THE RINCON CENTER HISTORIC MURALS: A Conservator's Notes on the Spirit and Significance of Public Art

portue-rincon-center-muralsAs the conservator and ongoing custodian of the historic murals at Rincon Center, 55 Mission St. in San Francisco, I have often been asked to render my opinion on the significance of these important artworks. In September of 1986, The San Francisco Business Journal wrote that Iportue-rincon-center-murals

“withheld my personal opinion on the art and preferred to talk about the restoration process itself .”

Due to the highly charged political content of these murals, I felt that it was not my position as a professional art conservator to render such an opinion. I have never experienced a need to comment on them from an artistic, historic or political vantage point until now in our current political climate.
These 27 panels represent the largest and most expensive single mural project ever awarded under the Depression era programs established to put artists to work. Many refer to these various projects as part the WPA program or Work Progress Administration.  The Rincon Center murals specifically, were commissioned under a program directed by the U.S. Treasury Department, the last of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal art projects of the mid 20th Century. More importantly, they represent a moment in American history when art and history itself were put on trial.portue-rincon-center-murals-4
The Rincon Annex Post Office murals were painted by Russian born artist Anton Refrieger in the post-World War II era between 1946 and 1948. It was a time when tensions revolved around the cold war and suspected subversions on the Homefront. Conservative and patriotic values ran high in the U.S. and America stood at the forefront of a new world order.
Refregier’s preliminary designs were envisioned and drafted in the late 30’s and early 40’s near the end of the Great Depression. World War II interrupted the completion of the commission and work was resumed in 1946 at the end of the war.  In contrast to the political landscape after World War II, the artist painted California’s history in a frank, honest and judgmental interpretation that was inspired by the hardships of an earlier and depressed era. He was not preoccupied with the aggrandizement of our state and nation’s past. For many, his works were perceived as dark passages from regional history that questioned the nobility and grandeur of early settlers. Many considered the character and themes of these paintings “un-American”.rinconcentercommunitymuralimage
Significant attempts were made by conservative political forces to remove these murals.  The artist is said to have worried that conservative “thugs” would come along in the middle of the night to destroy his masterpiece.  However, San Franciscans rallied and the murals were saved. But the controversies surrounding this now preserved landmark continue to be an indelible part of San Francisco’s famous and infamous history.
Politics have always played a major role in attempts to record or destroy history. Art and history have been repeatedly put on trial throughout the ages. It’s happened many times before the McCarthy era challenges to the Rincon murals and it has happened many times since. That’s the inherent nature of art, particularly as it exists in the public realm.
rinconcentercommunitymuralimage2Long before the Rincon Murals were challenged, Hitler’s vigorous attempts to eradicate the art, the history and the memory of all that displeased him were among the many atrocities associated with Germany’s Third Reich. More recently, the world was shocked in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed important monuments in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan because they were inconsistent with the Taliban’s own religious views and ideology.  And in even more recent times, the scourge of ISIS has devastated the art world. Historians, preservationists and the world public at large are equally appalled by the destruction of long treasured antiquities in the Palmyra Valley and elsewhere throughout the Middle East The impact is best described by William Webber of the UK based Art Loss Registry. “If you’re going to eradicate someone’s identity, the best way is to eradicate their art”
It’s been said that censoring history is an act of cowardice It can come from the left as well as the right.  In 2014, a feminist group in France rallied to have the iconic VJ Day statue of “The Kiss” destroyed because they found it offensive to the feminist agenda. And there are many in this country that still rally to destroy any vestiges of what remain of the Judeo-Christian heritage that has played a significant role in the development of our nation, as we know it today.portue-rincon-center-murals-3
Almost thirty years have past since I restored the murals at Rincon Center.  Irrespective of my own political inclinations, I’ve come to further appreciate Refregier’s honest attempts at conveying the darker sides of history. I view such attempts as something requisite in the achievement of a more enlightened society.  His work remains as yet one more reminder that, “those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
In this understanding, I feel that the artist Anton Refregier and I are more alike than different, with a convergence of minds and ideologies from two polar ends of the political spectrum. As a politically conservative art conservator, I am as determined to honor and preserve the past as the socialist artist was to paint it. Any attempt to alter history is an affront on truth however it may be perceived and interpreted.portue-rincon-center-murals-6
In the historic lobby of Rincon Center, stark and sometimes unpleasant truths associated with the American journey are displayed front and center. A corridor adjacent to the historic lobby leads to the newer atrium area where the more recent 1980’s paintings by artist Richard Hass adorn the walls. These newer additions to the old Rincon Annex Post Office were once referred to as “a monument to capitalism.” The Hass paintings depict the abundance and sense of well being often associated with the accomplishments of free enterprise and the American Dream. There are obvious contrasts and a distinct irony associated with the juxtaposition of these two very different works of art.  But I believe that standing between them gives one a great sense of what it means to be uniquely American.portue-rincon-center-murals-1
As conservators, historians and preservationists, we must adhere to our own distinct and unique version of the “Hippocratic” oath.  Aside from our own personal and political proclivities, we are bound by obligation to honor the past and the truths associated with it. I would like to believe that Anton Refregier would agree.

From the Bench: Team Pachacamac Triumphs, Making Peruvian Collections Accessible

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Lynn A. Grant, Head Conservator, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Our IMLS-funded post-graduate fellows, Ainslie Harrison and Fran Baas (collectively known as ‘Frainslie’) have, in one short year, totally transformed the circumstances for Penn Museum’s collections of textiles and ceramics from Pachacamac, Peru. This group of extremely important archaeological materials, excavated by Max Uhle in the 1890s, had languished due to overcrowded storage, inadequate documentation, and difficulties in access. Fran and Ainslie carried out detailed conservation surveys of 3,600 objects and moved them into better storage locations. They created customized storage solutions so the artifacts can be easily accessed and studied. They added over 10,000 images to the museum’s publicly accessible database. And they were able to treat the approximately 60 artifacts most in need of stabilization. In addition to all of this, Fran and Ainslie also blogged about the project and gave frequent specialized tours for students and museum patrons.

Post-graduate fellows Ainslie Harrison (left) and Fran Baas (right).

To have accomplished all this in such a short time is amazing. Perhaps more amazing is how they did it. ‘Frainslie’ recruited, trained, supervised, and nurtured a large cadre of volunteers, work-study students, and pre-program interns to assist them with the process. “Team Pachacamac,” as they became known, was extraordinarily productive and seemed to really enjoy the work. For two recently graduated conservators to assemble and oversee this kind of effort and to inspire near fanatical devotion to the project was incredibly gratifying in an institution that has long prided itself on its contributions to conservation education.

Their work has made a tremendous impact. As Fran wrote in her last blog post, “The primary goal of the grant was to increase researcher access, and I can proudly say that this goal was reached … Many research questions can now be answered just by searching the collections database online through the museum’s website, saving time for the curator, the collection staff, and researchers miles away. Access to the digital documentation also has an important preservation aspect since it minimizes the handling of the object. If a question can’t be answered by viewing its color digital photograph or by reading the newly added collection information gathered during the survey, the piece can be easily retrieved safely and quickly.”  We wish Ainslie and Fran well as they move on to new professional challenges. Kudos to Team Pachacamac and to IMLS for making this work possible.

From the Bench: A 400-Year-Old Carpet is Restored to Show Original Persian Artistry

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Joseph Godla, Chief Conservator, The Frick Collection

One of the pleasures and challenges of working at a small museum is dealing with the care of objects which fall outside the area of expertise of the staff. Such is the case with the Frick’s small collection of carpets. The Frick’s conservation staff includes experts in sculpture and decorative arts, but no one specializing in textiles.

A sixteenth-century Herat carpet has decorated the Frick’s beloved Living Hall for almost 100 years. The carpet, purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1916, is a superb example of Persian carpet making, with a wide range of pile color and a high degree of artistry in its elaborate floral design. At more than 400 years old, however, it had suffered several early campaigns of poor restoration and, though displayed behind stanchions, the edges had been further damaged by visitor foot traffic. It was clear to us that the carpet needed to be restored.

Lacking the appropriate person on staff, the Frick turned to Dierdre Windsor of Windsor Conservation, a long-time colleague of the Frick’s chief conservator. Ms. Windsor has many years of experience in textile conservation, including seven years as director of the American Textile History Museum’s Textile Conservation Center. We also sought the advice of Walter Denny, professor of Art History and adjunct professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Mr. Denny is a leading expert in the field of Islamic art and was an adviser to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the re-installation of its Islamic galleries.

Large Persian rug in lab for conservation treatment

The project’s goal was to stabilize the carpet. The level of previous intervention made this a large task requiring the removal of many patches and resins, hundreds of pieces of backing fabric, old repairs, and embroidered repairs with bad color matches or misalignment. Ms. Windsor estimated it would take eighteen months to complete the work required.

The treatment process began with careful documentation of the entire carpet’s specific condition issues. The carpet was then vacuumed and solvent-cleaned. Following the cleaning, old repairs were addressed. For future display and storage, a new dustcover and lining were fabricated and an archival carpet pad made for use when the textile is on display.

There were some minor changes to the original plan. For example, due to the extremely complex restoration history of the carpet, which was discovered only when the lining backing the carpet’s border was removed, the condition assessment and documentation of the carpet took longer than originally planned. While it was tempting to remove all of the early repairs, we decided to take a conservative approach rather than risk causing further damage. Removal of many of the visually distracting older repairs resulted in a much more visually consistent appearance.

Following the eighteen-month treatment, the carpet is now in a much more stable condition and can be safely put on view where viewers can appreciate the carpet’s remarkably vibrant original colors.

From the Bench: Trellised Garden with Animals on View at Memorial Art Gallery Thanks to Tapestry Initiative

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Nancy Norwood, Curator of European Art, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester

Pannemaker installation process in April 2012

April 16, 2012, the day we installed the Flemish tapestry Trellised Garden with Animals in our Renaissance gallery, was one of the most rewarding days in my 12 years as curator of European art at the Memorial Art Gallery.

As is the case with many older museums —MAG celebrates its centennial next year—we have the luxury of an encyclopedic collection of world art and the challenge of preserving it. Medieval and Renaissance tapestries are among the most impressive and popular works in museums, but because of their massive size, sensitivity to light, and fragility, their ongoing preservation requires special attention. In our case, the challenge was extreme. Most of our tapestries were acquired in the 1920s and 1930s specifically for display in our great hall, where they had been exhibited without interruption for several decades. By 2000, only one tapestry was healthy enough to remain on view.

Enter the European Tapestry Initiative, a project that began in 2002 as a way to systematically evaluate and conserve the tapestries in our collection. The end goal was the treatment of a core group of our best medieval and Renaissance work and the establishment of a systematic rotation schedule for them, a formidable task considering the need for specialized conservators and considerable financial resources.

Completed Pannemaker installation

IMLS Conservation Project Support grants provided both the initial and continuing support necessary for the success of the initiative. A 2003 Detailed Condition Survey grant kicked the project into gear, allowing Marlene Eidelheit, the director of the Textile Conservation Laboratory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to spend four days at the museum. She carefully examined and evaluated each of our tapestries, providing treatment proposals and training staff on handling and storage at the same time. This survey was an essential first step to implementing the project.

IMLS continued to support the Tapestry Initiative when, in 2009, we received a major CPS grant that enabled the essential and exhaustive conservation of Trellised Garden with Animals, woven in Brussels by the Pannemaker workshops during the 1560s and 70s. We knew that once Trellised Garden returned to view, we needed to have a replacement waiting in the wings for rotation the following year. In 2011, we received a third IMLS CPS grant that would support the treatment of Battle of the Animals (affectionately known to staff and the conservator as “Beasts”). Once Beasts returns to MAG from the Cathedral’s conservation lab, we will install it in the place of pride left vacant by Trellised Garden, which will have been rolled and returned to storage for a well-deserved respite from the stresses of light and gravity.

For more information on MAG’s tapestry and other conservation-related grant initiatives, see

From the Bench: Upgrade of American Sculpture and Decorative Arts Storage

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Barbara Heller, Director and Conservator, Special Projects, Detroit Institute of Arts

With the invaluable support of IMLS, the Detroit Institute of Arts was able to upgrade storage for its American decorative arts and sculpture collections dating from the beginning of the European settlements until 1950. These objects had been located in six separate, inaccessible temporary storage spaces during the museum’s 2000 –2007 renovation and expansion project. This new state-of-the-art storeroom makes possible the safe removal, handling, and study of works by curators, conservators, educators, and scholars. Greater accessibility also facilitates contributions to the body of academic knowledge and the creation of new educational programming at the museum, and allows the public to see more of the collection. In fact the project has resulted in five articles written by conservators, curators, and educators published in professional journals and books and eight YouTube podcasts.

New powder coated cabinets line the room. The glass doors allow for visual monitoring of the collections. Fixed wall screens provide vertical hanging space for heavy metalwork, mirrors, and frames. The wide aisles provide adequate space to move works of art. Racks and platforms installed against the back wall accommodate larger sculptures and three-dimensional objects. These include Daniel Chester French’s three large plasters for the Samuel Francis DuPont Memorial Fountain, which are barely visible in the photograph on the bottom left behind their polyethylene sheeting and are fully accessible in the upgraded storeroom shown on the bottom right.

Also housed in this room are bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington, marbles by Hiram Powers, and decorative arts pieces such as glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany. A total of 2,749 objects were relocated to this room, of which 1,561 were rehoused with stabilization mounts. Digital photographs were taken of objects that had not been photographed, before placing them into their new cabinetry.

During the project period, more than forty-six objects, including silver by Paul Revere, were rotated into the DIA’s American galleries or loaned to exhibitions at other institutions. The museum conserved forty pieces—twelve received new mounts—and nine new collection acquisitions were processed. Additional documentation information for 383 objects and 1,200 new digital images were entered into the museum’s collections management database, allowing for new images to be linked to the DIA website. Renewed access has allowed the museum’s curators to review and research the silver collection. A new installation showcasing DIA’s early American silver and decorative arts is being funded by the Americana Foundation and scheduled to open by the end of 2012.

From the Bench: Preservation Project Protects 65 Million-Year-Old Fossilized Leaves for Scientific Study

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Jude Southward, Conservator and Museum Conservation, Department Chair
Denver Museum of Nature and Science

It’s fall, and the trees are shedding their leaves, making playful swirls on the ground. Have you ever wondered what happened to leaves that fell to the ground around 65 million years ago? At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), we are rehousing beautiful fossil leaf specimens from Denver Basin excavations that date from that time period. The specimens are remarkable because so many of them retain a cuticle. The cuticle is the waxy protective coating on living leaves, and it allows researchers to investigate past carbon dioxide levels. It is just one of the ways the museum is helping to study our changing climate.

Leaf with intact compression-impression macro fossil and cuticle showing excellent preservation of the leaf detail

With help from a Conservation Project Support grant from IMLS, DMNS is providing optimum storage conditions for the 8,900 fossil leaf specimens housed at DMNS. The leaf fossils are preserved on mud, silt, and clay matrices that are not strongly cemented together.  Even though these are fossil specimens, they are prone to damage from handling or from prolonged exposure to water, which could occur during fire suppression.  If the cementation fails, the fossil breaks apart. This project is helping us protect these specimens against both physical and water damage. Many museum staff members are working on the project including conservators, curators, collections managers, and a dedicated crew of volunteers in the museum’s Earth Sciences Department. The team is working together to place the specimens in standard trays with customized supports. The specimens and their trays will then being placed in new, high-quality, closed cabinets.

As part of the project, staff conservators are completing condition reports on the 800 type specimens in the collection. These type specimens are the most significant taxonomic fossil leaves in our collection because they are the specimen on which a new species description is based. They have the highest curatorial and conservation priorities for closer examination, which allows us to see the remarkable structure of the leaves.

In addition to the rehousing and condition reporting by conservators, the effort entails work by project staff to conduct collection management activities, such as reviewing taxonomy to determine correct storage location, inventorying specimens, and creating storage labels. Finally, all inventory and condition report information is being entered into the collections database.

I have had the opportunity to work on more than a dozen IMLS-funded projects. I truly appreciate the impact of the agency’s commitment to collections preservation.

From the Bench: Conservators Save Colonial-Era Artifacts from Corrosion

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Emily Williams, Conservator of Archaeological Materials, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Department of Conservation

The recreated settlement at Wolstenholme Town, Martin’s Hundred’s administrative center.

Excavated during the Bicentennial year of 1976, the artifacts from Martin’s Hundred tell an exciting tale of colonialism, adaptation to a new land and …a deadly struggle. Situated near the banks of the James River in Virginia, Martin’s Hundred was settled by 280 colonists in 1618. In 1622 the settlement was temporarily abandoned after 58 colonists were killed during the Powhatan Uprising. Resettled shortly thereafter, with a much diminished population, the settlement never regained its footing and by the 18th century core components had been acquired by Robert “King” Carter, who turned it into a plantation.

The artifacts from Martin’s Hundred represent a broad range of domestic, agricultural and military items. A handful of items, already antiques when they were brought to Virginia, date to the late sixteenth century. Other artifacts include the first close helmets found in North America, pieces of armor and chain mail, table knives with bolsters decorated with silver and gold wire, and a shackle. Most of the iron artifacts were treated when they were first excavated to remove the dirt and rust from the surface, broken artifacts were joined together and the surfaces coated to prevent moisture from causing further corrosion.

Nearly forty years later, the Martin’s Hundred artifacts are a good reminder that, unfortunately, no conservation treatment, however skillfully done, lasts forever. Many of the objects were corroding again. The IMLS grant has allowed us to begin stabilizing them anew. We are carefully removing the wax coatings, cleaning the surfaces, and then desalinating the objects. The process of desalinating removes the salts that have seeped into an artifact during burial, which if left, can cause more damage. Our intervention does not stop there though. We are rehousing the artifacts, providing more support, and reestablishing a system of sealed drawers that maintain a very dry environment. The drawers have clear plexi lids that are held in place by magnets to prevent dry air leaking out but still allow visitors and scholars to see the objects. We are becoming experts on magnet strength, a skill I never thought I would cultivate!

Like the excavation, the retreatment project has offered new tales. As the wax has come off, we, and visitors to our lab, have been impressed by the degree to which objects were reconstructed in the past and by how carefully they were recreated and preserved. They remind us that although techniques have been refined the goal of preserving these objects is a constant.


From the Bench: Conservation Effort Opens View of Tiffany Window Designs

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By Marina Ruiz Molina, Assistant Conservator and Marjorie Shelley, Conservator in Charge

Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a collection of over four hundred drawings from the workshops of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). They include preparatory sketches and presentation designs for windows, interiors, lights, mosaics, and other decorative works. The collection offered a formidable challenge, when it was acquired by museum in 1967 as it had previously sustained considerable water damage that resulted in extensive mold growth. The damage was so severe that these drawings could not be exhibited or properly studied because they posed a health hazard for the researchers, and the aesthetic and structural disfiguration was too critical.

In 2010, we received a generous grant from IMLS to conserve a group of 65 of these pieces, all of them designs for stained glass windows. This grant has given us the opportunity to investigate, treat, and rehouse these drawings, thus making them accessible to the public and shedding new light on the process of designing stained glass windows.

Tiffany window design revealed by recent conservation work.

One of the most exciting aspects of our work as the paper conservators in charge of this project has been accessing for the first time “hidden” pieces of information that had remained concealed for many years, covered under layers of dirt, mold, or even original presentation elements, such as mat windows. While detaching some of the mat windows during the conservation process, we found inscriptions that revealed relevant facts, such as the location of unknown windows, the identification of depicted figures, or the names of the commissioners.

Most importantly, we had the opportunity to better understand the imaginative practices devised by the designers who worked under Mr. Tiffany’s supervision in order to maximize the productivity of their creative work. Scientific and technical study of these multilayered, extremely complex objects has allowed us to confirm how these men and women often employed devises such as painted photographs, tracing techniques, and collaged cutouts to reutilize their own existing designs. As a whole, this collection of drawings reveals a fascinating and inventive array of designers’ tools — a turn-of-the-century predecessor of Photoshop!

Visitors to the American Wing of our museum can for the first time admire these delicate drawings, many of which are beautiful works of art on their own right.

For more information, visit

From the Bench: The Peabody Museum Maps 140 Years of Anthropology Fieldwork

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By T. Rose Holdcraft, Conservator and Administrative Head, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

Thanks to an IMLS grant, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology can now share more of its broad-ranging Map Collection with researchers. The collection includes maps and illustrations from the Abri Pataud region in France, hard-to-find documents of the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site Chan Chan in Peru, and unpublished maps and drawings from the Lower Mississippi Valley Survey.

2012 Research visit. Studying Russell Train Smith’s original sketches of Las Monjas ruins at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico.

In 2009, we received an IMLS Conservation Project Support grant award to improve access and preservation of the historical maps, architectural drawings, and archaeological site plans. These archival items document American anthropological history of the past 140 years. The Peabody Museum, the oldest museum dedicated to anthropology in the Western hemisphere, conducted some of the earliest fieldwork in North America including the Hopewell, Mississippian, and Mimbres culture sites. By the project’s end in April 2011, we had created more than 5,200 new database records, and conserved and re-housed 6,600 items. Within the year we saw significant increases in public access to this collection and in research and teaching based on it. Researchers search the museum’s Collections Online website to identify documents and then arrange an onsite visit to study the collections. For example, a researcher recently visited with her uncle and marveled at several drawings of Maya monuments from Chichen Itza penned in the 1930s by her grandfather.

With grant funds, we cleaned, humidified, and stored the documents flat in acid-free paper-based folders in new museum-quality cabinetry. Previously, the majority of items were inaccessible: compressed, folded, and/or rolled. The map room with a new large viewing platform provides a comfortable space to safely handle and study these often oversized historic anthropological documents. The project supported professional development of several interns who updated object records with newly realized information critical to future research and preservation.

One of the discoveries during the project was a set of drawings by Ann Axtel Morris. These large colorful illustrations of Maya monuments were used in a 2011 Harvard course. Another find was a printed map, heavily used and annotated during an early expedition to South Africa; it now will be featured in a 2013 publication.

Since 2011, 31 individuals have requested access to more than 50 items in the map collection.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is very grateful for key funding provided by IMLS to make these valuable collections available to the global community. For further information, see this Peabody Museum article and the museum’s conservation web page about the project.

From the Bench: New Storage Safeguards Newark Museum’s Jewelry and African Art Collections

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

By:  Rebecca Buck, Deputy Director for Collection Services, Newark Museum

With the help of IMLS, the Newark Museum has slowly changed its collection storage to best protect important collections and let curators and researchers easily see the safely stored objects within it. Drab gray open shelving has been replaced by enclosed cabinets powder-coated with Chinese red, Tibetan orange, Lenox green, Royal purple and, for the largest project – African storage – a yellow as brilliant as the African sun.

Jewelry Technician Sara Parmigiani with Jewelry Storage. Photography by Andrea Hagy, Associate Registrar

In the 1980s, the Newark Museum renovated and connected a series of early 20th-century buildings under the direction of Michael Graves Associates. Storage was outfitted according to the standards of the time as directed by the individual curators. Over the years it became necessary to upgrade areas to increase space and develop better ways of protecting and accessing objects in the collections. The two latest projects, storage upgrades for jewelry and for the African art collection, will resolve some old problems and reach current standards of care.

Newark’s jewelry collection is magnificent, an active 1,900+ piece collection curated by Ulysses Grant Dietz, Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts. It reflects Newark’s heritage: home of Tiffany & Company, Herpers, Hedges, Krementz, Riker, Bippart, Durand and others. The new Lore Ross gallery in the historic Ballantine House is one of the few galleries in the United States devoted solely to the display of jewelry.

Six old wooden and metal cabinets were replaced with three Delta cabinets full of narrow drawers with dividers – there is now at least one compartment available for each piece of jewelry. An IMLS-funded technician and a decorative arts intern arranged dividers as needed to accommodate rings, brooches, crosses, bracelets, and necklaces, and developed a volara padding scenario for each compartment. The work of inventory, lining, placement, and photography went on all of the spring and summer of 2012. The result: safe objects, logically stored objects, objects with mounts where they’re needed, a complete inventory, photographs attached to a complete database, and best of all, errors corrected!

Assistant Preparator David Bonner with African Storage. Photography by Andrea Hagy, Associate Registrar

The Newark Museum is also in the midst of a multifaceted African art collection expansion project. Led by Senior Curator, Arts of Africa and the Americas, Christa Clarke, the current African art galleries will triple in size, a conservation lab will be developed, and the first-ever catalog of the collection will be published. For the storage portion, an IMLS grant matched by money raised for storage improvement led to a wonderful compact storage unit that will hold thousands of works from the African art collection, reorganized by geography and genre for greater accessibility.

The Newark Museum’s ability to provide safe storage and collection care has been greatly improved by these projects. They help make certain that important objects will be available for generations to come.