Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting & 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference – “The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center.” Speaker: Elizabeth Beesley, May 16

Major disasters in instances such as the NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center are usually caused as a result of mechanical or thermal stresses that the object was not built to withstand.  Artifacts that result from these tragedies imbue an immense cultural reaction, especially when there is a large-scale loss of life.  To honor the lives lost and provide closure for survivors, these artifacts are frequently memorialized.  According to Conservation Solutions, Inc. (CSI): “working on these artifacts is complex as they have unique materials-related challenges and emotional and cultural importance.”1
NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 28, 1986.  After the explosion, pieces of the Challenger fell into and were later recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.  One piece recovered from the shuttle’s left side panel patriotically displays an image of the U.S. flag.  This panel contained a wide range of materials from fiber batting to ceramic tiles to stainless steel.  Conservation issues addressed during treatment include chemical and mechanical damages from the explosion, stabilizing chemical damages from extended exposure to salt water, and removal of barnacles and other biological attachments.
CSI_ShuttleChallenger   CSI_ShuttleColumbia
In another space shuttle disaster, NASA’s Columbia disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere minutes before its scheduled landing at Cape Canaveral on February 1, 2003.  Unlike the Challenger, the Columbia debris was recovered from a Texas field and stored in a controlled museum climate.  Frames that were recovered from the Columbia’s crew module windows were selected for conservation treatment and exhibition.  CSI intentionally left scorch marks intact as well as soil and foliage embedded in the frames since these elements are significant to the history of the artifact.  Conservation treatments for the Challenger and the Columbia were conducted in secrecy at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Due to the sensitivity and heightened security associated with these treatments, restrictions were placed on materials brought on base, treatment methods pursued, and waste produced and removed from the base.  Once completed, the panel from the Challenger and frames from the Columbia went on display at the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 2015 as part of a memorial exhibit titled Forever Remembered.
The RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank the following morning.  Had there were a sufficient number of lifeboats on board, many deaths would have been prevented.  Davits (image above) projecting over the side of the ship were manually operated to lower life boats into the water.  One Davit arm conserved by CSI “tell[s] a poignant tale of the Titanic’s sinking as one side of the base shows the screw for the arm in its lowered position while the other is still raised, showing that one of the too few lifeboats that could have saved lives was not lowered.”2
The conserved Davit arm and base had spent decades underwater which severely impacted the iron, steel, and brass metal body and fixings.  Because the structure had become quite fragile, the CSI team needed to first stabilize the Davit arm and base and then create an exhibition mount.  The Davit arm and base were gently power washed to remove corrosion and the segments were sealed with wax.  The mount was composed of an iron frame and steel base which provided additional support and is capable of being disassembled and reassembled for exhibition.
There were seven buildings that together formed the World Trade Center.  The Twin Towers ascended high above the other buildings in the World Trade Center as well as the surrounding buildings in New York City.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes were flown into the towers.  The towers collapsed about an hour later, destroying with them the other buildings in the World Trade Center complex.
Sections of “tridents” from the base of the World Trade Center remained intact after the collapse, and these architectural elements became an icon of durability and survival for both New Yorkers and Americans across the country.   Each trident measured between 70-90 feet and weighed around 50 tons.3  They were removed by the FBI and transported from the site to an undisclosed location.  The CSI team conducted treatment in 2015.  The main focus of this treatment was to stabilize the paint rust and calcareous attachments, apply a protective coating, prevent water from pooling, and deter birds from nesting inside the trident.  As with the Challenger and Columbia, the World Trade Center project was conducted in secret and the conservators had to abide by government restrictions during treatment.  The FBI provided CSI with a camera, but conservators were not allowed to bring their own camera equipment or cellular phones onto the property.  All before treatment, during treatment, and after treatment photographs were reviewed by the Bureau before being approved and released to the conservation team.  Not all the photos that were released to the team were approved to show during Beesley’s presentation.
For each case that was discussed – NASA’s Challenger and Columbia, the RMS Titanic, and World Trade Center  –  the materials conserved exhibit the physical evidence and effects of disaster.  The conservation processes varied from one project to another, but all of them had some degree of secrecy, communication restrictions, and logistics challenges.  These objects carry significant cultural value and evoke extreme reactions of fear, anger, sadness, and other emotions from the public.  This is especially relevant for objects of recent tragedies and required the CSI team to be diligent about balancing the complex, varied, and changing relationships that stakeholders had with the artifacts.
1 Beesley, E., Sembrat, J., Rabinowitz, M., & Posluszny Bello, J. (2016). The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center [Abstract]. American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works 44(1) and Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property 42(1), 11. Retrieved from
2 (N/A). RMS Titanic Davit Base and Davit Arm Conservation and Mounting. Conservation Solutions, Inc. Retrieved from
3 Dunlap, D. (2010, September 8). Two ‘Trees’ Return to the World Trade Center. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Pruitt, S. (2015, August 3). NASA Displays Challenger and Columbia Wreckage. A&E Television Networks, LLC. Retrieved from
Excerpts of authors’ backgrounds as listed on Conservation Solutions, Inc.
Elizabeth Beesley, Conservator & Project Manager
Elizabeth is a conservator with a background in conservation science and experience in collections management and historic preservation. She holds an MEng in Materials Science (2004) from the University of Oxford where she researched Bronze Age metalwork.  While a graduate student in conservation at University College London, she conserved archaeological material at English Heritage and worked on historic aircraft at the Science Museum in London.  Subsequently, Elizabeth investigated excavated lacquerware using spectroscopy at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. More recently she managed a digitization program at College Park Aviation Museum where she also assisted with collections care. Before joining Conservation Solutions in 2012, Elizabeth worked as an assistant conservator at Aeon Preservation on archival research, construction management and condition assessments.  For more information about Elizabeth, please visit:
Joseph Sembrat, Senior Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Joseph Sembrat has been immersed in the conservation field for over twenty years. In 1999, together with his wife Julya, he founded Conservation Solutions, which has since developed into a leading, nationwide, historic preservation firm focusing on art, artifacts and architecture.  Conservation Solutions has been recognized for and won numerous awards for its work over recent years . . . Joe is also an accomplished author and presenter of topical industry relevant issues.  He continuously conducts research and publishes papers on topics in the preservation field with special emphasis on technology-sharing among various areas of industrial research and its applicability to conservation treatments.  Joe holds an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (1993), and a BA in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (1990).  For more information about Joe, please visit:
Mark Rabinowitz, Executive Vice President & Senior Conservator
Mark Rabinowitz is Executive Vice President, Senior Conservator. He has been part of the senior management team of Conservation Solutions since 2003.  He brings over 25 years of experience as a conservator to the leadership team of the firm.  Mark served as Deputy Chief of Operations for Preservation at the Central Park Conservancy throughout the 1990s, during which time he initiated and directed their monuments conservation and historic preservation programs.  In 1997 Mark was named Chief Consulting Conservator for the New York City Parks Department where he started up a similar program to treat monuments throughout New York City . . . Mark has presented papers, published articles, lectured and taught at national and international conferences and institutions including APT, AIC, ICOMOS US, SFIIC (France), Tulane University, Columbia University, New York University Conservation Center, University of Texas at San Antonio, Long Island University, Penland School of Crafts, and the Lacoste School of the Arts in France. His art has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Brussels, and Paris, and is represented in public and private collections in the US and Europe.  For more information about Mark, please visit:
Justine Posluszny Bello, Vice President of Operations & Senior Conservator
Justine joined Conservation Solutions in 2007. She operates as a project lead and Senior Conservator, applying her strong expertise in all aspects of conservation, including condition assessments, conservation treatments, materials testing and analysis, and construction management . . . Justine holds a MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and a BA in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington.  For more information about Justine, please visit:

44th Annual Meeting – General Session: Lead by Example, Models to Follow, Track E, May 16, “PRICE: Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies,” by Sarah Stauderman

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC has long dealt with collection emergencies. One of the first major disasters in their history was a construction fire that broke out on January 24, 1865 in the Smithsonian Institution Building, lovingly known as the Castle. This fire started between the ceiling and the roof of the main hall when workmen accidentally inserted a stove pipe into the brick lining of the building, instead of into a flue. In another unfortunate twist of fate, Secretary Joseph Henry (1797-1878) had established a winter-time fuel conservation program throughout the building, causing the water-filled fire buckets located in the hallways to freeze in the frigid temperatures. The library and many early collections, including the papers of James Smithson, were largely destroyed.

Fire in Smithsonian Institution Building, by Gardner, Alexander 1821-1882, January 24, 1865, Smithsonian Archives – History Div, 37082 or MAH-37082.

Now, one hundred and fifty years later, colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution have come together to discuss the roles they play in the prevention, preparation, and response to collections-related emergencies. While the Smithsonian currently maintains a robust disaster management program, it focuses primarily on human safety, which no one would argue comes first in any emergency. However, recognizing the need for planning for collections, staff has recently developed a concept for the Institution called PRICE, or Preparation and Response In Collections Emergencies.
The Smithsonian Institution policy on emergencies is encoded in Directives. Two directives that pertain to stewardship for collections in emergencies are: Smithsonian Directive (SD) 109 and SD 600. SD 109 sets requirements at both an institutional- and unit-level for emergency management pans. SD 600 establishes policies and standards for all aspects of collections management, which includes emergency management.
Two recent and notable emergencies sparked this reevaluation of collections emergency preparedness – the collapse of the Garber Facility in 2010 due to the weight of snow on the roof, and an earthquake in the DC region in 2011. Several areas for improvement were identified from these events:

  • Training for all staff. There is a need to effectively inform staff about proper lifesaving responses to specific emergencies (such as earthquakes), the Incident Command System, and procedures for access to affected facilities.
  • Training for collection emergency response staff. There is a need for training on safety, related to collection-based hazards, post-damage assessment methods, and salvage techniques for specific media types.
  • Quality control during installation and inspection of storage furniture.
  • Design of storage housing and exhibit mounts to minimize damage in the event of a future seismic event.
  • Collections spaces to tolerate risks, such as and earthquake or flood.

In the context of these recent emergencies, the Smithsonian has been approaching preventive conservation initiatives pan-institutionally. For example:

  • “Strengthening collections” is listed as part of the Institution’s strategic plan, as is broadening access
  • Through the National Collections Program (NCP), there are four leadership groups currently addressing collections stewardship: Collections Advisory Committee, Collections Space Committee, Digitization Program Office (DPO), and several media-specific initiatives.
  • The Collections Emergency Working Group, which formulated the PRICE initiative, brought together collections managers, conservators, physical security specialists, NCP staff, and facilities professionals.

The Collections Emergency Working Group recommended that in the event an emergency involves collections, the Emergency Operation Center and National Collections Program will have the PRICE team of collections responders to assist and activate response and recovery. Since the Smithsonian uses the Incident Command System (ICS) for emergencies, the PRICE team would fit seamlessly into its structure as one of the reporting groups to the incident commander. For more information about ICS in libraries, archives, and museums, check out David Carmichael’s book on the topic.
The PRICE committee structure will be that of six members and a chair. (Samantha Snell joined the NCP in March 2016 as the PRICE chair.) The team will follow the emergency life-cycle of preparedness, response, and recovery, and consists of three concentrations that must be addressed throughout an emergency – policy and procedures, training, and logistics.

PRICE Structure, Powerpoint, S. Stauderman.
PRICE Structure, Powerpoint, S. Stauderman.

Just remember that the PRICE initiative does NOT replace or duplicate emergency command centers (ECCs) or replace unit plans. However, it DOES enable ECCs, synthesize planning efforts, develop capacity, foster Smithsonian sharing, and take as models, the Alliance for Response and Cultural Recovery Center.
This concept is now in its initial implementation phase at the Smithsonian, so stay tuned for more exciting news about this initiative!

44th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, 15 May 2016, "The Mellow Pad in layers, colors, and time: investigating the materials and technique of Stuart Davis," by Jessica Ford

For the last talk of the first PSG session, Jessica Ford (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in paintings conservation, Brooklyn Museum) presented an in-depth look at the technique and legacy of Stuart Davis (1892-1964). This talk is timely considering the renewed interest in Davis – the retrospective Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of Art through September 25. A loan request prompted Jessica’s study of The Mellow Pad (1945-51), and a subsequent grant from the Bank of America Conservation Fund supported not only the pre-exhibition treatment, but also a technical study of the painting and some envy-inducing technology upgrades for the BKM conservation department.

Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964). The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951. Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (66.7 x 107 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.6
Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964). The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951. Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (66.7 x 107 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.6

Davis’s art centers on his interaction with color and space, and was heavily influenced by American jazz. He approached his compositions in the same way jazz musicians of the time approached theirs, often riffing on a past theme to arrive at a new result. The Mellow Pad is a riff on a work he began more than a decade before – 1931’s House and Street. In her talk, Jessica illustrated the work’s origin and evolution, even finding old studio photos that showed previous iterations of the work, manipulating and overlaying them to understand how the layers were built up over the long period that Davis worked on this painting.
Jessica took the non-destructive technical study to new heights with the help of the BoA grant, acquiring for the museum a multi-spectral imaging (MSI) setup, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) equipment, and a fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS) system. She also collaborated with Nottingham Trent University to bring optical coherence tomography (OCT) to the museum to elucidate questions of layering in the paint without removing a sample. The graphics showing a moving optical cross-section and the feature where you can essentially fall into the paint layer were especially enthralling to this OCT newbie.
The wax-lined painting in its pre-treatment state had significant interlayer cleavage with resulting lifting, due to interlayer chalk from the artist’s technique, zinc-containing pigments, interlayer dirt from the long period of creation, or unstable binding media – or, more likely, some fearsome combination thereof. Jessica performed an admirable feat of BEVA consolidation, captured in this time-lapse video, which I highly recommend you watch because it’s weirdly satisfying to see an immense consolidation job vanquished in 43 seconds. Another condition concern was the discoloration that seemed to only affect paints that were layered in a certain way – a magenta stripe fading only where layered over a certain type of black. This problem is still under study and Jessica included a call-for-commiseration to anyone who might have seen this phenomenon on another Davis painting.
Davis’s work has gone through cycles of interest, and it’s nice to see it’s on the uptick, though there is still significantly less known about his working method than many other American artists of his era. Jessica’s presentation contributed to the aim of increasing our knowledge of Davis’s technique while simultaneously serving as a reminder that there is a lot left to be learned from this artist. I hope this fascinating study spurs more interesting collaborations among the author, the BKM, and other conservators and art historians studying his work.

AIC Quebec City Trip Travelog Part 1


Square outside of the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec
Square outside of the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec

After the magnificent whirlwind of the joint AIC, CAC-ACCR meeting, over twenty conference-goers and guests set out on an early bus towards Quebec City. As the Montreal skyline receded behind us, we caught glimpses of two groundbreaking works of architecture from the 1967 World’s Fair: Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 erupting as a brutalist landscape in the distance and Buckminster Fuller’s Montreal Biosphere, a futuristic pavilion encapsulated in a striking geodesic dome framework. The landscape quickly dissolved into forests and farmland, and we travelers began to get to know each other and share our conference experiences. One of the many pleasures of attending the post-trip was hearing fresh, first-hand accounts of the tips, breakout sessions, and lessons gathered by others at the meeting.
Our conversations on the bus revealed the great variety of experiences among the group: from emerging conservators to spouses and seasoned conservation professionals, we came from diverse backgrounds and represented Australia, Canada, Portugal, and US locations from the east coast to California and Hawaii. The dynamic mix would be a great asset as we explored the history, culture, and collections of Quebec City together.
As we approached the city over the St. Lawrence River, our bus driver pointed out the storied Quebec Bridge and informed us that the name of the city derived from an Algonquin word that means “where the river narrows.” This etymology is a point of pride for Quebec City inhabitants and was affectionately recounted by several others over the following days.
The magnificent Chateau Frontenac
     The magnificent Chateau Frontenac

Upon arrival, we had a few moments to settle into our regal accommodations at the Chateau Frotenac before gathering for lunch and a lesson in Quebec City’s history led by David Mendel. David is a walking encyclopedia of the region, and his enthusiasm for the history, architecture, and culture of Quebec City was infectious. He shared the origins of the city, outlined military and trade history, and explained the national and international role that the city has played across time. David is such a talented raconteur that he makes Quebec City appear to be the center of all North American history, if not the whole world.
On a walking tour, outside of Notre Dame de Quebec
On a walking tour, outside of Notre Dame de Quebec

After our lesson, David led us on a brief bus trip across the Plains of Abraham, site of an historic battle during the French and Indian War during which British soldiers took control of the city from the French. The battlefields are also home to the Quebec Citadelle, the strategic architectural forefront of the city’s ramparts. This series of defensive structures make Quebec City the only fortified city in the US or Canada, a fact that helped the city gain UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985. After our bus tour, David led the group by foot across the charming, winding streets of Old Quebec. We stopped in several magnificently gilded churches, learned about historic building methods, and saw an especially breathtaking collection of tapestries at the Museum of the Ursulines of Quebec.
A small domicile squeezed between two existing buildings in Old Quebec
A small domicile squeezed between two existing buildings in Old Quebec

After some restful free time, we indulged in a spectacular feast at Le Saint-Amour. A well-decorated restaurant, Le Saint-Amour prides itself on highlighting local products in traditional, regional dishes updated with innovative and contemporary culinary techniques. The company was as delightful as the food, and it was an ideal way to wrap up our first day in Quebec City.