proved to have great working and practical properties that has potential for various uses within the conservation community.

  4. Thank you, both! Thanks, especially, for reminding me about Laura and Jennifer’s paper, Marissa. So glad to find it in the OSG post prints archive!

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