40th Annual Meeting, Wooden Artifacts Session, May 11 “Training the Next Generation of Furniture Conservators”, Mark Anderson, Steve Brown, MaryJo Lelyveld, Jonathon Thornton, Antoine Wilmering, Debbie Hess Norris, Moderator

This was a panel discussion moderated by Debbie Hess Norris on where the future of furniture conservation training lies. WAG Program Chair Stephanie Auffret began the discussion by describing the current situation, in which very few students are being trained in furniture conservation in the US currently. In preparation for the discussion, Stephanie sent a questionnaire to the panel participants, current educators in furniture conservation, and current practicing furniture conservators. The questionnaire asked about expectations of core competencies for recent graduates in furniture conservation, opportunities to develop these competencies, and where potential employment opportunities for recent graduates might lie. The questionnaire identified a broad range of core competencies which a recent graduate in furniture conservation ought to have, including knowledge of the history of furniture, a scientific understanding of wood and other materials used in furniture making, good hand skills, knowledge of preventive conservation and documentation, as well as a structural understanding of furniture.

The panelists then gave very brief presentations. Steve Brown, professor of furniture making at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, MA, described the furniture training program, which includes knowledge and handling of hand and power tools, and a progressive series of furniture making projects, including a tool chest, a chair, a table and a case piece. He showed typical examples of furniture made by NBSC students, and described the emphasis of the program on developing hand skills.

MayJo Lelyveld described the absence of furniture conservation training opportunities in Australia, and described how most conservators tasked with caring for furniture there have come from othher areas of specialization and have had to develop their skills on their own, or from non-conservators with knowledge of woodworking techniques. For treatments involving a high level of woodworking skill, they have to turn to these non-conservators to participate in the treatment.

Mark Anderson then briefly talked about the furniture major at WUDPAC, describing how few majors there have been in recent years. WUDPAC requires that its furniture majors demonstrate a certain level of competency in wood working, a requirement that does not exist for any of the other majors. WUDPAC has graduated very few furniture majors since this requirement was instituted, illustrating that it is very difficult to assemble all the prerequisites at a sufficiently high level of achievement to get in to Winterthur and also gain experience in cabinet making.

Ton Wilmering talked about some of the training programs in Europe, and that they exist at more varied academic levels, briefly discussing his own training.

Jonathon Thornton talked about the Buffalo program, indicating that they train furniture conservators their as well. He emphasized that good hand skills were important for ALL conservators, and that developing them in one area or another could come a little later in a conservator’s training.

Debbie then opened the discussion up to the floor, and my ability to take careful notes took a back seat to my interest in the conversation. The following is more my impressions of the conversation than a strict recounting. Tad Fallon pointed out that the first CAL class occupied many of the institutional positions that are still available, and that the institutional job opportunities haven’t been that great. Jonathon Thornton said it’s like the pig in the python (or something like that), a big bulge in the middle, but it’s skinny at both ends! Steve Brown said that a visitor to NBSS once commented that she wished she had a job which didn’t require any thinking, illustrating an attitude about furniture making which is all too prevalent (sometimes even among other conservators, and especially other museum professionals, in my opinion).

The discussion seemed to center more and more around whether and how much training in furniture making a furniture conservator needs. Jonathon Thornton pointed out that furniture conservators have a host of tools, techniques and materials available to them not typically used by the traditional furniture maker, including casting in polymers and digital reproductions, which conservators do and should use. Ton Wilmering related the discussion back to the wood panels of panel paintings. He described that many museums (and conservators) accept cracks in panel paintings when they would never accept tears in easel paintings. He thinks this is because the conservators responsible for the panel know they don’t have the wood working skills to repair the crack.

Mark Anderson again discussed Winterthur’s difficulty in finding students with the preparation necessary to get in to the program and the woodworking skills necessary to major in furniture, and suggested that students didn’t need to arrive at Winterthur with those skills, nor did they need to go to NBSS to get them. There was some discussion from the floor that areas of subspecialization (marquetry, carving, etc) are not usually perfected by even those students who DO have wood working skills before they get into school. Others pointed out that much of the work done by most furniture conservators involves surface treatment rather than structural work. I believe a largely unspoken, but underlying current in the discussion, was that there are not a large number of institutional jobs in furniture conservation in existence in the US right now. Mark did say that an institutional job was the ambition of most conservation program students. This may be part of the problem in recruiting students into furniture conservation, but the problem will only compound itself when current institutional furniture conservators retire and their institutions are unable to find people trained to replace them. The positions will be eliminated and there will be even fewer jobs available, and more furniture collections will be in the care of people without the training to undertake complex treatments.

Debbie wrapped up the discussion by suggesting that WAG needs to plan a way forward. She had a wide-ranging list of suggestions. Perhaps WUDPAC could send potential furniture majors to NBSS for the summer between their first and second year, as they are currently doing with some book and paper majors to the NBSS bookbinding program (an idea which occurred to me as well during the discussion). WAG might undertake demographic studies about where furniture conservation positions exist, and how close those in those positions are to retirement. The data collected could be used to help develop grant proposals to improve the professional development opportunities for various woodworking skills. She encouraged discussions between WAG and FAIC to work on developing more PD courses. She also suggested that WAG hold a roundtable discussion among furniture conservation educators, both US and international, to discuss current practices and how things might be developed, and how job opportunities might be increased. She offered that WUDPAC and Winterthur would be willing to host such a discussion. Debbie being Debbie, she left us all feeling hopeful for the future, with a renewed sense of purpose and willingness to roll up our sleeves and get cracking. Let’s hope we can build some momentum and accomplish some of the things on Debbie’s list of suggestions.

40th Annual Meeting, Wooden Artifacts Session, May 11 “Conservation Training at the Forbidden City”, Antoine Wilmering

Ton Wilmering, Senior Program Officer at the Getty Foundation, spoke about the the World Monument Fund’s new conservation training program it has developed at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China as part of its collaborative conservation program for the Qianlong Gardens in the Forbidden City. The gardens, a series of 27 pavillions and courtyards built by the Qianlong Emperor between 1771 and 1776 within the Forbidden City are an extraordinary example of Qian Dynasty decorative arts, and reflect the emperor’s broad cultural tastes and knowledge. I had the privilege of seeing the traveling exhibition of furniture and other objects from the Qianlong Gardens at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA in 2010, and the furniture and interiors on view were beautiful, exhibiting incredible craftsmanship.

The World Monument Fund is focused on funding projects with capacity-building components, and in conjunction with their conservation program in the Qianlong Gardens, in 2009 they established an new training program in the Forbidden City known as Conservation Resources for Architectural Interiors/Furniture and Training, or CRAFT. The program is designed to provide on-the-job training in both traditional craft practices and modern conservation techniques and science. Participants were selected from among current staff members of the Forbidden City complex, and include carpenters, collections care specialists, curators, architects and scientists. Current craft practitioners in China often have little knowledge of past techniques or history, and the program was designed to introduce them to craft history using historic Chinese cabinet making manuals. The program focuses on critical thinking as well as hand skills, and areas of study include scientific principles, history of conservation ethics, worker safety, drawing and drafting using both traditional and CAD techniques, materials technology, tool making, and joinery.

The program has made efforts to include Chinese faculty wherever possible, and Chinese wood species specialists and organic and inorganic chemists have taught in the program. The WMF found that many of the resources and people needed in the program were available in Beijing (in fact lots of conservation literature has been translated into Mandarin), but the WMF needed to make the connections with local libraries and scientists to bring them into the project. Other participants in the training program have included Susan Buck (cross-section analysis), and Chris McGlinchey (adhesives), and Behrooz Salimnejad (gilding) among others, as well as Ton, Rick Kershner and Greg Landrey, who the WMF brought in initially to design a space for the program and develop the curriculum.

Ton pointed out that the furniture on view in the traveling exhibition from the Qianlong Gardens which came to the US had not been worked on by participants in the CRAFT program. Instead, the Forbidden City bureaucracy had contracted out the restoration of that furniture, and it often involved practices that conflicted with modern conservation ethics. I was interested in the cultural differences exhibited by the Chinese participants. Ton told how the students all liked to work together on a project, showing a picture of four students sitting around a table, cleaning it with swabs together.

Ton also talked about the difficulties the program has experienced. Because the participants are employees working in the Forbidden City (remember, the program is on-the-job training), they are frequently called away to their regular jobs, which can be disruptive. Continuous supervision of the program by a trained conservator has also bee difficult. Many of the original participants have had to – or have chosen to – drop out, and currently about half the original class are still participating. Interestingly, it is the carpenters and architects who have stayed, not the collections care specialists.

After talking about the CRAFT program, Ton briefly discussed another initiative the Getty Foundation is involved in, to facilitate the transfer (and retention) of skills and knowledge in the structural conservation of panel paintings. Many of the most skilled practitioners in the conservation of these wooden panels are approaching retirement age, and the Getty Foundation has begun a 6 year initiative to set up apprenticeships with these practitioners for post-graduate, mid-career and senior conservators of wooden artifacts. The program is designed to have a broad geographic distribution, to include participants in Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the US and UK, presumably.


40th Annual Meeting, Wooden Artifacts Session, May 11 “The Establishment of Collaborative Platforms in Protecting and Conserving of the Global Cultural Heritage”, Dr. Hany Hanna

Dr. Hany Hanna, who is the General Director of Conservation for the Helwan, El-Saf and Afteh Sectors of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, delivered a general call for increased levels of attention on a local, national, regional and global scale to the protection and conservation of global heritage. While his talk did not relate to wooden artifacts specifically in any way, it was directly related to the theme of the Annual Meeting as a whole, and since Dr. Hanna specializes in the conservation of wooden objects and has spoken to our group in the past, no doubt he felt WAG was the appropriate venue for his talk this year.

Dr. Hanna began by defining cultural heritage as including both the tangible and intangible. Tangible heritage includes:

  1. Cultural
  2. Natural
  3. Cultural Landscapes
Intangible heritage includes:
  1. Practical experience
  2. Knowledge
  3. Skills
He pointed out that cultural heritage is priceless for humanity as a whole, as well as for nations and groups. It both strengthens identity within groups, as well as respect for and appreciation of other groups. Dr. Hanna discussed the fact that while great strides have been made on a global scale in protecting our global cultural heritage through education, advances in technology, and the development of new facilities and international partnerships, more must be done to protect cultural heritage form man-made and natural threats. In general, he called for more training, more investment in research and education, as well as facilities to carry out this research and training, and more international cooperation and partnerships.
At the same time, Dr. Hanna encouraged self reliance on the part of governments, NGO’s and universities in individual countries. His point seemed to be that while networking, cooperation and partnerships are vital for the preservation of global cultural heritage, local action and raising local public awareness are the most effective means of achieving preservation goals of emergency preparedness and recovery, risk and damage assessment, and reconstruction and restoration.
In general the ideas and approaches outlined by Dr. Hanna are completely in accord with the thinking of the US conservation community. But it was encouraging to hear them being expressed by a colleague from Egypt. Dr Hanna made two points which were somewhat more surprising. He called for what amounts to an international certification program, validated by local governments but defined by professional organizations, which would include measures to protect against malpractice. I for one had not heard this idea suggested before, and I’m not sure US conservators are ready to embrace such an idea, given our recent decision on a US certification program. But it may reflect the different experience of Dr Hanna in the practice of responsible conservation.
Dr. Hanna also called for the integration of cultural heritage and conservation issues with other economic sectors, suggesting that this would aid social and economic development. This seems to me to be essentially the same argument the Anne-Imelda Radice made in her address to the general session. But in discussing this, Dr. Hanna suggested that conservation training needed to be based “on every day life on a wider level”.  By this I took him to mean that conservation training needs to be related to and made relevant in the lives of the people living with the cultural heritage the training program is intended to protect. This seems an eminently sensible suggestion, and relates Dr. Hanna’s talk to the next talk in the WAG session by Ton Wilmering, discussing the World Monuments Fund’s new conservation training program in the Forbidden City in Beijing China, which I will discuss in my next blog.

Reproductions for Hamilton Grange: What Legs do We Have to Stand On? by Rian Deurenberg-Wilkinson

Hamilton-Grange, the only home owned by Alexander Hamilton is a Federal Style country house.  The current restoration is returning the home to the time period of 1802-1804.  The firm Fallon & Wilkinson, LLC has been brought on to reproduce 28 pieces of federal furniture.  The contract was also for the conservation of five of the original chairs in a suite of Louis XVI furniture.  The proposal was written based on photographs of what the reproductions would look like.  The reproduction contract included site visits to prominent collections of furniture, specifically those made by cabinetmaker Adam Hains and upholsterer George Bertault.  Upon closer examination of other furniture made by these makers, the Louis XVI furniture appeared inconsistent with the other furniture and upholstry by the same makers.  After consultations with the curator changes were made to the original proposal to better match the original furniture and the reproductions.

At the end of the talk the speaker mentioned that since the scholarship relied on more than photographs these are considered true reproductions and not re-interpretations.  I thought that was a good point and got across the incredible amount of research involved in making a true reproduction.

Ethical Considerations in Reproducing Furniture for Historic House Museums

David Bayne presented this paper on his experiences making reproduction furniture for display in historic house museums.  The rationale behind the reproduction of furniture is always to give a sense of wholeness to an interior, and in many cases there is sufficient evidence of what the furniture was like in the room to easily have the reproductions made.

However, in some cases the evidence is more difficult to find, for example the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House where the original furnishings were not well-documented.  It is very important to the interpretation of the space, but there will be some guesswork in the execution of these reproductions and the David Bayne was grappling with his role in this negotiation as the conservator.

This lecture reminded me of the the lecture about the ‘Frankenstein syndrome’ by Salvador Munoz-Vinas during the general session.  There are hard decisions we make as conservators and sometimes we just hope that our personal moral compass will guide us down the right path.  I admire David Bayne for his honesty about his personal struggles in the use of reproduction furniture in historic interiors.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Changing Attitudes Towards Musical Instrument Conservation in Russia

Laurence Libin gave an overview of his impressions of the current state of musical instrument conservation in Russia. He visited St. Petersburg numerous times in the past 15-years and his interactions with museum staff and his knowledge of the history of the region have allowed him to come to some conclusions about musical instrument conservation in Russia.

Musical instruments are made to function and create music, and he sets this function as a rationale for the continued use of the instruments which may lead to their destruction.

He also cites the philosophical doctrine of fatalism, applied to musical instruments, means that the instruments, like people, are resigned to their fate and conservation is a lost cause. There is very little funding in Russian museums and many museum staff hold second or third jobs to make ends meet.

Even with these setbacks, there is a growing interest in musical instrument conservation in Russia and there is respect amongst museum professionals at the craft of the conservator. The ICOM International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections is helpful at creating appreciation and standards for collections. The speaker was generally positive about the future of musical instrument conservation in Russia.

39th Annual Meeting-Wooden Artifacts Group, June 2, 2011. Beautiful Brass: A Fresh Look at Historic Furniture Hardware, Joan Parcher

Backplates, ca. 1750-1780, image courtesy Joan Parcher

I was pretty excited when I saw this presentation listed in the program. Not only were we going to learn about an area of furniture that doesn’t have a whole lot of coverage in the literature, but the person presenting the material was a craftsperson and collector who potentially could offer a slightly different viewpoint on the subject. Joan Parcher is a jeweler and metalsmith whose work is in the collections of a number of museums including the Victoria and Albert and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Additionally, she’s made replacement hardware and repaired furniture brasses for 25 years.

Joan didn’t begin collecting furniture hardware until 2004 when, at a local junk store, she overheard two people, looking at a period Chippendale brass, considering turning it into a Christmas ornament. Since then she’s amassed a study collection of about 10,000 pieces of furniture hardware, ranging from iron nuts to gilt cast brass.

Drawing on Don Fennimore’s scholarship, information gleaned from patents, 18th and 19th century brass founders trade catalogs, and her own observations of tool and makers marks on  knobs, back plates, bails, casters, posts and nuts from her own collection, Joan treated us first to a conventional presentation focused on the connoisseurship of old and reproduction brass hardware. She shared her observations about ways to distinguish Federal-era plates from reproductions (reproductions probably won’t have wrinkles from rolling on the backs and thick square iron nuts are found with earlier brass hardware) and where one might find makers marks on various kinds of hardware. She highlighted some marked pieces in her collection, made  by late eighteenth-early nineteenth-century Birmingham, England makers Thomas Hands and William Jenkins. She also offered suggestions about the kind of tools to use to make new plates look old, bringing examples from her own collection.

Knobs, late Federal period, image courtesy Joan Parcher


Following her slide talk, Joan allowed us to look at her tools and examples of old and reproduction hardware from her own collection that she had brought with her and laid out on a table. After a day and a half of looking at slides, what a pleasure it was to actually look at stuff. She’s keen to continue this conversation and invited the audience to email (joanparcher[at]cox[dot]net) her images of interesting brasses. Ultimately she’d like to present this collection of hardware photos on a website. What an amazing resource that’ll be.