Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting & 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference – “The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center.” Speaker: Elizabeth Beesley, May 16

Major disasters in instances such as the NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center are usually caused as a result of mechanical or thermal stresses that the object was not built to withstand.  Artifacts that result from these tragedies imbue an immense cultural reaction, especially when there is a large-scale loss of life.  To honor the lives lost and provide closure for survivors, these artifacts are frequently memorialized.  According to Conservation Solutions, Inc. (CSI): “working on these artifacts is complex as they have unique materials-related challenges and emotional and cultural importance.”1
NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 28, 1986.  After the explosion, pieces of the Challenger fell into and were later recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.  One piece recovered from the shuttle’s left side panel patriotically displays an image of the U.S. flag.  This panel contained a wide range of materials from fiber batting to ceramic tiles to stainless steel.  Conservation issues addressed during treatment include chemical and mechanical damages from the explosion, stabilizing chemical damages from extended exposure to salt water, and removal of barnacles and other biological attachments.
CSI_ShuttleChallenger   CSI_ShuttleColumbia
In another space shuttle disaster, NASA’s Columbia disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere minutes before its scheduled landing at Cape Canaveral on February 1, 2003.  Unlike the Challenger, the Columbia debris was recovered from a Texas field and stored in a controlled museum climate.  Frames that were recovered from the Columbia’s crew module windows were selected for conservation treatment and exhibition.  CSI intentionally left scorch marks intact as well as soil and foliage embedded in the frames since these elements are significant to the history of the artifact.  Conservation treatments for the Challenger and the Columbia were conducted in secrecy at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Due to the sensitivity and heightened security associated with these treatments, restrictions were placed on materials brought on base, treatment methods pursued, and waste produced and removed from the base.  Once completed, the panel from the Challenger and frames from the Columbia went on display at the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 2015 as part of a memorial exhibit titled Forever Remembered.
The RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank the following morning.  Had there were a sufficient number of lifeboats on board, many deaths would have been prevented.  Davits (image above) projecting over the side of the ship were manually operated to lower life boats into the water.  One Davit arm conserved by CSI “tell[s] a poignant tale of the Titanic’s sinking as one side of the base shows the screw for the arm in its lowered position while the other is still raised, showing that one of the too few lifeboats that could have saved lives was not lowered.”2
The conserved Davit arm and base had spent decades underwater which severely impacted the iron, steel, and brass metal body and fixings.  Because the structure had become quite fragile, the CSI team needed to first stabilize the Davit arm and base and then create an exhibition mount.  The Davit arm and base were gently power washed to remove corrosion and the segments were sealed with wax.  The mount was composed of an iron frame and steel base which provided additional support and is capable of being disassembled and reassembled for exhibition.
There were seven buildings that together formed the World Trade Center.  The Twin Towers ascended high above the other buildings in the World Trade Center as well as the surrounding buildings in New York City.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes were flown into the towers.  The towers collapsed about an hour later, destroying with them the other buildings in the World Trade Center complex.
Sections of “tridents” from the base of the World Trade Center remained intact after the collapse, and these architectural elements became an icon of durability and survival for both New Yorkers and Americans across the country.   Each trident measured between 70-90 feet and weighed around 50 tons.3  They were removed by the FBI and transported from the site to an undisclosed location.  The CSI team conducted treatment in 2015.  The main focus of this treatment was to stabilize the paint rust and calcareous attachments, apply a protective coating, prevent water from pooling, and deter birds from nesting inside the trident.  As with the Challenger and Columbia, the World Trade Center project was conducted in secret and the conservators had to abide by government restrictions during treatment.  The FBI provided CSI with a camera, but conservators were not allowed to bring their own camera equipment or cellular phones onto the property.  All before treatment, during treatment, and after treatment photographs were reviewed by the Bureau before being approved and released to the conservation team.  Not all the photos that were released to the team were approved to show during Beesley’s presentation.
For each case that was discussed – NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center  –  the materials conserved exhibit the physical evidence and effects of disaster.  The conservation processes varied from one project to another, but all of them had some degree of secrecy, communication restrictions, and logistics challenges.  These objects carry significant cultural value and evoke extreme reactions of fear, anger, sadness, and other emotions from the public.  This is especially relevant for objects of recent tragedies and required the CSI team to be diligent about balancing the complex, varied, and changing relationships that stakeholders had with the artifacts.
1 Beesley, E., Sembrat, J., Rabinowitz, M., & Posluszny Bello, J. (2016). The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center [Abstract]. American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works 44(1) and Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property 42(1), 11. Retrieved from
2 (N/A). RMS Titanic Davit Base and Davit Arm Conservation and Mounting. Conservation Solutions, Inc. Retrieved from
3 Dunlap, D. (2010, September 8). Two ‘Trees’ Return to the World Trade Center. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Pruitt, S. (2015, August 3). NASA Displays Challenger and Columbia Wreckage. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved from
Excerpts of authors’ backgrounds as listed on Conservation Solutions, Inc.
Elizabeth Beesley, Conservator & Project Manager
Elizabeth is a conservator with a background in conservation science and experience in collections management and historic preservation. She holds an MEng in Materials Science (2004) from the University of Oxford where she researched Bronze Age metalwork.  While a graduate student in conservation at University College London, she conserved archaeological material at English Heritage and worked on historic aircraft at the Science Museum in London.  Subsequently, Elizabeth investigated excavated lacquerware using spectroscopy at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. More recently she managed a digitization program at College Park Aviation Museum where she also assisted with collections care. Before joining Conservation Solutions in 2012, Elizabeth worked as an assistant conservator at Aeon Preservation on archival research, construction management and condition assessments.  For more information about Elizabeth, please visit:
Joseph Sembrat, Senior Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Joseph Sembrat has been immersed in the conservation field for over twenty years. In 1999, together with his wife Julya, he founded Conservation Solutions, which has since developed into a leading, nationwide, historic preservation firm focusing on art, artifacts and architecture.  Conservation Solutions has been recognized for and won numerous awards for its work over recent years . . . Joe is also an accomplished author and presenter of topical industry relevant issues.  He continuously conducts research and publishes papers on topics in the preservation field with special emphasis on technology-sharing among various areas of industrial research and its applicability to conservation treatments.  Joe holds an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (1993), and a BA in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (1990).  For more information about Joe, please visit:
Mark Rabinowitz, Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Mark Rabinowitz is Executive Vice President, Senior Conservator. He has been part of the senior management team of Conservation Solutions since 2003.  He brings over 25 years of experience as a conservator to the leadership team of the firm.  Mark served as Deputy Chief of Operations for Preservation at the Central Park Conservancy throughout the 1990s, during which time he initiated and directed their monuments conservation and historic preservation programs.  In 1997 Mark was named Chief Consulting Conservator for the New York City Parks Department where he started up a similar program to treat monuments throughout New York City . . . Mark has presented papers, published articles, lectured and taught at national and international conferences and institutions including APT, AIC, ICOMOS US, SFIIC (France), Tulane University, Columbia University, New York University Conservation Center, University of Texas at San Antonio, Long Island University, Penland School of Crafts, and the Lacoste School of the Arts in France. His art has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Brussels, and Paris, and is represented in public and private collections in the US and Europe.  For more information about Mark, please visit:
Justine Posluszny Bello, Vice President of Operations & Senior Conservator
Justine joined Conservation Solutions in 2007. She operates as a project lead and Senior Conservator, applying her strong expertise in all aspects of conservation, including condition assessments, conservation treatments, materials testing and analysis, and construction management . . . Justine holds a MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and a BA in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington.  For more information about Justine, please visit: