45th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 31, “Not a Known Carcinogen: Health and Safety Considerations of New and Innovative Treatments” by Kerith Koss Schrager, Anne Kingery Schwartz, and Julie Sobelman

As conservators, we routinely use a host of chemicals, sometimes in ways that are unusual. As a result, it is important for us to take proper precautions at all times. However, as objects conservator Kerith Koss Schrager and industrial hygienist Julie Sobelman pointed out at this year’s annual meeting, we may not always do so. Since we are used to solving complex problems, we do not always seek out health and safety experts to interpret for us, even though they may be required. Much of our behavior around health and safety is learned by example, and we may make judgments based on personal experience. While we are always taught to prioritize the safety of the objects we treat, we may not always prioritize our own safety in the same way.

Kerith and Julie illustrated these issues using the example of cyclododecane. Cyclododecane is used in multiple areas of conservation, and while there are over 100 conservation publications mentioning it, few of these mention health and safety concerns. Most of conservators’ information about the chemical comes from the safety data sheet (SDS), which suggests that it is not hazardous. A survey of conservators found that roughly half of those surveyed did not believe it was safe, while 18% believed it was. The respondents based their answers on either the SDS or on hearing of other conservators using it. However, the SDS for cyclododecane is based on industrial use of the chemical, which is very different from the way conservators use it. In the case of cyclododecane, research is conflicting as to whether it is hazardous.

Rather than looking at just the SDS for a chemical before using it, Julie suggested consulting additional resources such as EPA Chemview and CDC/NIOSH International Chemical Safety Cards. If we have to use chemicals about which we are uncertain, using proper environmental controls and other protective equipment is important: using a fume hood does reduce exposure.

Julie and Kerith ended their presentation with a plea for conservators to create a culture where health and safety matters. As a newly fledged conservator who does oversee interns and volunteers, I left the room committed to making sure that those who share my lab have no reason to regret doing so.

45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, June 1, “The Challenge of Scale Revisited: Lessons learned from treatment and mounting an exhibition of 160 illuminated manuscripts” by Alan Puglia and Debora Mayer

At last year’s annual meeting, Debora Mayer described the approach of Harvard University’s Weissman Preservation Center to the treatment of 160 illuminated manuscripts for the exhibition “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.” That talk had focused on the challenges of undertaking a massive amount of media consolidation, which they had done by forming two teams of conservators, each following the same procedure in treating the manuscripts. This year, her colleague Alan Puglia followed up on that talk with a reflection of what they learned in the effort.

It is rare that a conservation lab can review a large body of conservation work that was, at least theoretically, conducted in the same way. This is particularly true when one considers media consolidation. Likewise, few labs are large enough to have so many conservators collaborate in trying to create consistent treatments. As such, the two teams decided to review a segment of their consolidation treatment to evaluate its efficacy.

One of the main goals of the treatment protocol had been uniformity; that is, it should be impossible to identify which conservator had treated which items. Another goal was open communication. Over the course of the review, it became clear that there had been some degree of departure in treatment procedures due to a lack of communication between the two teams of conservators. The teams were efficient in themselves, but communication tended to occur within the teams. As such, when a team tweaked procedures in response to the needs of specific manuscripts, these changes were not communicated to the other team. Alan identified this as one of the major pitfalls of undertaking large-scale treatments of this type – communication between teams as well as that within teams needs to be prioritized.

A selection of treated manuscripts was reviewed, and this review process was also conducted in two teams. The review was conducted blind, without looking at pre-exhibit documentation. Where there were questions raised, the other team was asked to review the pre-exhibit documentation. Pre-exhibit treatment documentation had been conducted in Photoshop with specific colors depending on the type of consolidant used; post-exhibit treatment was conducted on the same files using different colors to show the extent of the need for additional treatment. The result of the review process was that, while most manuscripts did not require much further work, there were some that clearly required a more complete treatment. The reasons for this are complex. As Alan said, the best treatment is not proof against handling, and perhaps the stress of travel and handling was too much for the fragile media in some manuscripts. In one manuscript, the three leaves that had suffered the most damage were clearly by a different artist, and perhaps there was something relating to the quality of his materials that made the media more vulnerable. Other red flags included cockling and creases, and the presence of glazes or overpainting.

The review also raised additional questions. When should the conservators stop treatment? Is their handling causing damage even as they seek to preserve the manuscript? Ultimately, Alan acknowledged, updating consolidation protocols is an ongoing process.

44th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper, May 16: “Watercolor Pencils: Composition and Conservation Concerns,” presented by Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic

It always amazes me how much we have still to learn about various types of media. The presentation by Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic underscored how little we still know about watercolor pencils (also known as aquarelle or water soluble pencils).

Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic
Lauren Buttle and Natasa Krsmanovic present their research on watercolor pencils

Water color pencils first appeared during the 1920s, with Staedtler being the first to mention them in 1928. They are related to copy pencils, which contain a water soluble dye and were introduced in the late nineteenth century.
In their study, Lauren and Natasa and their coauthors, Laura Hashimoto, Michael Doutre, Kaslyne O’Connor and Rosaleen Hill, examined four products: Reeves watercolor pencils, Staedtler karat aquarelle 125, Staedtler ergosoft aquarelle, and Derwent watercolor pencils. These were first analyzed using mid-IR spectroscopy, which revealed that each of the products had the same general composition. All contained clay, water-soluble wax, a polysaccharide binder, and colorants. The wax was further revealed to be a modified polyethylene glycol, or mPEG.
The second phase of the project involved testing samples to determine the impact of conservation treatments and solvents. The researchers drew lines with watercolor pencils onto Windsor & Newton watercolor pen and ink paper that was subsequently cut into 14 sets of inch-long strips. They tested four colors – red, blue, grey, and black – for each product. Of 14 watercolor pencil test strips, seven were stored in the dark (that is, they were not aged), while seven were artificially aged at 95°C and 50% RH for 96 hours. They were then tested for reactivity with water, ethanol, acetone, and toluene immersion for 5 minutes each, non-contact exposure to 100% RH for an hour, and smudging with a smudge stick, with additional samples retained as controls. Color change was measured with a Minolta chromometer, with readings taken thrice for each testing area.
Red watercolor pencil was most sensitive to immersion
Red watercolor pencil was most sensitive to immersion

Their results showed that exposing watercolor pencils to wet treatments is exactly as problematic as one might assume. Aged and unaged samples both experienced significant bleeding when immersed, particularly undergoing aqueous immersion. Of all colors, red had the most dramatic response to immersion. Immersion treatments also resulted in color shifts, with polar solvents causing greater shifts in color than non-polar solvents. However, some of the color change was due to change in the color of the paper.
Humidification appeared to have no effect; however, the researchers did not dry the paper under pressure, and it is possible that there may have been some off-set of color if they had done so. All media was affected by mechanical smudging, although aged media was affected to a smaller degree.
This talk raised a lot of interesting questions, and the discussion following the presentation suggested avenues for further research. One attendee asked when mPEG was introduced, raising the idea that the composition of these pencils has likely changed over time, while others suggested testing the solubility of colors in xylene, or testing the pencil lead directly. This research will be continuing at Queens University, and I am excited to see where it will lead.
Author’s Note: The original version of this blogpost omitted the names of Michael Doutre and Kaslyne O’Connor. The author apologizes for the omission.

44th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 16: “Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis,” by Sanchita Balachandran

The theme of this year’s annual meeting focused on disasters and the unexpected in conservation. However, in her talk, Sanchita Balachandran, conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, focused not on emergencies threatening the collections we care for, but, instead, on a crisis within the field of conservation itself: the crippling lack of diversity in our profession.
In one sense, conservators are very aware of the problem. As Balachandran pointed out, we are trained to recognize the intangible as well as the tangible values inherent in the objects we treat. Implicit in this training is the fact that, as conservators, we have the power to erase history.

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Sanchita Balachandran: “We must conserve not just objects, but the lives of people inscribed on them.”

What happens when that type of power is wielded by a small, homogenous group? Graduate school prerequisites require applicants to have spent a significant amount of time gaining experience, largely through unpaid internships, which effectively excludes people from less affluent backgrounds – and by extension, certain minority populations.  Similarly, people from these backgrounds may be less willing or able to make such drastic sacrifices for a field where the job opportunities after prolonged graduate study are low-paying and scarce. This limits the field as a whole, since more diverse groups have been proven to be more innovative and more productive.
The lack of diversity also has a more problematic effect on our work. When we treat an object, we choose which tangible and intangible values to retain, and which to discard. In doing so, we privilege certain types of objects and treatments. How do we approach the issue of Confederate monuments in Baltimore that were spray-painted with the slogan, “Black lives matter”? Should the slogan be removed?
Balachandran argued that we must confront the unequal ways in which objects come to institutions; museum processes were created by a colonial framework, from which conservation itself is not exempt. If nothing else, museums and libraries exist on land taken from Native American peoples. Museums must focus on cultural heritage, as opposed to cultural property, and work to rebuild connections between objects and the communities from which they were taken.
This issue of diversity is hardly a new problem. The people who become conservators largely come from a similar racial, cultural, and socio-economic background, and tend to be overwhelmingly female. However, by raising the subject in the annual meeting, Balachandran paved the way for a real discussion on how the field can encourage the participation of people of all backgrounds. At least, that is my hope as a fledgling conservator: that this will serve as a clarion call to the AIC board, graduate programs, and administrators to reflect upon their roles as gatekeepers to the field and to implement real changes to make our profession more inclusive. The fact that Sanchita Balachandran got a well-deserved standing ovation leads me to believe that my hopes are shared by others.
Edited to add: Read the full text of the talk at Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis, posted by Sanchita Balachandran.

44th Annual Meeting – Pre-Conference Session, May 14, STASH Flash III, organized by Rachel Perkins Arenstein and Shelly Uhlir

This year’s STASH Flash session featured a whopping fourteen speakers, divided by subject into three groups. To do them all justice is almost impossible — it was really a fantastic session! — but here is my best attempt.

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Nichole Doub presenting on storage solutions for waterlogged wood.

True to the theme of the annual meeting, the first set of talks focused on storage solutions for emergencies, beginning with Kelly O’Neill who presented on a mobile storage rack for paintings. As conservators at ArtCare, Miami, O’Neil and her colleagues must be prepared for severe weather. With this in mind, they worked with a carpenter to design a moveable rack made of marine plywood and reinforced PVC piping, with vinyl flooring and large wheels. A sailmaker was commissioned to create a custom cover with zippered sides and button snaps at the base, using Sunbrella cloth. The completed rack measured 105” x 114”, with the depth ranging from 43 to 93”; this was dictated by the space available in the studio.
Nichole Doub from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory suggested folding frame tanks (such as those sold by Husky) as storage for waterlogged wooden objects. She also recommended the use of tank liners (Flexiliner has a chemist on staff who can advise in the case of solvent use) as well as above-ground swimming pools, which can be hooked up to the conservation lab’s own filters.
Ashley McGrew from Stanford University recommended the use of nylon mesh and webbing fixed with fast release clips to create user-friendly, flexible, and affordable restraints to protect objects during earthquakes.
The next group of presenters discussed solutions that were large in scale and scope, beginning with Alicia Ghadban, who discussed the implementation of the RE-ORG methodology at a workshop at the WuHou Shrine Museum in China. The workshop focused on a storage room on the third floor, where objects were stored on the floor, limiting access. During the reorganization, most objects were removed from the room, allowing the installation of compact shelving. Materials were reused wherever possible, and objects were housed by size and type. Additional information about RE-ORG is available here.
Gretchen Anderson from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History followed with a way to protect type collections for archeology: she made a lid with a window in it using archival board and polyester film, protecting objects from dust while allowing them to remain visible. Meanwhile, her colleague, Leslie Haines, suggested an alternative to plastic sheeting for building dust covers for large objects: they now use Tyvek, which is draped over a support made of PVC piping. The support is basically a cube made of piping (the bottom framework is important for stability) and can incorporate a Coroplast panel on top to protect the object from water. Cotton ties can be sewn to the Tyvek to help hold it closed, and images of the object can be fixed to the exterior for easy identification.
Erika Range then discussed a recent survey at the Canadian Museum of Nature that developed guidelines and decision trees to use in identifying appropriate labeling materials for use in natural history collections. I was hoping these would be available online, but could not find them; hopefully they will be made available to the wider conservation community soon.
The last segment of the session dealt with multipurpose solutions, beginning with Sanchita Balachandran of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, who presented on the rehousing of small robust archeological objects to facilitate their safe use in classrooms. She and her colleagues developed a repeatable, modular, searchable, and useable solution that could be implemented by student workers. Details on the solution are available here .
Emily Wroczynski followed with a presentation on creating clamshell boxes for oyster shells with rare earth magnet closures. Then, Kesha Talbert described the creation of mounts for the display and storage of handheld fans at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. These custom mounts were made with matboard covered with suede polyethylene, and step by step instructions are available here.
Stephanie Gowler described the problems inherent in displaying and storing items from the archive of performance artist Charlotte Moorman. Mounts needed to be almost invisible, which Gowler and her colleagues achieved by the use of Tycore and Volara panels with Ethafoam and Volara supports. Objects were sewn onto the panels with monofilament and linen thread, and the whole was housed in custom boxes from Talas. Quilts of Hollytex and polyester batting were used to minimize vibration. A great blog-post detailing the process is available here.
The session came to a close with two presentations on the housing of (relatively) flat materials. William Bennett, from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, presented on his creation of a custom pieced housing for a fragile early gelatin print using a magnetic overmat that allowed the photograph to be easily removed if necessary. Liz Peirce’s presentation on the rehousing of a collection of thin wood samples in four-flap boxes that are themselves housed in a clamshell box.
For further information, you can access the abstracts of all the presenters here. Presentations will also be posted on the STASH site.

AIC CERT Responds to Hurricane Sandy

On Monday, October 29, New York City was hit by Hurricane Sandy, leading to mass blackouts and flooding in Brooklyn and most of lower Manhattan. Among the areas that were particularly hard hit was Chelsea, home to many of the city’s art galleries and artist studios. A week later, the AIC Collections Emergency Response Teams (CERT) held two back-to-back sessions of the Consortium on Recovery of Works of Art Damaged by Flooding at the Museum of Modern Art. The meeting was filled to overflowing with museum, gallery, and conservation professionals and artists who were still reeling from the disaster they had witnessed.

The Consortium served as a means for conservators to guide recovery efforts across New York City. Lisa Elkin, Director of Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), started off by reminding attendees of the resources open to them, not least of which were the conservators around them. Then Kala Harinarayanan, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at the AMNH, reminded those present that however concerned they may be for collections, their health and safety must remain paramount. She pointed out that surge waters could contain all kinds of hazardous materials, while buildings may have become unstable after the storm. These are important things to keep in mind as we begin recovery efforts. She advised having a companion when re-entering a disaster site, using communication devices, and using personal protective equipment as advisable.

At this point, Beth Nunan, Associate Conservator at the AMNH took over. She covered the nuts and bolts of actually running a successful recovery, stressing the importance of planning prior to beginning the effort. She reminded everyone that documentation was key – not just of the damage to the site and objects, but also of the priorities, logic, and work-flow of the recovery effort. Beth also discussed ways to prioritize damaged objects, which could include business records that could be critical to the continued functioning of a business; storage, and inexpensive sources for needed materials. Caitlin O’Grady, Conservation Fellow at the University of Delaware, concluded the session by discussing various recovery techniques and their suitability to different scenarios, taking us through the merits and drawbacks of freezing versus air drying material, and discussing issues of mold and treatment. The entire presentation can be viewed here.

At the end of the meeting, attendees adjourned to a separate room to discuss more specific problems faced by those in the audience. This was where the true magnitude of the problem became clear. One attendee was dealing with forty-five different insurance companies, none of which had given permission to move the artworks to a stable area. Another had soaked canvases and no space to dry them flat. As questions arose, the conservators in the room worked together to find solutions to common problems. Eventually the room broke up into the various specialties, with paper conservators in one corner, paintings conservators in another, and so on, each dealing directly with attendee concerns.

The Consortium equipped all those dealing with recovery with a broad base of knowledge relating to the differe issues involved. In addition, it served as a gateway to getting involved with recovery efforts throughout New York, as among other things, attendees had the chance to sign up to volunteer their conservation services.


Additional Resources:

Museum of Modern Art – Hurricane Sandy: Conservation Resources

AIC CERT – Hurricane Response Google Group


Author’s note: A version of this post has also be posted to the NYU Conservation Center blog.