Let the Talks Begin-WAAC Annual Meeting, Day 2

Restoration of a video installation, disaster response due to Texas wildfires, conserving a sandstone facade, cold storage of photographs, treating paper collections in 12 Alaskan museums and developing an architectural conservation plan for a university…those were just some of the topics presented today on the second day of the WAAC Annual meeting.

Conservators from all over the western part of the US came together today for the first day of talks. A broad range of topics and specialties were presented to the approximately 60 WAAC members attending the meeting. Here are some of the talks I found particularly interesting:

Luminous: How Conservation Studies, Treatment and Advocacy are Integrated in an Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum
Nicholas Dorman, Seattle Art Museum

Nicholas Dorman discussed a current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, Luminous: The Art of Asia, that has incorporated the information gathered from the research and treatment conducted on the materials in preparation for the exhibit, into the didactic material presented to the public. Detailed images to highlight technological features or materials identified, xrays and CT scan images provide additional information to viewers and are an opportunity to educate them about conservation and the activities of SAM’s conservation dept. The website for the exhibit includes several videos highlighting the treatments and examinations conducted to give the public an inside view to the contribution the conservators made to what they see on display. This is great example of public outreach about conservation and integrating the hard, and of course interesting, work conservators do into an exhibition.

Color: Review of the Main Color Producing Mechanisms and Illustration with Feather Colors
Christel Pesme, Getty Conservation Institute

Christel’s talk demonstrated that the way that we perceive color is very complex and affected by many factors such as the material we are observing, the light used and how that material interacts with the light. Christel has been working on a project to look into the fading of feathers in California featherwork and showed us how looking at this material changes the way we think about the color we see on artifacts. The way that color is structured in feathers is very complex and through visual examples, she showed us that the same feather in reflected light can be two different colors on either side. She also showed us that transmitting light through a feather drastically alters the color and makes a blue and red macaw feather look brown. Her talk certainly made us all think about how we view color and how that affects our determination of what we observe as and determine to be fading. I know I’ll never look at something again and not wonder if whether the light, and the object itself, is playing some trick on me and drastically changing the way I view the color it contains.

What to Do When a Chemist Comes Knocking on the Door: Identification of Plastic Materials in Museum Collections through Collaboration with and Undergraduate Chemistry Program
JoAnn Peters, Central Washington University

JoAnn Peters is an organic chemist who teaches at Central Washington University and became interested in conservation science after attending an NSF funded workshop on chemistry and art. This interest, and work that she did with the Royal British Columbia Museum on the identification of plastics in their collection, inspired her to create a collaboration between museums in her area and the undergraduate chemistry students she teaches. As part of her work at the university, JoAnn teaches students about chemistry and conservation science while having them identify the types of plastic materials found in the collection of the Yakima Valley Museum. The information is used to help the museum determine how best to care for these objects. The students have so far only used microchemical testing, but JoAnn hopes to be able to use infrared spectroscopy as well, a technique that is taught as part of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. The creation of this collaboration is a great example of the benefit of such partnerships between institutions and universities/scientists, which also extends to the education of students both in chemistry and conservation science. The collaboration seems to be positive for both institutions and hopefully can be a model for other museums and university faculty to follow.

The Watercolors of Charles Russell: An Examination of the Artists’ Materials and Techniques on the Montana Fronter
Jodie Utter, Amon Carter Museum

The next to last paper of the day was presented by Jodie Utter, a conservator of works on art on paper who for the last four years has been studying the materials and techniques used by artist Charles Russell who painted watercolors depicting the Montana Frontier. Using techniques such as polarized light microscopy, XRF, infrared reflectography and UV light, Jodi has been able to trace the changes in his technique and the paints he used throughout his career. In the examples she showed us, we got to see how his early paintings had detailed underdrawings and his figures had no shadow, but as he gained more experience and practice, his underdrawings became sketches and his paintings more sophisticated. His use of paints changed over time as well, choosing initially watercolors that would give the scene a transparency and luminescence to later choosing more opaque paints and employing the impasto technique to give a three dimensionality to his work. Jodi is working on this technical study for a book that is being written for an upcoming exhibit of Russell’s work. I’m sure the viewers will be as interested in the technical information she discovered about Russell’s paintings as much as seeing the paintings themselves.

At the end of the day the WAAC attendees made their way to the Byrne-Reed House, a historic home that was restored by the Humanities Texas who uses it as a place for exhibits and offices. We enjoyed good food and drink on the beautiful open porch of the house and in the restored living room. We also got tours of the upper floors of the house and got to see rooms that still kept the original floor plan, the sleeping porch with a section of original railing and some beautiful plaster work on the upper exterior walls. It was a wonderful way to end such a great first day of talks.

Wonderfully WAAC-Y: the WAAC annual Silent Auction

For the last seven years, WAAC meeting attendees have eagerly anticipated what has become a staple event at the annual meeting, the Silent Auction. An idea conceived by conservator and former WAAC board member Beverly Perkins, the Silent Auction is usually held over two days of the meeting to raise money for a local organization in need. WAAC attendees are encouraged to bring items to donate to the auction, and WAAC board members are typically major contributors as well. The items in the auction range from practical art conservation items-tools, materials, and conservation books-to fun, silly, handmade and/or locally-inspired items, which are some of the most popular among bidders.

Suzanne Morris surveying the auction items and contemplating her strategy


This year, auction items included gingerbread pancake mix from local favorite restaurant Kerbey Lane Cafe, a cowboy hat, Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town by Red Wassenich (who is also the spouse of Austin-based conservator Karen Pavelka), a plush Clara Barton doll, a glass plate negative, an attractive pair of extra large ladies sunglasses, Amelie on DVD, and Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color. Bidding wars really broke out for items such as Changing Views of Textile Conservation by Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, a Teflon spatula, colorful vegetable and fruit-print cloth napkins handmade by conservator and WAAC newsletter editor Carolyn Tallent, Russell Brand’s memoir My Booky Wook, and for those feeling particularly daring, several mystery items, donated by LA-based conservator Albrecht Gumlich.


The colorful cloth napkins handmade by Carolyn Tallent were popular items in the auction


The highly coveted Russell Brand memoir


This year’s auction was a great success, raising over $600.The proceeds will benefit art and artifact preservation activities at the French Legation Museum in Austin, TX.


Beverly Perkins calls the end of the Silent Auction



Post by Molly Gleeson and Vanessa Muros



2011 WAAC Annual Meeting, Day 1

Austin, Texas. This is where the 2011 Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) annual meeting is being held and where I’ll be for the rest of the week (Oct. 19-22). I’m excited about being here. It’s my first time at a WAAC meeting and my first time in Austin. And I’ve only heard good things about both.

Today was the first day of the conference. Conference attendees had the option of going on tours of different conservation labs on the campus of UT Austin. To kick off the conference, an opening reception was held at the Harry Ransom Center. Due to flight issues, I missed most of the day’s activities and arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the opening reception. The lobby of the Ransom Center was a nice venue for the reception, and the food (and glasses of wine) certainly hit the spot after a day of traveling.

Conservators ready for this year's WAAC conference


Though I’ve never been to a WAAC conference before, and I have only participated in a very small portion of it so far, it already has a different feel than the large AIC Annual Meetings I always go to. I know it’s smaller in size in terms of number of attendees and papers, but I think that it gives the conference a more intimate and laid back feeling. It will actually be easier to speak to presenters about the work they just shared, catch up with colleagues, and meet new ones. I’m looking forward to the format of the conference where the sessions combine papers on different specialties and I’ll have the opportunity to listen to information on topics I don’t normally hear about. From what I’ve heard, Austin seems like a great city to hold the conference in, filled with many great places to eat, to hear live music and maybe even take in some line dancing.

Tomorrow is the first day of presentations and am eagerly awaiting to hear about the work being conducted by fellow conservators. I’m also looking forward to the banquet tomorrow night (which I hear is always fun) and exploring more of Austin while I’m here. It looks like it’s going to be a great week.

Checking out Austin after the opening reception. Food and drinks at the Spider House Cafe.

39th Annual Meeting-OSG, June 1st, Panel Discussion on Ethical Issues in Archaeological Field Conservation

What are the ethical issues that archaeological conservators face in the field? This was the topic of a panel discussion held at the start of the OSG sessions focusing on archaeological conservation. It was organized by the Archaeological Discussion Group co-chairs Claudia Chemello and Susanne Grieve and the OSG program chair Sanchita Balachandran. Four archaeological conservators were invited to talk about some of the issues they face when working on site. The speakers, Angelyn Bass Rivera, Rae Beaubien, Eric Nordgren and Nancy Odegaard, all have different areas of specialization and were able to talk about a broad range of ethical issues that they have encountered in the work that they do.

The first speaker was Angelyn Bass Rivera, a conservator in private practice who specializes in wall paintings and built heritage. She presented 3 case studies and described the issues that she encountered working to preserve hominid track ways at Laetoli , murals at the Mayan site of San Bartolo and at Frijoles Canyon Cataes at Bandelier National Monument. All sites suffered from environmental degradation because they were outdoors, but there also seemed to be larger administrative issues affecting them. Issues such as the need for tourism to a site and its impact in the case of Laeotoli, or the issue of inadequate funding for conservation on archaeological excavations can also affect the preservation of these sites.

Rae Beaubien, archaeological conservator at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) talked about her experiences working in the field with archaeologists. At sites where there hadn’t been a history of conservation prior to her working there, she was able to come in and establish the protocol for processing finds. She could also forge the idea that archaeologists and conservators should work together from the start. Her work at MCI, where she was able to create an archaeological conservation internship program, allowed her to continue establishing these collaborations and emphasizing their importance in the field.

Rae then went on to discuss some of the items in AIC’s Codes of Ethics that stood out as important to those working in the field. The first was the issue of stewardship and the preservation of collection, where in the field, conservators are responsible for taking care of the entire collection. She then discussed the idea of operating within the expertise of the person charged with doing the work. She felt that in a museum or institution, it was possible to find a specialist or expert for different aspects of conservation or preservation. In the field, however, you are sometimes asked to work outside of your area. Because finding and paying for these specialists or experts is difficult, often the conservator will have to take on additional responsibilities and in those situations, you just do the best you can. Her final point was for those conservators working in the field to be aware of the laws and regulations of each country they work in in regards to antiquities, especially for unprovenanced material. She ended with the idea whether our work in a country brings unwanted attention to a site and once we leave, how do we protect the site.

Leaving the discussion of terrestrial sites, Eric Nordgren, conservator at Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project, talked to us about some of the issues conservators of maritime artifacts face, both practical and ethical. In the case of practical, the size of some of the objects brought up from the sea and the size of tanks or equipment needed for their storage and treatment pose a problem. He stressed the importance of long term planning to provide funding and equipment/materials to undertake the conservation and long term preservation of these materials.

In regards to ethical issues, the largest one faced is where artifacts are recovered without following ethical guidelines and work is carried out by treasure hunters or salvage crews. The question is, what do we do about this? Eric’s suggestion is to work with these groups of people, in addition to other professionals involved in maritime archaeology such as boat captains, riggers, etc. to educate them about conservation and have them understand how they can do their work following ethical guidelines. His final point was if we should think about the larger question of whether we even need to excavate these underwater sites anymore and how well can they be documented without excavation.

The final panel speaker was Nancy Odegaard, conservator at the Arizona State Museum, who was asked to speak about her experiences working with human remains. The Arizona State Museum issues permits for excavations and the policy is that if remains are found, the excavation has 48 hours to get someone out there to identify the remains and determine whether they are human. When found, human remains are not excavated in the Southwest. They are not disturbed, unlike in other areas where the remains are exposed, removed and can be sampled/examined/analyzed/reconstructed. She also mentioned that this summer she will be reburying human remains and artifacts that are currently at the museum.

After each speaker presented, the floor was opened for discussion and questions. One of the issues that kept recurring both in the panel presentation and discussion was how to get archaeologists and conservators to work together, particularly in the US. Rae mentioned that in some countries permits and regulations for excavations are centralized so there is common governing body and regulation to guide archaeologists. There are countries that do require archaeologists to work with conservators and having centralized regulations makes enforcing this easier. This is not the case in the US. Rae suggested having conservators go to archaeological conferences to present their research and integrate themselves into archaeology. Training archaeology students about conservation also helps because you get them to understand early in their career about the importance of conservation and working with conservators. Also writing grants to fund conservation on sites from the same sources that archaeologists use and including this as part of the archaeologist’s funding process for their project also helps.

The issue was raised in the question portion about non-conservators treating materials, especially in the case of maritime archaeology. Eric Nordgren had touched upon that in his presentation and addressed this again in the discussion. He brought up the point that often because of the need to recover these types of items and the need for immediate treatment, archaeologists often do the work themselves. The work of non-conservators preserving maritime sites and the issues of working with them was also brought up in paper presented in the OSG session following the luncheon by Susanne Grieve. It seems that the issue of non-conservators treating archaeological materials and how we should deal with them is something that needs further discussion in the specialization of archaeological conservation.

The final point brought up in the discussion session was of conservators working on unprovenanced materials. Museums have protocols for dealing with these, but should conservators have protocols or guidelines on how to deal with these materials. There was not enough time to have a full discussion of this at the luncheon, but it is an important point that was brought up and one I’m sure will be discussed in more depth in the future.

This luncheon introduced us to some of the issues, both ethical and practical, that archaeological conservators face in the field. It also led to discussions about larger issues of funding and allocation of resources for conservation, how to better integrate with archaeologists, working with non-conservators and other professionals and the ethics of dealing with unprovenanced material. Though no clear answers could be given for how to deal with some of these items, it did provide some interesting discussions and reminded everyone about the complexities of conserving material in the field. I think we all left with many issues to think about that certainly should be further discussed in future annual meetings.

39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 1st, “Archaeologists and Avocational Conservators: Compromising Principles or Increasing Awareness?” by Susanne Grieve

This year, a portion of the OSG sessions focused on archaeological conservation and the ethics and issues surrounding the conservation of these materials.  The paper presented by Susanne Grieve focused on avocational conservators and how much information do we give to non-conservators who are practicing conservation, something that was touched upon in the panel discussion organized by the Archaeological Discussion Group of the OSG on ethical issues in archaeological field conversation held earlier that day.

Avocational conservators were described as members of the general public who undertake conservation treatments as a hobby or out of interest for preserving something.  They have no formal training in conservation.  In her presentation, Susanne talked about working with a group of avocational conservators in Namibia who help preserve maritime sites and artifacts in the country.  The group is made up of members of the the Windhoek Underwater Club’s (WUC) Maritime Archaeology Division who come from varied background with no formal training in archaeology or conservation.

Susanne brought up some interesting questions and issues as she talked about her experiences working with the WUC.  Conservators have worked for 39 years to make conservation a profession.  We have formalized training, a code of ethics and protocols and standards that form the basis of the profession.  Her questions in regards to the conservation profession and avocational conservators is: Do we work with these groups? How much training do we give them? And do we compromise our profession by working with or training these people?

In regards to the situation in Namibia, there is only 1 conservator responsible for all the cultural material there.  This means that there is not enough staff and resources to get everything done.  The avocational conservators do the work they do because it is very important to them that this part of Nambian culture and history be preserved and they have an interest and passion in doing so.  And I’m sure they feel that because of the limited resources there, they can help fill that need.

Susanne’s work with the WUC involved working with them on the excavation of a mining camp site and the conservation of material found there.  The club felt the site was important for them to preserve because the government was not interested in preserving it.  The camp site was from a German mining operation and places like these are not preserved because it is a part of Namibia’s past people want to forget.  Susanne worked on site with them and taught them about excavation and lifting techniques. They then took artifacts back to the lab where she taught them some basic methods for preserving books and ledgers collected from the site.  She also looked at some previously treated artifacts that had been conserved using outdated methods and  shared information on other approaches.  Before leaving she left some conservation materials with the group.

Susanne’s paper touched upon issues that many conservators deal with when having to work with non-conservators in resource poor institutions.  These kinds of questions often come up in working with archaeologists as well.  In the case of the conservation of maritime sites and artifacts in Namibia, it seems that the WUC are the only group at the moment who can preserve this material.  The infrastructure and resources don’t seem to exist to allow for conservation professionals to do this kind of work.  There is too much to preserve and not enough trained people to do it.  So does that mean that we, as conservators, don’t do anything because working with avocational conservators would compromise our profession?  It doesn’t seem like these questions could be easily answered, but this talk does bring up important questions that as a profession should be discussed because many of us have to deal with issues such as these.

Susanne summed up her talk with what I think is a good approach to these questions and something as an archaeological conservator, I agree with.  She felt that the answer to the questions she posed should be considered on a case by case basis.  If the person you may be working with is interested in selling artifacts, then you shouldn’t share your knowledge.  However if the purpose is to educate people, especially in countries with no resources or professionals, then perhaps we should share our knowledge and skills.  In regards to working with archaeologists, it is important for them to see archaeological conservation as a profession.  They need to value the knowledge and skills we can contribute.  Susanne’s suggestion is to continue to work with archaeologists so that this type of thinking starts to change.  And I couldn’t agree more with this idea.

39th Annual Meeting-Objects Session, June 1st, “An Archaeological Journey: The Excavation, Deterioration, and Treatment of a Painted Glass Miniature from Nimrud” by Ariel O’Connor

In the first session of talks of the Objects Specialty Group, which  focused on archeological materials, Ariel O’Connor gave a presentation on an incredible treatment she did on a painted glass miniature from the site of Nimrud. I found the  treatment incredible for several reasons.  First she worked on one of the earliest examples of painted glass,  and archaeological glass is one of my favorite materials to work on.  The miniature was from Nimrud, and having worked at the Oriental Institute Museum I had become familiar with the amazing finds from the site.  But the main reason it was so incredible was because of the amount of work it must have taken to reconstruct the miniature that was in such a fragile and fragmentary state.  Some of the pieces Ariel reattached were only the size of the tip of a fine brush!

Ariel worked on the miniatures in 2009 during her internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The plaques had been excavated in the 40’s from the site of Nimrud (located in Iraq near Mosul) by the archaeologist Max Mallowan, husband of the author Agatha Christie (who also participated on the excavation cleaning some of the ivories found).  Nimrud was once the capital of the Assyrian Empire and had palaces, temples and an acropolis.  Most of the finds from the site date to the 9-7th c. BCE.

The Met’s miniature was found in a room at Fort Shalmaneser along with several other painted glass miniatures (total of 9).  The room also contained other luxury goods such as ivory plaques and inlays.  The miniatures, which some have suggested could be inlays for ivory, are thought to date to the 9-8 c. BCE.  The plaques are the earliest examples of painted glass in the Near East (and possibly the oldest examples known anywhere).  After the excavations were completed, the finds were split between the Met, the British Museum, the Iraq Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass.  All the plaques were examined by Robert Brill who conducted a technical study of them.

The miniature from the Met is comprised of two fragments which make up the top half of a winged sphinx with a lotus flower. The miniature is rectangular in shape, resembling a plaque, and concave. The piece seemed to be in somewhat good condition when first brought to the museum but by 2002, it seemed to have deteriorated severely and was in about 85 pieces.  Ariel set about to conduct a technical study of the pigments used to paint the decoration and undertook an extensive treatment of the miniature in order to stabilize and reconstruct it.

FTIR and Raman analysis was done in order to identify the materials used to paint the design.  Iron oxide red and Egyptian blue were found.  The black material was analyzed using FTIR but could not be identified.  This is because the plaque had been consolidated in the field with PVA which was affecting the analysis.  In Brill’s earlier study of the plaques, he hypothesized that the black material was bitumen, which was commonly used in the Near East.  Solubility tests of the black showed it was not affected by solvents.

Treatment of the piece proved challenging not only because of the fragile and fragmentary nature of the miniature, but because of the presence of the PVA consolidant.  Ariel had to find a treatment to consolidate lifting areas of the miniature and to reconstruct the fragments, but which would not affect the previously applied PVA.  She decided to use methylcellulose to join the fragments, which would then be supported by Japanese tissue as a single fiber laid across the join.  She used an enlarged image of the miniature that was taken in 1959 to aid in reconstruction. For areas which had separated between the top and bottom surfaces of the miniature, she created an internal support made up of several layers of Japanese tissue.

The final step of the treatment was to fill areas of loss to provide further support to the fragile plaque.  Using Mylar, she cut out small templates of missing areas and then cut Japanese tissue to shape using the template.  The tissue was then placed in the areas of loss.  The edges were also filled, either using one long piece of tissue or smaller pieces only over missing areas, depending on how severe the deterioration was.  The tissue fills were not toned, but left as is.  After treatment she compared the conserved piece to the 1959 photo and noted there were no losses, just cracks.  That was an impressive feat given the number of fragments and how small they were!

Due to deterioration during burial, there had been loss to the original pigments and to the surface.  To better understand what the miniature would have looked like, Ariel made a reconstruction, pictured below. I found the talk really interesting and the treatment results very impressive.  After all that work to reconstruct the numerous small fragments, the plaque is now stable and the decoration is intelligible once again.