From the Bench: New Blog Series Highlights the Work of Conservators

IMLS, the American Institute for Conservation, and Heritage Preservation, welcome you to a new blog series, “From the Bench.”

Every day in museum, library, and private labs across the country, conservators go about the work of ensuring that the objects that define us are protected and preserved for the benefit of our own and of future generations. They create the first lines of defense against forces that would otherwise see the materials we hold dear reduced to unrecognizable dust, smears, or puddles and thus quieting their stories.

Conservators are first-rate scientists and detectives, working at every scale from the sub-molecular to that of massive building environments and using tools ranging from the simplest swabs to those that rival well-outfitted chemistry and physics labs anywhere. The discoveries they make—sometimes in the course of routine documentation and other times as part of a rigorous scientific protocol—reveal hidden histories and prompt new lines of inquiry every day.

It’s easy to understand why conservators say their work is gratifying. Routine and predictability are punctuated with astounding breakthroughs. Most of all, to them, their work in caring for objects is most valuable because it results in increased access and learning for now and long into the future.

IMLS is proud to support conservation work, and we are delighted to help sponsor this opportunity for conservators to tell about their work from the bench. We hope you enjoy the series.

Guidelines for grant applications for collections care and conservation projects will be available on the IMLS website in mid-October.  Applications are due through on January 15, 2013. For more information on these and other funding programs, please visit

Modern Antiquities: The Looted and the Faked, a lecture by Dr David Scott

The Bay Area Art Conservation Guild and the Ancient Art Council present the 2012 BAACG Masters in Conservation lecture:

Modern Antiquities: The Looted and the Faked, by Dr. David A. Scott

Saturday, September 1, 2012 @10am at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

The talk will discuss the perception of theft as it pertains to ancient art and the current crisis in terms of museum acquisitions or holdings acquired after the UNESCO convention date of 1970.  The conflicting arguments in favor of repatriation of art and its retention will be highlighted and examples from the author’s experience in Greek and Pre-Colombian Art discussed. The “Getty Bronze” of a Greek athlete acquired by the Getty Museum in 1976 has an unusual history and its ownership has been a contentious issue between the Italian government and the Getty for many years. Pre-Columbian gold work without any provenance is commonly present in museum collections as the artifacts were looted from tombs before making their way into museums. The modern redefining and expansion of what we call theft complicates the status of these objects and their rightful ownership.  The increasing prevalence of art in our modern world which is either faked or looted, enhances the concept of using displayable copies much as Roman copies of ancient Greek sculptures came to be admired as authentic. The problems of copies and their use will be discussed in the context of the disputed origins of ancient art and the input which conservation has had on several of the important aspects of this subject.

Florence Gould Theater
Legion of Honor
100 – 34th Avenue
Lincoln Park
San Francisco

Register for the event at or RSVP to

Non-member cost: $15, free to BAACG and AAC members.
Dr. David A. Scott, Professor, Department of Art History and Founding Director of the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program has written extensively concerning the technical examination and conservation of metallic works of art as well as several studies of pigments from ancient Egyptian contexts.  His book, Copper and Bronze in Art, won the 2002 award from the Association of American Publishers as the best Art/Scholarly book published that year. Professor Scott has written over 100 papers and six books.  His latest venture is to devise a coherent teaching course on the subject of Art: Fakes, Forgeries and Authenticity, from which the current talk is derived.

This lecture is cosponsored by the Bay Area Art Conservation Guild and the Ancient Art Council of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Whose Artifact Is It Anyway?

Jane Klinger, chief conservator,
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has in its collection artifacts that were created for everyday use by everyday people. In the absence of direct testimony from victims, these objects have become the memory of their lives, and hold meaning far beyond their original use as simply a shoe or a dress.

Tension arises when the struggle between emotional content and physical protection take center stage. The conservator acts as an advocate for the needs of the artifact—battling time and the elements to maintain the object, while the curator seeks to put the artifact to use, to convey its histories and emotions to the public.

But with digital technology, often a middle ground can be found, as was the case with the burnt diary of a young woman named Debora. The museum recognized that this was a compelling object with a riveting text, but the damage it sustained might prevent it from reaching the audience it deserved. Instead, digital images, some enhanced to reveal the text, were used in a traveling exhibit. This is an excellent example of how an artifact can be used virtually–that is safely–yet still be a highly effective tool in telling a story.

The Volcano Hearse: Preserving a Civil War “Veteran”

The "Volcano hearse" before treatment.

Marc A. Williams
President, American Conservation Consortium, Ltd.

The “Volcano hearse” is one of the central artifacts remaining from an interesting footnote in American Civil War history – the only armed conflict that took place during the war in the state of California. The hearse, originally built in New Bedford, MA in the 1850’s, and currently owned by the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, had been stored outdoors for many years. As a result, it had suffered both from vandalism and significant deterioration in the form of structural damage, water and light damage, and fungal decay. During a CA Parks Department project to assess its horse-drawn vehicle collection, the hearse’s age and historic value were recognized and the vehicle was treated in 2008-2009.

The hearse’s historic importance stems from its role in smuggling a canon into the Sierra foothills town of Volcano, CA. During the Civil War an armed band of renegade miners had been agitating for weeks in support of the Confederate cause. The town elders sent an emergency communication to San Francisco for assistance. The Union garrison there could not spare troops but sent a single canon, “Old Abe”, a model 1835 6-pounder bronze field gun, via rail to the nearest depot. The Volcano Blues, the local militia group, used the hearse to slip the 737 pound canon into town in secrecy.

Once there, an under-carriage was built, and the cannon was loaded with gunpowder, nails, and scrap iron in the absence of proper ammunition. Shortly thereafter, the Confederate sympathizers marched up the main street armed with rifles, pistols, and knives. A stand-off ensued when the cannon was initially revealed and, after a few tense moments, the Confederates retreated. Local lore contends that had the canon been fired, it most likely would have exploded, killing many standing behind it, so heavy was the load of makeshift ammunition.

Commercial restoration of horse-drawn vehicles usually consists of remanufacturing components and spray-painting with automotive lacquer to produce new-looking objects with smooth, even surfaces. Discussions between the Project Conservator and Parks & Recreation staff however, led to the decision to stabilize the hearse and preserve as much of its historic character and components as possible, while still producing an appearance that was sufficiently integrated to allow it to be exhibited. This balance meant that elements such as the tattered, original upholstery and areas of loss and damage that were stable were accepted as part of the historic nature of the vehicle.

The "Volcano hearse" after treatment.

The conservation treatment involved reassembly of collapsed parts, replacement of only structurally necessary missing elements, consolidation of decayed wood, cleaning and removal of dirt, cleaning and reattachment of the original upholstery, consolidation of historic paint, inpainting surrounding areas of paint loss, and the application of a protective surface coating.

The hearse is currently in storage while an appropriate exhibit space with adequate preservation conditions is sought. The cannon, which is not owned by CA Parks and was not part of this treatment project, is on exhibit in downtown Volcano, CA.

For more details on this project please contact Marc A. Williams. For additional information on the Volcano historic landmark visit California’s Department of Parks and Recreation Office of Historic Landmarks website.

A Dionysian Dilemma: The Conservation and Display of Oversized Pompeian Watercolors at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Jamye Jamison and Wendy Partridge, Intermuseum Conservation Association
Claudia Chemello and Suzanne Davis, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

In 2008, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to undertake the conservation and installation of 21 large-scale watercolors depicting the fresco cycle in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. The Intermuseum Conservation Association, the nation’s oldest not-for-profit regional conservation center in Cleveland, OH, partnered with the Kelsey Museum on this project.

Installing the large watercolors.

The watercolors were commissioned by the Museum’s namesake, Francis Kelsey, in the mid-1920s. Kelsey, who was present at the Villa’s excavation in 1909, wanted to bring the excitement of this amazing discovery to students, scholars and the public in the US. He commissioned Italian artist Maria Barosso to create 5/6 scale renderings of the fresco cycle. The result is a series of watercolors that not only capture the beauty of the images, but also the condition of the frescos at the time. At Professor Kelsey’s request, Barosso was every bit as detailed in recording the cracks and losses in the plaster surface as she was in recreating the figures. Kelsey’s intent was to have the watercolors on display at the University of Michigan. Sadly, Professor Kelsey died in 1927, before they ever arrived.

For the majority of the 20th century, the watercolors remained rolled in storage in the Museum’s 1890s building. Due to their size – the largest single panel is 5 x 20 feet – the objects have only occasionally been brought out individually for educational purposes and only displayed twice as a group. The first time was in Italy at the Villa Borghese just after their completion in 1928, and more recently they were shown in a brief exhibition at the University of Michigan Art Museum in 2000. In 2005, the Kelsey Museum received a donation to build a new exhibit and storage facility. This presented the Museum with an opportunity to finally bring Francis Kelsey’s dream to life.

A major concern for both the Kelsey Museum and conservators at the ICA was the effect that prolonged exposure to light might have on the watercolors. Because the original frescos have deteriorated even further since Barosso’s renderings were completed, the watercolors are considered a key document of the condition of the frescos at the time of excavation. To gather more precise data about the pigments, the IMLS grant included provisions for non-destructive micro-fade testing of the pigments to be conducted by Dr. Paul Whitmore, conservation scientist and the director of the Art Conservation Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Utilizing a focused beam of light and a spectrometer, Dr. Whitmore can document the color shift in a 300 micron area on an object. Each minute of testing approximates one year of gallery conditions, roughly 8 hours/day of exposure to light at 50 lux with UV filtered out. The test results for the Barosso watercolors showed that most of the pigments are fairly stable. However, some of the reds did test sensitive to light, darkening instead of fading as is usually the case. With such precise information, the Kelsey Museum can track the amount of light to which the watercolors are exposed over time and react accordingly to limit damage. Light levels in the gallery are set at 30 lux and activated by motion sensors.

In terms of treatment, these objects are much more complicated than just works on paper. Not only are they extraordinary in size, they are composite in structure. Barosso divided each wall of the fresco cycle into three parts; the central figural panel, and the upper and lower decorative borders. Each of these segments was painted on a separate piece of paper backed with canvas. Display of the entire set requires all panels to be mounted in such a way that they fit together as groups of three, but also within the gallery as a whole. The assembled groups are just under 10 ft tall and range from 3 ft to 20 ft long. The basic course of treatment was to remove the smaller watercolors from the Gator-board mounts used for the 2000 exhibit, unroll the larger watercolors, and prepare everything for humidification and flattening. After the watercolors were flattened, they were carefully measured for the fabrication of custom aluminum honeycomb panels.

Initially, to mount the objects to the panels, Japanese paper hinges were attached to the reverse of the watercolors with wheat starch paste. However, because of the composite structure, the wet hinging process caused too much warping over the surface of the objects. ICA conservators tried two different hinging techniques, but even after weeks under weight, the watercolors were still not flat enough to be mounted. Because the watercolor panels were backed with canvas, the project conservators started to think of them more like paintings than simply works on paper. Adhesive options were tested and BEVA film, a heat activated synthetic adhesive, was selected, both to attach the hinges to the watercolors and to mount the watercolors to the aluminum panels. This technique allowed conservators to flatten the watercolors and then attach the hinges dry using a tacking iron.

The objects are now installed in the newly built Upjohn Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. This project will be presented to the Book and Paper Group at the AIC meeting in May 2010.

For more on the murals see:

The Restoration Of A Pacific Hero: Heritage Conservation As Cultural Work

Glenn Wharton, research scholar
New York University

During 117 years of outdoor exposure, the bronze sculpture of celebrated Hawaiian King Kamehameha I suffered corrosive action from chlorides, tropical humidity, and high ultraviolet radiation. In addition to this physical deterioration, the artist’s original gilt bronze surface was replaced with a local tradition of painting the figure with brilliant, life-like colors. The central question in the conservation of the monument was one of authenticity; whether to respect the original conception of the artist by re-gilding the surface or to honor the contemporary tradition of painting it.

The community was divided on the issue, and the decision-making process involved a broad spectrum of local residents in dialogue and exploration of its deeper cultural significance. For the conservator, this community-based conservation process provided cultural infor-mation that guided conservation decisions. For the community, the project served as a window into relationships between the multi-cultural present and the Native Hawaiian past. In the end, it was decided to keep the statue painted in the brilliant colors, bringing to life a king still relevant to his community after all of these years.