AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Challenges and Choices in Conserving an Early Abstract Expressionist Painting by Clyfford Still” by Barbara Ramsay

American painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) was a leading Abstract Expressionist artist.  In November of 2011 the new Clyfford Still Museum opened in Denver, Colorado.  For more than seven years prior to the opening conservators in the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory worked to prepare Still’s paintings for travel and exhibition.  One of those paintings was the oil on canvas,  1943 (PH-286).  Barbara Ramsay carried out the treatment of the painting and kept coming back to the question, “Should we hold the artist accountable for the materials and techniques that he has used, or should we attempt to reintroduce aspects of his original intent as we perceive them?”   As one might expect, the answer is often complicated and open to interpretation.

1943 (PH-286) is a key early painting in Still’s oeuvre that serves as an excellent documentation of his artistic process.  The painting represents his transition from abstracted figurative work to the complete abstraction for which he is known.  It is understood that Still considered the painting to be an important work and he exhibited it more often than most of his other works.  The painting also important because it has the inscription “White and Black” on the verso, which may be an early title because he did not completely abandon titling his work until some time in the 1940s.

The stretched painting was executed on unsized cotton duck canvas with a white ground.  The canvas showed signs of being unstretched and restretched more than once.  It was slightly stained but otherwise it was generally stable.  Examination of the paint layers revealed mingling of matte and glossy areas and a discolored surface coating.  The areas of highest gloss appeared bluish white under ultraviolet irradiation but whether there was a local or overall surface coating remained unclear.  There were also areas of marked drying cracks in the black paint layers but all of the cracks appeared to be stable.

After minor consolidation, the structure of the painting was stable so the focus of treatment was on the aesthetic qualities.  Barbara’s approach was to open up a dialogue between curators, the representatives of the Still estate, and conservators to discuss the interpretation of the condition and determine a course of action that prioritized minimal intervention.  Unfortunately, such conversations are often complicated and this case was no exception.  Some of the stakeholders felt the painting should be left as is.  Others wanted the drying cracks to be inpainted.  Still others wanted a complete aesthetic treatment to remove and replace the discolored varnish, saturate the matte areas, and inpaint the drying cracks.  Barbara wanted to do more research before determining her ideal course of action.  The critical questions:  could it be done safely and should it be done at all?

To answer those questions Barbara focused on Still’s working process.  GCI analysis suggested that he used titanium white ground, zinc white, carbon black, organic colorants, and some commercial tube colors on his paintings.  Many of Still’s paints are known to be particularly sensitive to water and organic solvents.  The variable gloss in the paint surface posed several other issues for consideration.  The matte areas could have indicated an original difference in leanness in the paint.  It was possible that Still applied an overall surface coating that soaked into areas of underbound paint over time and left an unexpected variable gloss.  There was also a chance that Still applied the coating to specific areas of the painting.  So, did Still apply a coating?  Was it local or overall?  Did he intend or like the uneven surface?  Research turned up examples where Still did both localized and overall surface coating applications.  It was documented that paint that appeared “too dry” was not his original intention.  However, what did he mean by “too dry”?  Was this an “overly matte” surface or did it describe a surface that had traces of efflorescence?

Additional study by the GCI identified a drying oil on the surface and it was determined that Still likely coated the painting with the oil in the 1970s.  Examination under ultraviolet irradiation supported the theory that the oil coating was absorbed by leaner areas of paint, resulting in localized matte patches.  Although the oil was applied by the artist there was no documentation to indicate what effect he was trying to achieve.  Since the discolored coating was very disfiguring and misleading, it was decided that it should be removed.  But could it be removed?

As expected, solvent sensitivities in the paint layers complicated the removal of the surface coating.  As a result, it was determined that selective and partial cleaning was the most viable option.  Using solvent compresses the coating was reduced in the whites, grays and colored areas, but was left untouched over the black paint.  A varnish was not applied either to the cleaned areas or to the matte black paint passages.

The last step in the treatment was inpainting of the craquelure.  Barbara preferred to leave the craquelure as evidence of the artist’s materials and working methods but finally agreed to inpaint the most distracting craquelure with a reversible medium.  At that point the treated painting was ready for exhibition.

This was a complicated project full of the difficult questions that seem inherent in the treatment of modern and contemporary art.  As a result, the conclusion of Barbara’s presentation was followed by a very interesting question and answer session.  I was unable to keep a written record of the various dialogues that occurred but I can recall one question and answer that I thought was interesting and could lead to additional discussion:  One conservator asked Barbara why she decided to inpaint the craquelure when Still had chosen to exhibit it for so many years in that condition.  Barbara replied that she had considered this factor and believed it was a valid reason not to inpaint.  She did not want to inpaint the craquelure but she feared the other alternative was that the painting would not go on exhibit.  She felt it was necessary to compromise on inpainting the cracks to ensure that such an important painting would be included in the inaugural installation in the new museum.  She noted also that Still had not intended that the drying craquelure would form.  She felt the museum’s desire to show Still’s work to the public for the first time looking its very best was also a valid concern. What do you think?

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Angel’s Project, “AIC Chicks Make Bricks,” San Miguel Chapel, May 8th

One of this year’s Angel Projects took place at San Miguel Chapel (sometimes also called the San Miguel Mission) in Santa Fe. Avigail Charnov, architectural conservator at Jablonksi Building Conservation and ASG member who organized the project, wanted AIC member’s to get involved and help in the restoration of this important historic structure. The restoration project of the chapel is being undertaken by Cornerstones Community Partnerships, a non-profit organization which works with communities to restore important historic monuments and structures in New Mexico. The projects they work on are those requested by communites and they are committed to involving the community in the work that takes place.They work primarily on adobe structures and incorporate traditional materials and methods in the restoration of the places they preserve.

San Miguel Chapel

This year’s all female team of Angels, made up of architectural, paper, paintings and objects conservators, worked with Cornerstone’s project members to make mud bricks that will be used in the repair of the historic walls of the church and re-plastered previously repaired walls.

History of San Miguel Chapel
San Miguel Chapel plays an important role in the history of Santa Fe. It is one of the oldest structures in the city and was originally built when the Spanish came into the area in 1610 (or 1620, the records are not so clear). The Franciscans who came to the area at that time brought with them Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico, who had helped them conquer the Aztecs, to build the church. The church was in use until 1640 when it was destroyed but then rebuilt. It was destroyed again in 1680 during the Pueblo Revolt when the local indigenous people turned against the Spanish and colonization, as well as the imposition of the Catholic religion. The Spanish were pushed out of the area until 1692. When they reconquered the area, they saw that the local people had torn down the church as part of their rejection of Catholicism and the Spanish. But the Spanish were not deterred and rebuilt the church in 1710 (a date confirmed using dendrochronological dating of the timbers used to construct the church). This 18th century layout is the basic church layout we see today.

The carved altar screen, or reredo, in the chapel was made in 1798 and is the oldest reredo in New Mexico.

The mission became a school, St Michael’s High School, in the 1850’s. In the 1880’s, an earthquake caused structural damage to the church and it was going to be torn down, but the building was important to the community and the city and so it was saved. It was rebuilt in the Mission Style, which is what we see in most of the building today. The front however is in the Santa Fe style (modified in this style in 1955). One of the main changes that occurred at this time was to replace the mud plastered adobe with a cement stucco layer. Cement was also used to reinforce some of the adobe bricks. Areas of the roof that were flat were also altereed to have a pitch and drain into a courtyard on the southside of the church. These changes would cause problems in the future, but more about that in a bit.

Project director Jake Barrow shows us some of the stucco applied in the 1950’s.

In 1968, the high school grew too large for the chapel and associated buildings and moved to a different site. Over the years, the building was not maintained, though is still held church services, and was in need of repair. That’s when the community contacted Cornerstones for help.

Condition of the Chapel
The Chapel suffered damage primarily due to repairs done in the 1950’s which used materials with poor ageing and that were incompatible with the adobe. The stucco applied at this time covered up the adobe bricks so their condition could not be monitored for any maintenance to take place. Changes to the pitch of the roof also caused problems, as did poor drainage in the courtyard off the north side of the church and run off of rain water toward the front side of the chapel. Cornerstones worked with the Getty Conservation Institute who came out to conduct a condition assessment of the chapel. They found damage due to moisture and deterioration of wooden supports in the wall in addition to the items mentioned above.

Wall showing new adobe bricks (upper section of photo) inserted into the wall as part of the restoration, and original adobe bricks.

Restoration work
The work Cornerstones has undertaken has mainly focused on removing all the stucco applied in the 1950’s, replacing any damaged/deteriorated adobe bricks, reinforcing and replacing the wooden beam supports and replastering the walls with mud. As part of the committment to community involvement they allow people to volunteer in the restoration process. That’s where this year’s Angels got to contribute and also learn about traditional building techniques.

The day started off by learning how to make mud bricks that will be used in the repair of the walls. The bricks are made by mixing alluvial soil (made of silt, clay and fine sand) with coarser sand and straw. The soil and coarse sand are mixed in a 2:1 ratio of soil:sand.

Straw is added after the soil and sand have been mixed a bit and some water has been added. The straw acts as a binder and helps to hold the mud together. The amount of straw added is a basket ball sized clump to each batch of 30:15 shovel-fulls of soil:sand.

Once mixed, the mud is taken in a wheel barrow over to the sidewalk where we’ll be making the mud bricks. The wooden brick molds are prewet first to make sure the mud doesn’t stick to them. The mud is then added to the mold (which makes 2 bricks at a time) and tamped into the mold by hand. When both sides of the mold have been filled, the mold is lifted and voila, you have mud bricks!

After making mud bricks, we learned how to make mud plaster and how to plaster the walls. Mud plaster is applied over the walls to create a protective layer over the bricks and to act as a sacrificial layer to the elements so the bricks don’t deteriorate so readily and don’t need to be replaced so often. The smooth plaster layer needs to be maintained and requires re-plastering about every 2 years.

To make the mud plaster, we first need some very fine and pure clay. The clay Cornerstones is using comes from Nambe. This clay dries to a color very similar to the 1950’s facade. The clay is first screened to remove large pieces and create a fine texture. The lumps of clay are broken up with a pick and then tossed against an upright screen.

The fine clay that comes through on the other side is added to water and mechanically mixed to make mud. The mud is then taken and mixed with sand and chopped straw. The mud to sand ratio for the plaster is 3:1. The amount of straw that is added is a few handfuls.

To apply the plaster, the wall is prewet first and then the plaster is applied with a large trowel. Not much smoothing or working is required, and too much smoothing can cause the plaster to fall off. The plaster is applied across the wall to create a layer about 1/8″ thick. We managed to replaster the lower half of a wall of the facade of the chapel and we did a pretty good job for the first time. But that’s no surprise since we’re all conservators and therefore perfectionists!

I had a great time volunteering for this project and loved learning how mud bricks are made. It was great to work with such an enthusiastic team of conservators and members of the Cornerstones project. It was also really satisfying to know that while we were having so much fun, we were also helping to restore an important historic structure and that the bricks we made that day, would some day be placed into the newly repaired walls of San Miguel Chapel. If you’re in the Santa Fe area and want to volunteer with Cornerstones at San Miguel Chapel, you can find more information here.

The Angels’ Project team along with members of Cornerstones Community Partnerships

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting — Workshop — Assessing and Managing Risks to Your Collections

Led by Robert Waller, PhD

Robert Waller currently wears several hats as the President and Senior Risk Analyst of Protect Heritage Corporation based in Ottawa, and his impressive career also includes working as a conservation administrator for the Canadian Museum of Nature as well as an author of numerous conservation publications.  He taught this one-day workshop on risk assessment methodology with a sense of humor as well as a sense of purpose, and left me wanting to learn more.  He kept us actively engaged and learning from one another.  And his thorough handout gave us lots more information to clarify the concepts that we practiced working with during the day.

We started off introducing each other and doing a little group bonding at each table, which led to friendly competition for tantalizing prizes equitably awarded by our instructor.  Our whole group was marvelously multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-specialty, opening our minds to the challenges of different locations and types of collections.  The bonding time paid off by the end of the day, when we had to work together to produce a real-life risk analysis of exhibits in the convention center, complete with insect infestation and earthquake risks.

One key takeaway for me after one of the mathematical exercises was that we don’t have to get too specific to estimate loss in value.  The point is to identify the kind of value that the object is most prized for in the collection at this point in time, not every possible use/value that it could ever have.  The spreadsheet would get too long, and we’d get bogged down with fine differences in opinion.  Just using a few significant and vaguely measurable values allows us to screen and rank the risks so we can then prioritize the top ten, figure out how much mitigation would cost, and then take concrete, practical steps to get the most bang for the buck.

But first, we had to learn the method, which is both theoretical and practical.  Brace yourselves for some math, or better yet, get some caffeine to help you through the next few paragraphs.

The method starts with identifying risks both by “agent of deterioration” (one of ten general causes of risk) and “type of risk” (a combination of frequency and severity).  How often a risk might happen is the first significant filter for decision-making, so dividing risks into rare, sporadic, and continual is the place to start.  These are then further modified by their severity, so a rare and catastrophic risk becomes type 1, sporadic and severe is type 2, and continual and mild is type 3.  According to Bob, we can’t waste time worrying about either a continual/catastrophic risk (we’re all goners), or a mild/rare risk (just a drop in the bucket).

To assess a collection’s risks, we define the most likely agents of deterioration and types of risks, and then envision specific scenarios that illustrate the combination of the two.  For example, the agent of deterioration might be pests, the type of risk might be type 2 (sporadic and severe), and the specific risk might be silverfish that enter the collection with a donation, and feast on paper-based library collections resulting in loss of information value.  Approximately 50 such specific risks would be defined for a typical, comprehensive collection assessment, and a spreadsheet table created with a line for each risk.

The magnitude of each specific risk is then estimated by determining four ratios (each is given a number between 0 and 1) and multiplying them all together:

  • fraction of the collection that is susceptible to each risk (.75 represents ¾ of the collection would be affected)
  • loss in value that would occur if the risk occurred (and value is not just monetary…there are many notions of value, and this number is approximate based on minor/major/total loss, with 1 being total loss, .5 being half of the value lost, and .1 being 10% value lost)
  • probability that the loss would actually occur within 100 years (for type 1 risks only; all others get a 1 because they will definitely happen within 100 years)
  • extent (a concept that is hard for this novice to define, but is combination of the first two values modified by their likelihood of occurring within 100 years given current mitigation efforts, and is applied to type 2 and type 3 risks only).

We assume that each of those values is 1 unless there’s a reason to define it otherwise.  And once we’ve calculated the magnitude for each specific risk, we have bottom-line numbers that can help prioritize the specific risks.  By multiplying several variables that are <1, decimal places accumulate in the final product, so it becomes easier to see which are the most significant risks.  The comparisons become logarithmic.  Risks that are closer to 1 are more likely to cause significant loss, whereas risks that are .001 and lower are not such big threats.  At the end of it all, if we have two risks with similar values, we use time as a tie-breaker, determining which risk is going to happen sooner and addressing that one first.

During the last exercise, each table was assigned a display window in a series of exhibits about the sister cities of Albuquerque.  Our table was assigned Sasebo, Japan, which displayed ceramics on a glass shelf aamong other things.  Narrowing down to what we arbitrarily judged to be the most significant risk, we assessed the risk of earthquake damage to the ceramics.  Roughly 14 out of 40 objects were ceramics on the glass shelf (fraction susceptible is 14/40 or .35). We judged the loss in value to be .8, since the ceramics would very likely break but could be repaired to regain some of their display value.  Probability for earthquakes in the region is estimated at 1 in 400 years, which gave us a ratio of .25 in 100 years.  Multiplying .35 x .8 x .25 gave us a bottom line magnitude of risk of .07, which is smaller than we expected.  Looking back on it, we might have gotten a higher magnitude of risk if we’d chosen to assess the impact of a dead moth lying on the bottom of the case on the silk kimono  hanging above it.

By the end of the day, I came to appreciate what my actuary friend does all day long, and vowed to ask him more about it.  Bob did a great job at helping us to put practical numbers onto concepts that previously seemed unmeasurable, and at providing a bottom-line mathematical method that can help us clarify the priorities for mitigating risks to our collections.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects and Research and Technical Studies Joint Session, May 9, “The Qero Project: Conservation and Science Collaboration over Time,” by Emily Kaplan et al.

Emily Kaplan (Presenter), Objects Conservator, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; email:

Ellen Howe, Conservator, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art; email:

Ellen Pearlstein, Associate Professor, Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, UCLA; email:

Judith Levinson, Director of Conservation, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History; email:

The qero research project is a seventeen-year-long collaboration among object conservators at four museums with qeros in their collections: the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI, NMAI). Emily Kaplan (SI, NMAI) presented an update of the research to date on behalf of her co-investigators, Ellen Howe (MMA), Ellen Pearlstein (formerly Brooklyn Museum, now GCI-UCLA), and Judith Levinson (AMNH). The project is an in-depth technical study of materials and techniques of fabrication of a corpus of qeros, polychrome wood drinking vessels fabricated around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532; the qeros in these four collections date from the Inca period (13th-15th c.), through the Colonial period (16th-19th c).  Consequently, the qeros offer material culture insights produced over a span of centuries and reflect the influences of both indigenous cultures and Spanish colonizers.  Principal goals of the project involved: understanding techniques of fabrication, the analytical identification of materials, and the correlation of the technical data with the stylistic data proposed by others (i.e. curators, art historians).

The qero project was an apt presentation for the joint OSG-RATS  session. Kaplan articulately presented the cultural history of the vessels, as well as the technical research undertaken by numerous conservation scientists, principally at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Indeed, both cultural and scientific research were presented in nearly equal measure, which underscored the efforts of the primary researchers to cover both aspects in depth.  Efforts at replication of techniques of manufacture, cultural exchanges with colleagues and artisans in Peru, and the application of the full arsenal of analytical  methods employed (including FTIR, GC-MS, PLM, XRD, and XRF) were discussed.  Kaplan noted that YouTube videos exist showing contemporary Columbian artisans in Pasto working with the sheets of resin.  The presentation was accompanied by quite beautifully photographed images of the vessels themselves, comprised of tropical woods with polychrome resinous inlays, which illustrate geometric (Inca) and figural (Colonial) design registers of increasing complexity.

Funding from the MMA and NMAI allowed Kaplan and Howe to travel to Peru to meet Andean artists and scholars; to collect raw materials; and to visit private and public collections.  Eventually botanical samples of the plant elaeagia were correlated via FTIR and GC-MS to the mopa-mopa resin noted in early literature and the samples from qeros.  Interestingly, the palette was identified as largely unchanged from the pre-Colonial period.  Colorants identified include cinnabar red, orpiment yellow, cochineal red and pink, indigo blue, copper-based greens, carbon black, lead white and titanium white.  A notable, recent reassessment is the meaning of the analytical identification of titanium white (cristobalite anatase in mineral form) on some vessels.  Early in the project, the noted presence of titanium white—a  pigment that found wide usage only in the 20th century—was  thought to indicate areas of restoration.  Further study focusing on the presence of elaeagia in the media, led the conservators to believe it to be a pre-Colonial pigment.  A known Andean ore does exist.

Current research questions involve study of the ore source(s) of the cristobalite anatase and pigment comparisons to Colonial Andean paintings.  Further, the research and data collection evolved with technological advances and the collaborators are now considering ways to aggregate and share the data on-line.

This research project can be seen as a model for other conservation projects involving multiple institutions.  The sustained curiosity about these objects inspired a prolonged inter-museum collaborative effort , involving international allied professionals.  I’ve followed the progress of the qero project over the years, attending presentations and watching the list of publications in the US and South America grow longer and longer, as new findings emerged.  Near the beginning of the project (which started in 1995), while a graduate conservation student at New York University, I participated for two years as a research assistant on the project.  The concerted efforts to study both historical techniques of fabrication and the scientific results of analytical testing represent for me why the qero project ideally embodies the captivating interdisciplinary aspects of the conservation profession.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Outreach Session, May 11, “Communicating the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project: Outreach and Reportage,” by Stephanie Hornbeck, Eric Pourchot, Viviana Dominguez, Junior Norelus and Saori Kawasumi


Stephanie Hornbeck (Chief Conservator, Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project), moderator  and panelist; email:; web:

Viviana Dominguez (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project; Painting Conservator, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) panelist; email:; web:

Eric Pourchot (Director of Institutional Advancement, AIC), panelist; email:;  web:

Junior Norelus (Chief Conservation Technician, Holy Trinity Murals Conservation Project), panelist; email:

Saori Kawasumi, (Third Year Student, Buffalo State College Art Conservation Program), panelist; email:

Note: Rosa Lowinger (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project), intended moderator. Rosa conceived of the session topic but could ultimately not attend this AIC Annual Meeting due to a scheduling conflict.


The Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Project was an 18-month long international, collaborative effort to recover the damaged cultural patrimony from Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.  Fifty (50) conservators and collection managers in staff, contract and volunteer capacities participated in the effort.  Twenty public and private institutions received conservation assistance.  Ultimately, 30,000 works of art, documents, books and monuments were stabilized.

Our project was a large, international project with many participants and as such, it can be seen to be an example of the media challenges faced by comparable large conservation projects.  We hoped in sharing our experiences to inform the conservation community and ideally to encourage improvements with future presentations of conservation information to diverse audiences and media outlets.

This outreach session presented the myriad ways in which the Smithsonian Institution Haiti Cultural Recovery Center project was reported and communicated- both to the conservation field and to the general public.  The panelists consisted of individuals who worked on the project in different capacities and wrote about it and/ or reported it through conferences, seminars, interviews, press conferences, blogging and other reportage.

Among the places where this project was internationally reported or communicated include print (the book Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery After the Earthquake by Richard Kurin, 2011; The New York Times, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, AICNews, Haitian newspapers), television (“The Today Show,” upcoming program on Smithsonian Channel in December 2012), radio (NPR), various Internet sites (Smithsonian website, US Committee of the Blue Shield website,, Episcopal News Service, and c-monster), Facebook  and blog posts,  professional presentations and panels and press conferences.

The primary objective was to discuss how conservation information is disseminated and portrayed in diverse media and how we as conservators, who were involved with this project, helped to communicate particular aspects of the project and dealt with repercussions of the information being distributed. We discussed the ways in which information about the project was tailored to specific audiences and shared anecdotes of how a lack of information control was sometimes problematic.

The challenges of accurately presenting technical conservation information to a non-specialist audience were presented.  In a discussion of formal media interactions, the primary challenge is how the project’s activities can be accurately reported by an outside party, like a reporter, journalist, documentarian, etc.  It can be a frustrating experience to give a long interview only to see the full context go by the wayside in the editing process.  The opportunity to see draft copy of external publications is very rare indeed.  Yet, when errors, omissions and inadequate acknowledgements ensue, they can be difficult to correct after the fact and might cause offense.

Internal challenges/conflicts regarding the presentation of project information also arose, presenting significant complications, as they bring colleagues into conflict.  Incidents occurred where volunteer conservators overstepped their roles without getting proper permission before photographing, filming, and recording projects to which they were not attached.  In these cases, neither the project manager nor the proprietor of the collection in question were  asked in advance about filming and appropriate photo/film credits. The almost-instantaneous dissemination of information now possible with social media, makes it even more important to be cautious, considerate, and professional before uploading material on-line.

At times, disagreements arose with our Haitian project colleagues regarding the presentation and dissemination of project conservation information.  In attempting to resolve the situation, requests were made that staff conservators write all conservation-related articles and that the internal review of all press releases include conservators prior to their distribution.  These requests were met inconsistently. Other US-funded conservation projects that occur in foreign countries likely encounter similar struggles over imparting conservation information, sharing or acknowledging credit, and in claiming ownership of project successes.


 –  What are the challenges of presenting conservation/technical information to a general audience?

–  Our project had a large number of participants working in volunteer, contract and staff capacities. To what degree should dissemination of project information to various audiences and media outlets be controlled/regulated?  Is it even possible to control the dissemination of information?

– How did actual reportage outcomes reflect desired communication outcomes?  Was “the message” conveyed accurately? Did the relevant parties receive appropriate acknowledgement?

 – Who are appropriate “spokespeople?”  Should any project participant feel free to speak about the project publicly?  Or, should restrictions be implemented?


 Stephanie Hornbeck presented the topic:  “Representing the Smithsonian in Formal Media Outlets and Overview of Project Efforts to Present to the Media.” As Chief Conservator for the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project she served as the Port-au-Prince-based project liaison to the Smithsonian.  In addition to her conservation responsibilities, Stephanie was one of the official contacts for the project and as such could be contacted variously by a conservator, a media representative or an individual person, in the general public. As is likely true for other conservators, who serve as official personnel for a large, international effort, the role of media communicator was only one aspect of her job.  Although the project’s resident conservator first and foremost, outreach communication of project conservation efforts was of critical importance and did require her regular attention. Serving in an official capacity, she approached the role of information dissemination formally. Her primary responsibilities in communication efforts were to provide information about the dire state of damage to Haiti’s cultural and artistic property, to communicate the project’s global conservation objectives, to report on project conservation efforts underway, and to present project conservation results achieved.  Stephanie  also needed to support the larger mission of the project and to emphasize our collaborative efforts both in Haiti and with American and international conservation experts. She encountered media communication challenges internally among project personnel over the authorship and review of project conservation information and the acknowledgement of conservators in project successes.

Eric Pourchot (Director of Institutional Advancement, AIC), presented the topic AIC’s role in publicizing the Haiti project.  His paper title, “You Don’t Have to Call me  Darlin’, Darlin’, but You Didn’t Even Use my Name,” wittily referenced the importance of acknowledgement.  Eric addressed how AIC—an integral partner in the Haiti project, coordinating AIC volunteer conservator deployments and supply procurement—was represented by the media.  He emphasized how the actual media coverage could sometimes differ significantly from the desired message.  Media coverage about the Haiti project was an opportunity to provide information about AIC to the general public, an opportunity that sometimes went awry through omission.  He also noted how initially the project sponsor, the Smithsonian Institution, controlled the media message exclusively.  AIC was one of thirteen partners in the Haiti project, supporting to various degrees the collaboration of the sponsors: the Smithsonian and the Government of Haiti.  Eric noted that the Haiti project was a complex network of partnerships and project objectives and media outlets tend to prefer concise renderings.  The perpetual issues of shaping the message and of receiving proper acknowledgement resonated for others, who participate in large, multi-institutional conservation collaborations.

Viviana Dominguez (Co-Director St. Trinity murals conservation project; painting conservator, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) presented the topic of conveying technical conservation information about the St. Trinity Murals Conservation Project in Haiti and at international (non-US) venues. She briefly introduced the fourteen murals painted by famous Haitian artists that originally decorated the cathedral interior and how the team, composed of six local artists and two professional conservators (Viviana and Rosa Lowinger), rescued the only three standing murals that survived the earthquake.  Viviana proceeded to describe how a February 2011 article about the conservation project published in The New York Times, a year after the earthquake ( immediately drew international news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press to the site. In addition, the project was presented to the local media during two press conferences in Haiti. Viviana addressed the challenges of accurately presenting technical conservation information to a non-specialist audience and the creative ways she incorporated her team of Haitian technicians to present the information to the Haitian public. The mutely-cultural presenters, including Richard Kurin (Smithsonian Institution Under Secretary) Olsen Jean-Julian (Cultural Recovery Center Manager) the Haitian Archbishop of the cathedral, the ministers of Tourism and Culture.  Both conferences were broadcast on the national news channels and in newspapers. Viviana and Rosa also presented the project to conservation peers in conferences abroad in Argentina, Barbados, Canada, Peru, and Spain.

 Junior Norelus (Chief Technician, St. Trinity murals conservation project) presented the topic of communicating the St. Trinity Murals Conservation Project in Haiti to non-conservation specialists via Haitian media outlets.  On our project, our Haitian colleagues served as liaisons to Haitian professionals in the culture sector, to the Haitian press, and to the general public. This communication conduit was critical to successfully building interest in the project and to conveying accurate information in the Kreyol and French languages spoken in Haiti. A professional artist, Junior described how his own thinking regarding preservation evolved through working on the Smithsonian project for a year. He also described the impact his television appearance had on his family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, who became immediately interested on the project, presenting him opportunities to explain the importance of conserving Haitian cultural patrimony, a new concept in Haiti.

 Saori Kawasumi (third year student, Buffalo program, student intern, Haiti Cultural Recovery Center) presented the topic of the student’s perspective in connecting to multiple communities.  She contrasted her more informal, “bottom-up” communication efforts to the formal “top-down” efforts described by Stephanie and Eric.  Her information-sharing involved discussions with professional colleagues and peers, reading and sharing blog posts, and telling anecdotes about her daily life on the project to family and friends.  Saori described how her assigned project involved working on a daily basis with a Haitian conservation assistant and the challenges of being an instructor to him, even as she was a student herself. As one of two graduate conservation students (with Cindy Lee Scott), who spent July 2011 on the Haiti project, Saori expressed how students can contribute uniquely to a large project. Even as the Haiti project seemed daunting to her at the outset, she realized that as a member of the upcoming generation of professional conservators, her contributions were valued and the experience may serve her in the future.


An engaging, forty-minute discussion period followed the panel presentations.  A number of AIC Haiti volunteer conservators were in attendance and many contributed their thoughts on the subjects presented. In addition to several questions regarding transition efforts of the project (which ended in December 2011); the following points were emphasized:

● As with the Haiti project, conservation projects that occur in foreign countries need to collaborate with local professionals for important outreach and communication efforts.

● Within a project, it is important to implement open internal communication about content and media distribution of press releases and other outreach communications.  Project conservators should write or vet all conservation information.

● Written communication guidelines for project participants would be useful. The guidelines should describe the project mission; the roles and contact information of key personnel; and guidance about photograph credits.

● Before publishing work—in print media or on-line—on a project, inform the project personnel and ask about appropriate credits to include.

● Even with more informal outlets, such as blogs and social media communication, professional consideration should be give to properly citing the project.

● Acknowledgement of the project sponsor, relevant partners, project personnel and collaborators is important. Spell names correctly and use accurate titles/affiliations.

● Prior permission to photograph works in a collection should be obtained from the museum curator/ director/collection proprietor.

● Images of works of art should include photo credits with the name of the photographer, the name of the collection to which it belongs, and if possible the title of the work.

● Share your publication with project personnel. They will likely be appreciative of the exposure, enthusiastic about your effort to publicize the project, and may increase the circulation of your publication.


For more information about the Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, please see:

Richard Kurin’s book about the project is now available. Saving Haiti’s Heritage: Cultural Recovery after the Earthquake (Smithsonian Institution, 2011) includes numerous essay contributions by participating conservators.  More information about the book can be found on the website below.

The Smithsonian Haiti Cultural Recovery Project website, has a webpage entirely devoted to the extensive media coverage, with links to articles included:

Stay tuned: the Smithsonian Channel (on Showtime) will present a television program on the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project in December 2012.

“The Journey to Recovery: A Tale of Earthquake Damage and Repair in Haiti,” by Stephanie Hornbeck and Viviana Dominguez. The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives, February 23, 2012. The story of the dramatic damage context and advanced treatment of a Stivenson Magloire painting broken into 22 fragments by the 2010 earthquake:

“Haiti Heritage Rescue Could Stall,” By Emily Sharpe. The Art Newspaper. Conservation, Issue 229, November 2011 Published online: 15 November 2011. Chief conservator stresses need for continuity of funding after handover to local authorities:

“Haiti’s Scars, and its Soul, Find Healing on Walls,” By Damien Cave. The New York Times. February 22, 2011. One of the project’s main initiatives, the removal of the wall paintings from St. Trinity Episcopal Church, received wide coverage, including this article: :

“The Art of Recovery,” cover story interview with Stephanie, Wellesley magazine (fall 2011):

Video clip from “The Today Show”:

Viviana’s blog overview of treating Haitian paintings:

Article describing Viviana’s presentation at Instituto Universitario Nacional de Arte Buenos Aires:

Rosa’s blog on the St. Trinity murals:


AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting- “Assessing Risks to Your Collections” Workshop with Robert Waller, May 8th, 2012

I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a workshop at the beginning of the 2012 AIC Conference with Robert Waller entitled, “Assessing Risks to Your Collections”. I decided to attend this particular course because many museums struggle with creating preservation priorities for their collections and this task is daunting to both small and large museums. Risk assessment tools can assist in identifying priorities for collections care and a museum can in turn invest strategically in projects to protect collections from hazards both in the present and future. I hoped to gain an understanding of risk management tools to better assist future preservation planning in my own museum and to relate the information I gained to the members of the Museum Association of Arizona, a museum organization that helped support my registration.

The workshop began at 9am and, in regular workshop fashion, participants began to introduce themselves to the group.  This, of course, enabled participants to get comfortable with one another in order to start the business of learning about risk assessment. There was a large constituency of Latin American Scholars present at the workshop, as well as other international attendees from places like Haiti and Korea. Attendees were also diverse in specialties which included photographs, objects, paintings, textiles, as well as different levels of education including some pre-program students, but all of course had an interest in the preservation of cultural heritage.  I was fortunate to have been in a group of both intelligent and friendly people that were willing to discuss and work together on all of the exercises.

Robert Waller introduced the overall objective and methods he would be using in order for participants to quickly learn the materials in this intense one day workshop. He was patient in describing each step, but also moved the workshop along to get in as much information as possible in such a short amount of time.  The main goal of the workshop was to demonstrate the Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model. By identifying risks to collections using this tool, museums can target resources more efficiently through strategic planning.  More specifically, the workshop enabled participants to:

  • Identify risks – by ”agent of deterioration” and “type of risk”.
  • Define risks clearly.
  • Assess the magnitude of defined risks.
  • Evaluate data and present information to stakeholders.

Systematically plan risk mitigation strategies by:

  • Identifying means of control – methods and levels.
  • Evaluating costs/risks/benefits of mitigation strategies.

The workshop was extremely interactive(not for the shy)and participants learned through a variety of means including lectures, demonstrations, brainstorming in small groups, group presentations, exercises, practice, and discussions. Small prizes were utilized to further motivate the groups (my group got chocolate!!). A well composed manual with a shiny protective cover was given to all participants. The manual consisted of all the course content exercises, references and a glossary of terms which I know will be a good resource and was much appreciated.

One of my favorite exercises was estimating the magnitude of risk to the display cases at the Albuquerque convention center. Each group was assigned their own case which encompassed a variety of materials and preservation issues. The groups worked together to calculate the magnitude of risk by using all of the steps worked out in class. We had to define the specific risks in our case, determine the fraction of susceptibility, the loss in value, the probability of occurrence, and the extent to which the susceptible is affected. This exercise really helped me put together all of the components discussed in the workshop lectures. Working with the other participants was also very valuable as they had differing opinions and it was necessary to work together to come to a consensus, much like in a real life scenario working with other museum colleagues. This gave participants a realistic view of what is involved in performing a risk assessment and gave a level of comfort in using what was learned.

In the end, I feel like I have a much better grasp of assessing risks to collections and will be able to more effectively communicate these risks in a way that will be useful to facilitate strategic preservation planning. This model of comprehensive analysis of risks can provide a guide for appropriate actions in order to effectively mitigate the rate of loss to a collection. All of the information provided during the workshop will be very useful to me and I hope to use these strategies in the near future and share them with my colleagues.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Wooden Artifacts Session, “Recent Investigations into a Mechanical-Chemical Method for Removing Corrosion from Furniture Brass” Delivered by Delphine Elie-Lefebvre and Mark Anderson, paper by Delphine Elie-Lefebvre, Richard Wolbers, Elena Torok, Mark Anderson & Stephanie Auffret

“Recent Investigations into a Mechanical-Chemical Method for Removing Corrosion from Furniture Brass” Delivered by Delphine Elie-Lefebvre and Mark Anderson, paper by Delphine Elie-Lefebvre, Richard Wolbers, Elena Torok, Mark Anderson & Stephanie Auffret

OK, I have to admit that part way into this talk I rather regretted putting my name in to blog about it. It had a lot of information and a lot of chemistry in a short amount of time, and I couldn’t hear the speakers very well. I recommend looking into a future article I hope the authors will publish with their fascinating experiments and findings.

The talk was the story of “observation, discovery and reverse-engineering” to evaluate new methods to clean brass furniture mounts on wood substrates. Brass is often damaged from commercial products and overcleaning with abrasives. The authors came up with and tested protein glues made into peel-off gels to remove corrosion, cleaning products and grime from brass. They tested different types of glues and gelatins at different pH, applied with Japanese paper and peeled off after 20 minutes. Then vinyl erasers were used afterwards to further reduce corrosion.

Through their discussion of the analysis they carried out, which threw me back to first year of graduate school and made my heart race from nerves, they suggested that some of the components of corrosion (which were removed from the alloy at different rates) bound with the amino acid components in the protein glue. The physical removal of the glue by pulling produced an even appearance on the brass and this suggested that chemical cleaning was part of the effectiveness of the treatment. Further cleaning with the erasers was made easier by the first part of the treatment.

Copper-alloy coupons were used to test different glues at various pH along with controls. The authors hope to carry out more tests to come up with analytical results that show more definite differences between coupons. These methods, however, have a lot of potential for furniture and objects conservation. It looks like it must take some practice, and there are a lot of variables to test, but for a big cleaning project, this is one to put in your treatment repertoire.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Wooden Artifacts Session, Thursday, “Hello Walls Revisited: Conservation Treatment of Eighteenth Century Chinese Lacquer Panels at The Elms –An Update” by Jeff Moore, et. al.

“Hello Walls Revisited: Conservation Treatment of Eighteenth Century Chinese Lacquer Panels at The Elms –An Update”
Talk given by Jeff Moore, Chief Conservator, The Preservation Society of Newport County

Jeff Moore gave a fascinating talk about the conservation project at The Elms to treat three Asian lacquered and one European japanned panels in one room of the mansion in Newport, installed in 1900. The panels have had a long history between their pre-twentieth-century beginnings. They have traveled the world to arrive in Rhode Island, suffered degradation from light, had detached lacquer nailed down (what a sight!), had Western varnishes applied, and suffered degradation anew. Even Urushi repairs were added around the time of the 1900 installation.

The target conservation philosophy was to restore the panels to their 1900 state. A variety of analyses were performed before treatment. More information is available on the website:

A complicated rigging system was designed and implemented to de-install the panels from the walls, the panels were faced, and sleeved cushions were put on the corners for removal and moving to the basement of The Elms. The climate conditions of the original room at different seasons were mimicked during conservation.

Hide glue was selected to adhere the lifting flakes, and moisture and heat were applied to manipulate the lacquer.

One of the challenges of the project was that the panels were 83 inches across, therefore clamping tables with beams spanning the panels were built and the panels laid horizontally. Several shimbari materials were tested, and Moore and his team came up with an ingenious tool: modified quick-grip clamps turned into spreader jacks with a compression spring. Another clever tip: They used copper tubes to surround the syringes in hot water to keep them warm. I confess I’m not sure how this helped, but some polyvinyl alcohol was added to the glue to help it travel further.

Varnish was removed due its jarring blanched appearance. A Pemulen gel with a mixture of solvents (I missed which ones!) were used to remove some of the gel, and was cleared with water at pH 8.5.

Moore’s public outreach is truly impressive. The treatment is part of the “behind-the-scenes” tour at the house museum, and a whopping 10,000 people visit each year. I highly recommend you try to get there before it’s over.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Electronic Media Session, Thursday May 10, 2012, Toward an ontology of audio preservation, Sarah Norris

The final talk of the morning session was a fascinating lecture by Sarah Norris. Sarah described herself as a musician and librarian and how she has been exploring the theoretical ideas about the preservation of original or reproduction materials through the preservation of audio materials.

The preservation of audio materials has a number of difficulties, audio recordings are made on unstable media which leads to format obsolesce, requiring reformatting, which separates the content from the carrier. This is a unique part of the conservation of electronic media that is not practiced by conservators in other disciplines.

Walter Benjamin (1936) famously discussed reproduction and the idea of aura in art – the uniqueness that lends a work of art authority.  There are differences between an original and a fake and an original and a copy in that the copy has integrity, there is also an authenticity of multiples which is often dependent upon production history.  In The Languages of Art, by Nelson Goodman (1968) Allographic authenticity was defined as musical score where the authenticity depends upon conformity to established notation or performance of the piece. Because a painting does not have an established notation system it can be forged, the idea being that the authenticity would be forged, where the authenticity could be realized in the performance of the musical score.

Autographic authenticity preservation could involve a novel or an intaglio print that are concerned with the preservation of the object as well as the preservation of the content.  Allographic preservation would be concerned with the recorded content only.

Sarah Norris covered general Eastern and Western preservation values, using an example of a Shinto shrine and the preservation of meaning instead of the preservation of the original materials.

Modern art and audio recordings may force an acceptance of change to preserve the material substance of the work, the artist and the conservator could be considered as co-creators, working with an audio technician attempting to establish playback settings for a synthesizer recording.

A few examples of Platonic vs. Aristotelian ideas were presented, for example:

Plato – believes matter and form can be separated – this approach is used in general collections that are digitized.

Aristotle – believes form and matter cannot be separated – this approach is used in special collections.

The paper concluded that allographic, Eastern, Platonic items can be duplicated.  Autographic, Western, Aristotelian items cannot be authentically duplicated.


AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Electronic Media Session, Thursday May 10, 2012, Acts of non-conservation: developing more effective means of communication and advocacy through metadata, by Joshua Ranger

The second talk of the Electronic Media Session was from Joshua Ranger, who described the conservation of analog media in terms of the soul.  That preservation is soulful and grounded in the past, and non-conservation is soul-less or uncaring of the past.  He then turned this argument on it’s head to say that preservation of analog materials is machine-dependent and machines are made of plastics and chemicals, they are essentially emotionless androids who argue against passion.  He then argued his point of view for the conservation of analog materials from the point of view of an emotionless android, without passion.

There are aesthetic and monetary values to analog media and advocacy gives us a foot in the door, but we need to utilize many forms of advocacy. Before we can start an advocacy program we need some quantitative information about our digital collections:

1. How much do we have? How many of what kind do we have? How old is it?

2. How much is it going to cost to preserve it all?

To answer these questions he demonstrated FATMAP:

FAceted Technical Metadata Aggregator Project (which won the twitter competition for the best acronym of #aicmtg2012)

FATMAP reads hundreds of thousands of files and comes up with data about the files including file formats, aspect ratios, file extensions, audio codes, and image formats.  This allows us to create metrics, plan for storage needs (current storage needs and projected future storage needs), plan for research and accessibility needs like software, emulation, and migration, and finally for obsolescence monitoring.

FATMAP is ideal for unprocessed digital collections to get an idea of the types of materials in the collection and then use this information for future advocacy campaigns.

Joshua Ranger demonstrated from a case study of an unnamed client who had 400,000 files that were run through FATMAP.  The program uncovered some interesting facts like the popularity of certain files formats over time and how file extensions could be used for a tool for collection profiling and to manage collections.

To me, this seemed like a great tool for the management of digital collections, especially those collections that may have no previous collection management system.