Call for Participation: New Annual Meeting Event “A Failure Shared is Not a Failure”

AIC members from all specialty groups are invited to attend and participate in the event “A failure shared is not a failure: learning from our mistakes,” happening on Saturday, June 2nd, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. — click here to add it to your Sched. We will gather and share our cautionary tales, including treatment errors, mishaps, and accidents, with the idea of helping our colleagues not to repeat them.

Discussing mistakes is a hot topic that has already been embraced by others in our community. Two examples of events scheduled during the month of May are: “Mistakes were made,” a regular feature at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and the lecture “Conservation Confidential” hosted by our conservation colleagues across the pond in the Independent Paper Conservators’ Group.

Participants can speak for up to 5 minutes; if you prefer to remain anonymous, a reader will be happy to present your tale on your behalf. If you are unable to attend AIC’s Annual Meeting but would like to submit a tale to be read by one of our organizers or a colleague, please reach out.

Screens to project PowerPoint slides containing your images/video will be available (16:9 format), and a Dropbox folder will be made available for submissions. Please also bring your presentation on a USB Drive (highly encouraged). Time permitting, audience members inspired by their colleagues will be welcome to present. If appropriate (and acceptable to the speaker), the floor will be opened for questions and discussion following presentations. Extra points for suggesting safeguards and solutions!

Please note that this is a forum for sharing personal mistakes and solutions only. Participants are requested not to name other persons, organizations, work places, and avoid politics—institutional, national, and global!

The event will include a cash bar, so come, relax, unwind, share, laugh, groan, and learn. We plan to publish the event for those who wish to be included.

If you are interested in participating or have questions about the event, please contact Tony Sigel at or by calling 617-767-1900 (cell), or Rebecca Gridley at by May 10th.

Please include 2-3 quick sentences introducing your topic and indicate whether you plan to use a PowerPoint with images and/or video.

See you in Houston!

Tips for Writing FAIC Grant Proposals: ECPN Interviews ETC


Recent recipients of the George Stout Memorial Fund Scholarship, a grant administered by FAIC that provides funding for emerging conservators to attend AIC’s Annual Meeting.



Between 2011 and 2015, the Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC) awarded $2,064,962 through 462 grants and scholarships. $428,601 of this was given out in 2015 to 91 grant and scholarship recipients. While these numbers include larger grants such as Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellowships and publication grants, an important part of FAIC’s grant program is to provide professional development support for individuals to attend conferences and workshops and to pursue research projects. A full list of grants and scholarships is available here.

Emerging conservators are eligible for a number of these grants, including the FAIC / Tru Vue® International Professional Development Scholarships and George Stout Memorial Fund Scholarships  – the latter of which is reserved for pre-program individuals, graduate students, and recent graduates to attend professional conferences. Each grant has specific deadlines, eligibility, and application requirements – all of which are listed online. FAIC recently moved the grant application process online to make the process easier for the applicants and the reviewers.

This brings us to the subject of this post: how to improve your applications for FAIC grants! Reviewing and awarding these grants is an important but time-consuming task, so FAIC relies on AIC’s Education & Training Committee (ETC) for assistance. Conservators from different career stages and specialties volunteer to serve on ETC, which is responsible for advancing AIC members’ knowledge of conservation practices by supporting continuing education and professional development endeavors. ETC also promotes educational issues within the field.

As many emerging conservators may be new to writing grant applications, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) interviewed some members of ETC to ask a few questions about the application and review process. Here’s what we learned:


ECPN’s Interview with ETC

  1. Review Process: What happens with an application once it is submitted? Who reviews it, and who makes the final decision?

For each application cycle, the Institutional Advancement Director for FAIC calls for volunteers from ETC to review applications, specifying the deadline and how many volunteers are needed. The reviewers are usually different people based on who can commit time to the process during the application review period. Three reviewers are assigned to read each application, and reviews are conducted anonymously. The reviewers receive instructions and reminders for the unique criteria for each grant.

Taking into consideration the specific grant criteria and the benefit of the project to the applicant (among other things), the reviewer assigns points for each of the selection criteria categories and provides comments to help clarify the ratings provided. ETC members’ ratings and review of the applications ensures a thorough and fair review process.

Next, the AIC Board Director for Professional Education works closely with the Institutional Advancement Director to tally the scores and review comments by ETC and submits the recommended awards for final approval by the Executive Director of FAIC and AIC and the FAIC Treasurer. The goal is always to administer as many awards as the budget allows to support the professional growth of AIC members.

  1. Audience: Who should the application be directed to? That is, who are you writing for (e.g. general audience, fellow conservators)?

Direct the application to your fellow conservators. ETC is made up of your peers — but it is important to keep in mind that ETC members come from a range of specialties. The reviewer may not know the significance of a particular project unless it is clearly defined and expressed. It is important to give details that explain the “why” —that is, why your project is relevant, timely, or important — so the reviewer can understand your thought process.

Because our field is small, there is a good chance that reviewers know some of the applicants. ETC members must also recuse themselves from a particular review if there is any conflict of interest (e.g., that member applied for a grant, or wrote a letter of support for an applicant).

ETC considers the applications based on the merit of a particular application, not with regard to whether you are a junior or well-seasoned conservator, or whether the reviewer is familiar with your work.

  1. Content: What are the major points in the application text to pay attention to? What level of detail is desirable when discussing your project?

Address the grant review criteria directly and pay attention to the parts that are unique to you and your application. Set up the relevance of the project first by describing it; the project description should be brief and straightforward. Then discuss how the project benefits you professionally. This is section with the most freedom: explain how the project is appropriate to furthering your professional development. It is more important to state effectively how you will benefit from your involvement–this is the part that really distinguishes the applications from each other.

So instead of listing your accomplishments, explain what you will accomplish — either by attending the conference, presenting your work, or pursuing your research. And be clear about your level of participation and whether you are attending a workshop or conference, or presenting. While your financial need is implied—you are applying for a grant, after all—you should still mention it. It is helpful for your case if the reviewer knows that your institution does not provide professional development funding, or has not provided it for a number of years.

Describing how you plan to disseminate what you’ve gained from the project is also an important factor. This doesn’t have to mean that you’ll write a book on the subject, but FAIC is interested in the most bang for the buck: how far will the benefits go if this person is selected for funding?

  1. Budget: What are the important considerations when reviewing a proposed budget? What costs should and should not be included? What is the best way to explain how you arrived at your cost estimates? What should you do if your estimated costs exceed the amount that can be awarded?

The budget needs to be complete and reasonable. Being stingy with yourself will not necessarily score you points, but you should not price out a luxury hotel and first-class flights. The Federal Government Service Administration (GSA) provides numbers that can be a great guide for drafting a budget. The online application form prompts you to consider expenses related mostly to travel and lodging, and additional explanation of expenses beyond this form is usually not necessary. While the grants don’t cover food, there is a place to fill out your estimated meal costs to show what you will be covering yourself.

Do not request for more than the maximum award; it may appear as though you didn’t read the grant description. If your projected costs exceed the maximum award, fully outline those costs and request up to the award limit. Outlining all of your costs—regardless of whether they are covered by the grant or exceed the award limit—provides valuable data for FAIC. This information can be used if grants are ever re-evaluated, and FAIC can use the budget information to advocate for higher award limits.

Having an expensive project doesn’t put you at a disadvantage. In fact, it engenders sympathy and understanding that you will have to seek additional funding or otherwise provide funds out of pocket. The better the reviewers understand the total costs, the better the committee can try to support you. The number of grants given out each cycle varies, and the goal is to provide enough support to allow the awardees to fulfill their projects.

  1. Recommendation Letters: How should you select recommenders? How can you help prepare them to know what points to speak to? Do your recommenders have to be AIC members? Should they have status within AIC (PA, Fellow)?

The letters should come from someone with whom you have a professional relationship, and who will write a positive recommendation that specifically discusses how the project will benefit you. If you are unsure whether a recommender’s letter will be positive, you can ask them or ask someone else to write for you. The perceived status of your recommender is not so significant; someone who seems important in AIC does not necessarily write a better letter. The requirements for recommenders’ status within AIC vary from grant to grant, so be sure to read the application procedures section very carefully.

Providing a recommender with your current CV and a draft of your application can help them to tailor the recommendation letter to your application. Also, let your recommenders know they can fill out the Letter of Support Form [insert link] provided by FAIC, rather than writing a traditional letter. All of these materials can be submitted electronically by the recommender, so the recommendation remains confidential. The deadlines are firm, so make sure to ask for recommendations well in advance and indicate the application deadlines in your request.

For more on this topic, look at the guides ETC has developed for requesting and writing letters of recommendation.

  1. General: Are there any easily fixable but common mistakes you see in applications? If your application is not accepted, what steps can you take to improve your chances next time? What are some general tips you would provide to first time grant applicants?

Do not overthink it. Your essay need not be lengthy; completeness and accuracy are what counts, so answer the questions and speak to the grant criteria directly. Be concise in making your case, and keep in mind that reviewers may read dozens of applications at a time.

Almost all of the projects and applicants seem worthy in each cycle, so it may come down to minor errors or omissions that result in an incomplete application. It does not reflect poorly on you for future applications if you not receive funding for your first application, so please don’t get discouraged.

For some common reasons why applications do not receive funding, see the great list below, provided to ECPN by Eric Pourchot, Institutional Advancement Director for FAIC.


Some Final Thoughts

In 2015, about half of FAIC grant and scholarship applications were funded, and the total funding awarded was 34% of the total amount requested. And—as we mentioned in our last post on the structure of FAIC and AIC—FAIC must raise the funds to support these grants and scholarships. A good portion of this comes from the Specialty Groups, AIC members, and individual donors! In 2015, $49,000 was raised through individual donations to support FAIC grants and other programs. So, if you are ever the recipient of one of these scholarships and grants, in the future consider “paying it forward” if you can by making a donation to FAIC!

We’d like to thank Nina Owczarek and Susan Russick from ETC and Eric Pourchot (Institutional Advancement Director for FAIC) for answering our questions, and Stephanie Lussier (AIC Board Director, Professional Education) and Heather Galloway (Chair, ETC) for their help reviewing this post.

If you have further questions about applying for grants, you can email:


— Jessica Walthew (Education & Training Officer) and Rebecca Gridley (Vice Chair) on behalf of ECPN


Bonus Tips!

ECPN asked Eric Pourchot, Institutional Advancement Director for FAIC, for some common reasons applications are not funded. Keep these in mind when drafting your application!

  1. The proposal did not meet the eligibility requirements or did not address the purpose of the grant or scholarship. For example, a professional development proposal might address the institution’s need for the proposed training, but not the benefit for the individual, which is the purpose of the grant. Read the guidelines carefully and think like a reviewer as you write the proposal.
  2. The proposal is incomplete. Be sure to double-check attachments, any required letters of support, etc.
  3. The project’s cost is out of proportion to the scale of the grant or scholarship. For example, a proposal might show $20,000-$30,000 in expenses, with no firm source of funding.  If the grant limit is $1,000, reviewers may ask how likely it is that the project will be completed.
  4. The proposal has errors or inconsistencies. These sometimes can be overlooked, but when competition is stiff, a proposal that doesn’t appear to be well thought-out will often be rated lower than more polished proposals.
  5. The budget is inflated, has errors, or isn’t justified. This is not always a fatal flaw, but often puts a proposal at a disadvantage.  If airfare or hotel prices are listed as much higher than what can be found online, for example, reviewers may question the overall proposal.  Conversely (but more rarely), a budget that doesn’t appear to reflect the real costs of a project may be seen as not feasible.  If there is a factor that distorts the budget, that should be indicated and justified in the narrative.  For example, scheduling might not allow the applicant to travel over a weekend, raising the cost of a round trip flight, or the applicant may be staying with friends and not require a hotel.

Recent recipients of the George Stout grant presenting at AIC’s Annual Meeting.

Call for Papers – Cultural Heritage Management Sessions (ASOR 2017)

Session Chairs: Glenn Corbett, American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), and Suzanne Davis, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

We are seeking abstract submissions for the Cultural Heritage Management session(s) of the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting, which will be held in Boston, MA, November 15-18, 2017. This session welcomes papers concerning archaeological conservation and heritage management in terms of methods, practices, and case studies in areas throughout the Near East. For the 2017 meeting, we are especially interested in presentations focusing on:

·         site conservation and preservation activities

·         site management planning

·         engagement and education of local communities

Interested speakers should submit a title and abstract (max. 250 words) by February 15, 2017. Please see ASOR’s call for papers and instructions for submission here: Note that professional membership ($130) and registration for the Annual Meeting (~$175) are required at the time of abstract submission. Student rates are discounted.

Please send inquiries or questions to Glenn Corbett ( and Suzanne Davis (

International Archaeology Day at the Penn Museum

October 15 is International Archaeology Day (IAD), which is sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and held each year on the third Saturday of October. AIC is registered as a Collaborating Organization for IAD this year and we are encouraging all AIC members to promote this event, archaeology, and how we as conservation professionals support archaeological projects and collections. You can do this in many ways, including by posting on the AIC and ADG Facebook pages and on the AIC blog, with a tag for International Archaeology Day. The hashtag for social media is #IAD2016.
As ADG co-chair and conservator at the Penn Museum, I will take this opportunity to promote the Penn Museum Symposium, Engaging Conservation: Collaboration Across Disciplines, taking place this week in Philadelphia from 6-8 October 2016. This 3-day symposium is being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Penn Museum’s Conservation DepartmentFounded in 1966, it is thought to be the first archaeology and anthropology museum conservation lab in the United States to be staffed by professional conservators. 
Penn Museum Conservation Lab in 1968 (above) and in 2016 (below)
Penn Museum Conservation Lab in 1968 (above) and in 2016 (below)
The Symposium will feature 31 paper presentations by conservators, archaeologists, anthropologists, and specialists in related fields, which will address topics related to the conservation of archaeological and anthropological materials and the development of cross-disciplinary engagement over the past half century. The full schedule and abstracts can be found on the symposium website by following this linkLook for upcoming posts summarizing the events.
The Penn Museum will be hosting a variety of other events on October 15th in celebration of IAD, including offering behind-the-scenes tours of the Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). CAAM opened in 2014, and encompasses teaching and research labs, staffed by specialists in ceramics, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, human skeletal analysis, archaeometallurgy, digital archaeology, and conservation.
CAAM teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore working with students (left); view of one of the teaching labs (right)
CAAM teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore working with students (left); view of one of the teaching labs (right)
We look forward to hearing about other ways in which our colleagues are involved in supporting archaeological projects and collections. Happy International Archaeology Day!

ECPN spring webinar: Pathways into Conservation Science

The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is pleased to announce that our next webinar “Pathways into Conservation Science” will take place on Friday, April 22nd from 12-1pm (EST).
The program will feature three speakers: Dr. Tom Learner, Head of Science at the Getty Conservation Institute; Dr. Gregory Smith, the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and Dr. Robyn Hodgkins, the Charles E. Culpeper Fellow in the Scientific Research Department at the National Gallery of Art. The presenters will share their own diverse training experiences, touching on the history of education in conservation science and the current pathways into the field. ECPN hopes that the webinar will provide guidance to individuals considering careers in conservation science, current students and post-doctorates entering the field, as well as inform emerging conservators.
The format of this webinar will be Q&A style. ECPN is seeking question submissions prior to the webinar broadcast. Please submit your questions as comments to this post, or contact ECPN’s Professional Education and Training co-Officer, Elyse Driscoll at Questions will be accepted until the morning of the webinar. Selected unanswered questions may be addressed in an AIC blog post following the webinar.
This webinar is free and open to all AIC members but you must register! To register, please click here. You will receive an email with information on how to connect to the webinar shortly before April 22nd.
If you miss “Pathways into Conservation Science” or wish to watch it again later, it will be recorded and uploaded onto the AIC YouTube channel.  For a listing of past ECPN webinars, please visit our archive on AIC’s blog Conservators Converse, our Wiki page, or AIC’s YouTube channel.
About the Presenters:
Tom Learner is head of the Science Department at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI); he oversees all of the Institute’s scientific research, developing and implementing projects that advance conservation practice in the visual arts. As a GCI senior scientist from 2007 to 2013, he oversaw the Modern and Contemporary Art Research initiative, during which time he developed an international research agenda related to the conservation of modern paints, plastics, and contemporary outdoor sculpture. Before this, he served as a senior conservation scientist at Tate, London, where he developed Tate’s analytical and research strategies for modern materials and led the Modern Paints project in collaboration with the GCI and National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Dr. Learner holds a PhD in chemistry from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a diploma in the conservation of easel paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Dr. Gregory Dale Smith received a B.S. degree from Centre College of Kentucky in anthropology/sociology and chemistry before pursuing graduate studies at Duke University, where he was as a National Science Foundation graduate fellow in time-domain vibrational spectroscopy and archaeological fieldwork. He held postgraduate positions at the British Library, the V & A Museum, the National Synchrotron Light Source, and the National Gallery of Art. In 2004, Dr. Smith joined the faculty of the conservation training program at Buffalo State College as the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Conservation Science. In 2010, Dr. Smith was hired as the Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where he established and now operates a state-of-the-art research facility to study and preserve the museum’s encyclopedic collection. Dr. Smith’s research interests include undergraduate education at the Arts-Science interface, assessing pollution off-gassing of museum construction materials, and understanding the chemical degradation of artists’ materials. Greg is a Professional Associate of the AIC and has served as an associate editor of JAIC for the past 10 years.
Dr. Robyn Hodgkins is the Charles E. Culpeper Fellow in the Scientific Research Department at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, DC. She received her PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before starting at the NGA, Dr. Hodgkins completed a conservation science internship at Tate Britain, and conservation science fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Dr. Hodgkins’ interests include understanding the effect of environmental conditions and pollutants on museum objects and artists’ materials using corrosion studies and environmental monitoring, and developing methods for the identification of paint constituents.

43rd Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials, May 14th: “Organizing a Photograph Preservation Workshop in West Africa” by Debra Norris

Debra S. Norris, Chair of the Art Conservation Department and Professor of Photograph Conservation at the University of Delaware, is enthusiastic about fund raising for art conservation. Along with her coauthors, Nora W. Kennedy and Bertrand Lavédrine, she encourages conservation education and the expansion of international networks for all conservators. These two major contributions for the conservation profession were the bases for the project presented during this talk: Organizing a Photograph Preservation Workshop in West Africa.
Norris started by evoking the need for photographic conservation in West Africa, and the previous projects organized in Sub-Saharan Africa by the Getty, ICCROM, the Ford Foundation, SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) and UNESCO. Then she presented the “3PA”: Préservation du Patrimoine Photographique Africain (Preservation of Photographic Heritage in Sub Saharan Africa), a collaborative project developed with Nora W. Kennedy, photograph conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and Bertrand Lavédrine, director of the Conservation Research Center (CRC) of Paris. Their goal is to work on the improvement of the preservation practice in this particular area of the continent, where the photographic collections are highly valuable but vulnerable because of the environment.
Last year, from the 22nd to the 25th of April, a workshop has been held at the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain (EPA), in Porto-Novo (Benin). It was called “Préservation du Patrimoine Photographique Africain: West African Image Lab“. 21 participants (80% of them were artists or photographers, the others were museum and archive professionals and curators) attended the workshop, and discussed the preservation of local photographic collections of West Africa; adapted solutions were proposed. Organizers were Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney, co-creator of the Resolution organization. Founded in 1998 with the help of UNESCO and ICCROM, and based in Porto Novo in Benin, the EPA school offers a professional training for 26 sub Saharan countries. It is a non-profit institution, dedicated to photographic collections in Africa, with a focus on preservation, collection management, and exhibitions.
Norris then evoked Nigerian photographers and collectors met by Nora W. Kennedy and Peter Mustardo, photograph conservator and director of the Better Image in New York, who went to Nigeria. She shortly presented the work of three of them: Andrew Esiebo, Abraham Oghobase, and J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, whose artist book, containing 200 photographs, was published a few months after he passed away, in 2014. Kennedy and Mustardo met his son who owns the collection.
As Norris aims to connect different conservation initiatives, she promoted the project “History in progress Uganda”, created in 2011 by a Dutch photographer and an advertiser. Their goal is to acquire and to diffuse images about Uganda history. According to Norris, this action, like 3PA’s, must proceed in connection with education and community organization.
She promoted the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos (Nigeria), “an independent non-profit making visual art organization set up in December 2007 to provide a platform for the development, presentation, and discussion of contemporary visual art and culture” (see their website). Bisi Silvia, the founder, curator, and director of CCA was a participant of the 2014 workshop at the EPA.
For the future, 3PA’s goals will consist in organizing more workshops to teach the fundamentals in photo preservation in sub-Saharan countries. The conservation professionals will explain “the keys concepts in preventive conservation and materials”, spend some time on both hands-on and lecture, visit collections, and share some tools kits and published resources. Brainstorming sessions about techniques will follow. She emphasized on the fact that the 2014 workshop was the first talk about conservation in French and English in Africa. As photographers are an important part of the participants, development of conservation strategies for photographers in West Africa will be discussed. Funding for the workshop in photograph preservation was made possible thanks to many sponsors that Norris listed – AIC/PMG was one of them.
Some observations were done. First, to Norris, “community engagement and connections are clear” in Africa, which is a wonderful advantage. Then, the specific challenges: “lack of electricity”, and “dealing with material and digital collections simultaneously”. For the EPA, in Benin, where the workshop happened, the next steps will consist in “renewing commitment to preservation of photo collections”. Thanks to the “saving photo heritage” website, they began to rise money to create “a major center for photographic preservation, archiving, and digitization on the African continent”. Every one can help them!
The next 3PA workshop will be held in 2017 in Zimbabwe.
She finished the talk with a quick look on beautiful African textiles!
To discover the Nigerian photographers:
About the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos:
About the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain in Porto Novo:
Resolution organization:
History in Progress Uganda:
To help Saving the Photographic Heritage:

Work-in-Progress Meeting for Emerging Researchers in Contemporary Art Conservation (Glasglow, UK)

Work-in-Progress Meeting for Emerging Researchers in Contemporary Art Conservation
3 December 2014, Glasgow
The Network for PhD Candidates and Postdoctoral Researchers in Conservation of Contemporary Art and the Network for Conservation of Contemporary Art Research (NeCCAR) are jointly organising a work-in-progress session for emerging researchers and cordially invite you to submit work-in-progress.
The work-in-progress session will take place in Glasgow, on 3 December 2014 in conjunction with the Authenticity in Transition: Changing Practices in Contemporary Art Making and Conservation conference held on 1-2 December 2014, organised by the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art.
The meeting offers a unique opportunity for emerging researchers in the field of contemporary art conservation to discuss each other’s work-in-progress in an informal, confidential and constructive setting. Work-in-progress may involve a draft chapter of your thesis or an article. Submitted texts will be pre-circulated among the participants and each author will receive feedback from at least one appointed senior scholar and a fellow participant.
For further information and application details please see:
Please note the application deadline of Monday 20 October 2014.

Heritage Without Borders volunteers land in Kosovo

Heritage Without Borders volunteers are delivering an object conservation course as part of Cultural Heritage Without Borders’ 20th Annual Restoration Camp in Mitrovica, Kosovo. They are updating us on their experiences in their own words.  Read about cake, making a mess, insect poo and DJ-ing competitions in their blog, on the Heritage Without Borders website.Heritage Without Borders

42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings (Joint with Wooden Artifacts), May 31, “Painted Totem Poles at the American Museum of Natural History: Treatment Challenges and Solutions” by Samantha Alderson, Judith Levinson, Gabrielle Tieu, and Karl Knauer

Those who have beheld the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History and its extraordinary “totem poles” will instantly recognize the potential scope of any study or treatment of such massive artifacts.

The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, which opened in 1900, highlights the traditional cultures of the native peoples of North America’s northwest shores from Washington State to southern Alaska, including the  Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlingit, and others. (Source:
The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, which opened in 1900, highlights the traditional cultures of the native peoples of North America’s northwest shores from Washington State to southern Alaska, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlingit, and others. (Source:

These objects are housed in the earliest wing of the museum, curated at its inception by Franz Boas, “the father of American Anthropology”, who organized the early acquisitions of the museum according to a revolutionary argument: that of “cultural relativism” in opposition to a chauvinistic, social-Darwinist organization that put “primitive” peoples at the bottom of an evolutionary tree, the pinnacle of which was white America. Today, this hall holds a landmarked status and remains relatively unchanged, as the poles are very hard to move.

Ten years ago, a renovation of the hall was proposed. Although the recession thwarted plans, the objects were still in need of stabilization and aesthetic improvements. Because this project—from its inception, through the research, testing, and execution stage, was so expansive—Samantha Alderson reminded her audience that her talk could only represent an overview of a four-year process. Those interested in a specific aspect of the project can look forward to in-depth, forthcoming publications.
One of the more important aspects of the research phase, and a professional obligation that is indispensable to the curation and conservation of native materials, was the consideration of ethical issues and provenance information. Most of these pieces entered the collection between the 1880s and the 1920s, and the majority has been on continual, open display since their arrival. Their presence in AMNH’s collection is widely acknowledged to be ethically complicated in itself, representing an era of unscrupulous dealing in Northwest Coast artifacts. (To read more about “Indians and about their procurable culture,” consult Douglas Cole’s, “Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts,” about the coincidence of a taste for these native artifacts and the establishment of many of the country’s foremost natural history collections. (p.xi)]
The carvings, including the carved columns most commonly described as ”totem poles,” would have had numerous functions within their originating cultures: house frontal poles holding entry portals to buildings, interior house posts, welcome figures, memorial poles, and mortuary posts [For a technical study on these types of carvings, please consult “Melissa H. Carr. “A Conservation Perspective on Wooden Carvings of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Wooden Artifacts Group Postprints. 1993.].
To further hone their understanding of provenance, the 2009 CCI “Caring for Totem Poles” workshop in Alert, Canada, allowed the authors to travel through British Columbia with curatorial consultants, native carvers, and native caretakers, in order to study the techniques of manufacture. It was also important to keep abreast of the expectations of the native communities that might be borne out over the course of any treatment intervention or re-installation campaign.
The original aim of this project was to provide structural stability to those carvings which exhibited highly deteriorated surfaces caused by the weathering and biodeterioration in their original environment. These instabilities were often exacerbated by inappropriate environmental conditions and restoration interventions in the museum. The most significant issue requiring treatment was the presence of wood rot, insects, and biological growth, present in the original environment and continuing to run their course.
Although climate control was installed in 1995, soot from the age of coal heaters and lamps still blanketed the inaccessible areas of the objects. Dust from visitor traffic also dulled them, as the hall is adjacent to the entrance to the IMAX theatre. Routine and well-intentioned cleaning was ineffective against a century of accumulated grime and dust and was causing surface loss.
The location of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in relation to the IMAX theatre
The location of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in relation to the IMAX theatre

As there is no barrier between the objects and the visitor, touching has caused burnishing and scratching. The unfinished wood readily absorbs skin oils; and graffiti and adhered chewing gum had also become a most-unfortunate problem.
Early interventions after acquisition had caused condition problems of their own, as old fills had a hardness or density that is inappropriate for soft, weathered wood. These fill materials were only becoming more ugly, unstable, crumbly, and cracked with age.
All of these factors, taken together, provided a huge impetus for treatment.
To begin the treatment-planning stage, the conservators at AMNH performed examinations under visible and UV radiation and mapped the observed conditions and materials using a streamlined iPad-based documentation protocol. In some cases the restoration materials observed provided evidence of institutional and condition history. Although there were almost no previous treatment records of these objects, comparison with archival photographs of many of the objects showed the rate of deterioration since acquisition and provided clues as to dates of interventions and installation history.
In summary of the object-treatment stage, vacuums and sponges were first used in an attempt to reduce some of the dinginess of the surface and to increase the legibility of the painted designs. The many resinous and waxy coatings had trapped so much dust, however, that this treatment did not always have a satisfactory result.
The question of solvent toxicity held sway in all aspects of treatment, as operations were completed in makeshift spaces outside of the lab, due to the size of the objects; these areas had no fume-extraction infrastructure. Luckily, plaster fills could be softened with a warm-water-and-ethanol mixture and carved out.
Temporary conservation lab set-up in the gallery.
Temporary conservation lab set-up in the gallery (See treatment photo gallery here).

Butvar B-98 and Paraloid B-72 were selected as potential consolidants and adhesives. A 5-10% Butvar B-98 solution in ethanol (i.e. without the toluene component for safety concerns) was used for surface stabilization, and Paraloid B-72 in acetone was used for adhesion of splinters and detached fragments.
Karl Knauer filling splinter edges.
Karl Knauer filling splinter edges.

Fills were designed using different materials depending on the location on the object. These were intended to reduce damage during installation, display, and regular maintenance. If the fill was not visible, shapes were cut from Volara, beveled, and adhered in place with Paraloid B-72 along the edges. These were often necessary on the tops of the poles to cover the deep voids of deteriorated wood. Some losses were back-filled with tinted glass micro-balloon mixtures of different grades and different resin-to-balloon ratios where appropriate. As some paints were solvent-sensitive, certain fills required the use of Paraloid B-67. The final fill type was a removable epoxy-bulked fill to compensate for deep losses in visible areas. These areas were first filled with polyethylene foam to prevent the fill from locking in. The edges of the fill area to be cast were protected by tamping down teflon (plumber’s) tape which conforms nicely to the wooden surface. West System 105 Epoxy Resin—with “fast” 205, “slow” 206, or “extra-slow” 209 hardeners—was used in different proportions to 3M glass microspheres and pigments to give fill material with various hardness, curing-times, textures, and colors (See Knauer’s upcoming publication in ICOM-CC Warsaw 2013 for more details). This method is notable for its invisibility, its reversibility, and its rejection of phenolic micro-balloons, which are an unstable and unsuitable and were historically used for such a wood fill merely for their brown color. Once cured, the bulked-epoxy (and the plumber’s tape) were removed and the fills were then tacked into place with B-72 to produce an aesthetically pleasing and protective cap.
Many losses which were previously filled were left unfilled, as would have been the case it they had been collected and treated today. Crack fills were incised so as to retain the appearance of a (smaller) crack.
Once the surface and structure was stabilized with the consolidation and filling operations, the team turned their attention to the various paint films to be cleaned. Many of these were proteinaceous but some were more similar to house paints. This data was consistent with the ethnographic findings and with current native practice. No preparatory layers were used, and the pigment layers were often very lean.
PLM, XRF, and SEM-EDS, as well as UV-FL imaging, thin sections, and analysis with FTIR was undertaken. Some binder analysis was also possible, but this was complicated by historical treatments. Interpretation of epi-fluorescence microscopy results was also thwarted by the presence of multiple coatings, the inter-penetration, -dissolution, and bleed-through of layers. As many as four different types of coatings were identified, and understanding and addressing the condition issues caused by these coatings became a primary concern. Cellulose Nitrate was often applied to carvings in the early 20th century. Whether this was to refurbish or protect, it has developed into a dark-brown layer which is alternately hazy and glossy and which obscured the original surface appearance. Lower regions evidenced PVA or PVAc on top of the Cellulose Nitrate. Shellac and dammar are present in isolated locations, as is an orange resin which eluded identification (even when analyzed with GCMS).
Although identification of these coatings was attempted, removal was not originally planned due to the difficulties designing a solvent system for its reduction, considering the variation in sensitivities, the interpenetration of the layers, and the unknown condition of the original paint films beneath. This plan changed when the poles were deinstalled for construction.
The treatment design was largely aided by the isolation of four house posts in the collection made by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Arthur Shaughnessy.
Arthur Shaughnessy carving one of these poles (Photograph by George Hunt, copyright AMNH).
Arthur Shaughnessy carving one of these poles (Photograph by George Hunt, copyright AMNH).

Commissioned by AMNH in 1923, these had never been installed outdoors but which had been coated in the same manner and exhibited in the same space. This allowed for the development of controlled methods for coating reduction.
A Teas table (or Teas chart) was used to identify potential solvents or solvent mixtures, which were tested over every color and monitored for any leaching or swelling. These initial tests were deemed unsuccessful.
In areas without paint, film reformation with acetone reduced haziness or glossiness. Where the coating was completely removed, the wood was often left with an over-cleaned appearance which necessitated some coating redistribution with MBK, MEK, and propylene glycol. Wherever possible, gels were used to reduce the exposure to toxic solvents. In painted areas, the large variation in solvent sensitivity, the inconsistency of media binders, the varying porosity of the wood, and the changing direction of the wood grain required that the conservators work inch-by-inch. DMSO, a component of “safe” stripper, and NMP were controllable over certain colors but caused considerable swelling.
February 2012, the museum saw the reinstallation of the Shaughnessy poles, marking the effective conclusion of the testing period and the successful management of a challenging triage situation by conservation staff.

It was Kwakwaka‘wakw artists like Arthur Shaughnessy who kept carving traditions active when the Canadian government prohibited the potlatch ceremony in 1885. The ban was lifted in 1951, after AMNH’s acquisition of the house posts.
The completion of treatment represents an important opportunity to educate the public: Although these monumental carvings are exhibited in a historic wing of the museum, we need to dust them off and remember that these carvings represent very, active traditional practices and communities.
There is still the need to develop more systematic solvent strategies, as well as to consult with a paintings conservator. But it is clear that these objects stand to look much improved after the grime and coatings are removed or reduced and the objects are thoughtfully reintegrated with a well-designed fill system. Thanks to the remarkable talents of the AMNH team, these stately creations are finally commanding the respect they deserve.
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians :: AMNH
From the Bench: These Face Lifts Require Heavy Lifting :: IMLS
Arthur Shaughnessy house post carvings reinstalled following conservation treatment (February 2012) :: AMNH
Changing Approaches to the Conservation of Northwest Coast Totem Poles :: Reed College
Andrew Todd (1998). “Painted Memory, Painted Totems,” In Dorge, Valerie and F. Carey Howlett (eds.), Painted Wood: History and Conservation (pp. 400-411). Proceedings of a symposium organized by the Wooden Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Foundation of the AIC, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
A Brief History of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition :: AMNH


42nd Annual Meeting – Engaging Communities in Collection Care Session: “Current Conservation Education and Practice: Are They Sustainable?”

The topic of sustainability was on everyone’s minds at the AIC 42nd Annual Meeting, and an evaluation of the sustainability of our own profession and its educational path was part of the program. Having recently crossed the threshold into an art conservation graduate program, I was particularly interested in hearing Paul Himmelstein, a private practice conservator and partner at Appelbaum & Himmelstein since 1972, assess the sustainability of such programs.
In order to better understand how the graduate programs have changed over time, Himmelstein opened his talk with summaries of answers to a questionnaire he had distributed to the nine members of the Association of North American Graduate Programs in the Conservation of Cultural Property (ANAGPIC). From the responses collected, he reported the following:
–       Most applicants today are female, compared to earlier ratios of applicants, who were closer to 50% female and 50% male.
–       The requirements for admission have increased, both in the number of required pre-program hours of conservation experience and in the number of pre-requisite courses.
–       All programs require two years of General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry.
–       All programs are cost-free regardless of need.
–       Most applicants apply twice before acceptance.
–       Approximately 80 students apply per year.
–       The number of accepted students in each program has remained the same.
Himmelstein attributed these changes to a list of reasons. He surmised that the decreased number of male applicants is a result of the increased number of academic requirements and pre-program hours of experience. Men, he said, are more deterred by the extra years needed to complete these requirements as they are still driven by the “provider” mentality. He also noted that AIC is currently 66% female, but the majority of conservation leadership positions at major fine-arts institutions are held by men. He also pointed out that the majority of our demographic is white and middle-class. In response to the full-ride fellowships, Himmelstein predicted that the expense of supporting all students every year is not sustainable, given the number of students accepted.
Himmelstein continued by offering a list of proposed solutions. He suggested considering changing the grants to a need-based system. He also suggested adopting an admissions approach that simply rejects or accepts with no option for reapplying, as in medical schools and law schools. He also added that more men are entering the field of nursing, another female-dominated profession, as a counterpoint to the fact that our profession is losing men.
After stating that 50% of AIC members are in private practice, he advocated for a business-management component at the graduate level, in which conservators in private practice could share their experiences and provide mentorship at the post-graduate level. He said that new graduates “just aren’t ready” to begin careers in private practice. He also advocated for Kress scholarships for textbooks.
His solutions list continued to broaden outside the graduate school realm and included general suggestions for advocacy and outreach. According to Himmelstein, “Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] conservation projects are boring” and “conservation is hidden.” He feels that conservators are not working as important colleagues with other museum professionals; they also need to play a larger role in the fields of art history and archeology. He suggested presenting conservation treatment projects online, as in plastic surgery “before” and “after” shots. Viewers could scroll over the artifacts to watch them change. Himmelstein suggested that the public “expects us to be wizards,”and concluded with the statement, “We are not on a sustainable track, but I think we can be.”
Assessing the sustainability of our profession, especially in our current economic climate, is imperative. I agree that we must reexamine the number of students graduating each year to reduce expenses and to help control the job market, but not by selectively limiting funding or reducing a person’s chances for acceptance. Limiting funding at the graduate level would create an impossible financial position for most students. The demands of graduate school are such that no one is able, or even allowed, to work while in school. Unless a student is independently wealthy, then everyone falls into the “needs funding” category. According to Himmelstein’s report, average conservation students are not independently wealthy. Many internships at the graduate level are also still unpaid or partially paid, and students rely on their stipends to compensate. The current post-graduate income can also not sustain significant student loans. The “one strike you’re out” formula is also flawed. Many talented individuals who have made great contributions to our profession would not have become conservators if they did not get another chance to apply. Those who reapply show tenacity and dedication and our profession is shaped by those who participate.
I believe the decrease in male applicants is related to other factors and not because of the program requirements. Nursing is likely attracting more men because it has lost some of the “stigma” of a woman’s profession along with providing a relatively secure and well-paying job market. Conservation wages have fallen over time and the number of men in the field are likely reflecting this trend. In another life I pursued a degree in nursing and can attest that the increase in the number of men is not because less time is needed to get in to school. On the contrary, regardless of whether a student works to earn a bachelor of science in nursing or an associates degree in nursing, many hours of volunteer experience are required and many programs now require that a student become a certified nursing assistant before admission. This certification takes two months of full-time work or six months of part-time work in order to qualify for the state board exams. This work, in addition to the pre-requisites needed to apply, takes most individuals at least one year before they can apply to a nursing program. Some of the struggles we fight in conservation are not unique, but we are feeling the growing pains of a smaller and much newer profession, one that needs continuous advocacy in order to earn a living wage.
I agree that continuous outreach, both to the public and to colleagues in the humanities and sciences, is essential. Himmelstein touched on disseminating information to appropriate departments within schools. This is a particularly important task for me as a current graduate student, and a great way to continue advocacy for our profession. I was made fully aware of how important it can be to connect with other graduate students in the two weeks that followed AIC. From June 2-13, three classmates and I participated in the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DelPHI). Applications to the course were open to all University of Delaware graduate students who work with material culture. Those two weeks were packed full of learning important skills such as navigating social media and presenting your project with concise and interesting language, and investigating what inter-departmental collaboration could mean for each of our disciplines. Plans to attend one another’s lectures and to share our research in one another’s classrooms are already underway for the 2014-2015 school year. I would like to hear other examples of these types of collaborations, because I am sure other wonderful ideas are being implemented.
The sustainability of art conservation is indeed an important discussion and I hope it is one in which conservators at all stages of their careers will participate.