44th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 16: “Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis,” by Sanchita Balachandran

The theme of this year’s annual meeting focused on disasters and the unexpected in conservation. However, in her talk, Sanchita Balachandran, conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, focused not on emergencies threatening the collections we care for, but, instead, on a crisis within the field of conservation itself: the crippling lack of diversity in our profession.
In one sense, conservators are very aware of the problem. As Balachandran pointed out, we are trained to recognize the intangible as well as the tangible values inherent in the objects we treat. Implicit in this training is the fact that, as conservators, we have the power to erase history.

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Sanchita Balachandran: “We must conserve not just objects, but the lives of people inscribed on them.”

What happens when that type of power is wielded by a small, homogenous group? Graduate school prerequisites require applicants to have spent a significant amount of time gaining experience, largely through unpaid internships, which effectively excludes people from less affluent backgrounds – and by extension, certain minority populations.  Similarly, people from these backgrounds may be less willing or able to make such drastic sacrifices for a field where the job opportunities after prolonged graduate study are low-paying and scarce. This limits the field as a whole, since more diverse groups have been proven to be more innovative and more productive.
The lack of diversity also has a more problematic effect on our work. When we treat an object, we choose which tangible and intangible values to retain, and which to discard. In doing so, we privilege certain types of objects and treatments. How do we approach the issue of Confederate monuments in Baltimore that were spray-painted with the slogan, “Black lives matter”? Should the slogan be removed?
Balachandran argued that we must confront the unequal ways in which objects come to institutions; museum processes were created by a colonial framework, from which conservation itself is not exempt. If nothing else, museums and libraries exist on land taken from Native American peoples. Museums must focus on cultural heritage, as opposed to cultural property, and work to rebuild connections between objects and the communities from which they were taken.
This issue of diversity is hardly a new problem. The people who become conservators largely come from a similar racial, cultural, and socio-economic background, and tend to be overwhelmingly female. However, by raising the subject in the annual meeting, Balachandran paved the way for a real discussion on how the field can encourage the participation of people of all backgrounds. At least, that is my hope as a fledgling conservator: that this will serve as a clarion call to the AIC board, graduate programs, and administrators to reflect upon their roles as gatekeepers to the field and to implement real changes to make our profession more inclusive. The fact that Sanchita Balachandran got a well-deserved standing ovation leads me to believe that my hopes are shared by others.
Edited to add: Read the full text of the talk at Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis, posted by Sanchita Balachandran.

Workshop Review: Master Class Plastics: Indentification, Degradation and Conservation of Plastics. Amsterdam, October 20-23 2015

Plastic objects used to familiarize participants  with different types of plastics materials
Course Leaders: Thea van Oosten, former senior conservation scientist at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) since 1989, currently retired and freelancing and Anna Laganà, lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and freelance conservator / researcher specialized in the conservation of plastics. Both were entertaining educators throughout the course.
This is a short review of the above plastics workshop which took place as a collaborative professional development program between the University of Amsterdam and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE).  The four day course combined theory and practice, as well as input from the ten participants from seven countries regarding the challenges they are encountering with plastics materials.
An overview of the development of plastics from the 19th century to present day was reported including the chemical properties and manufacturing processes which create the various types of plastics materials. This was useful in determining what type of plastics you may be working with and how this influences degradation and therefore future preservation protocols. Understanding the difference between three main characteristics of thermoplastics, thermosets and elastomers and their polymeric makeup made sense when thinking about characteristics and deterioration patterns. The impact of additives, such as fillers, pigments and plasticizers used to manipulate the properties of plastics materials can have drastic effects on the aesthetic aspect, touch and life span of many plastic objects. These are considered the internal factors that gear the longevity of synthetic materials. External factors like oxygen, ozone, light and temperature cause oxidative degradation and hydrolysis of plastic objects initiating catalytic reactions and can accelerate deterioration. Scary stuff! But in the safe hands of Thea and Anna we motored on.
The five most vulnerable plastics: cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, poly (vinyl chloride), natural rubber and polyurethane were highlighted. These plastics are known to show significant deterioration patterns in short periods of time. Chemical breakdown, physical and mechanical damage and also, biological damage are often documented with these kinds of plastics. Theory sessions encompassed plenty of handling sessions using examples from reference collections donated to the RCE by Thea van Oosten. This exercise helped to familiarize participants with various plastics materials produced through history by feeling, smelling and listening to the sound plastics make when dropped. Density and color were other considerations. Film clips of manufacturing processes and artists using and manipulating plastic products to produce works of art were shown.
Ron Mueck – videos:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4tUoKVLJ8j6onJ2C5ytdGQ
Practical sessions included the impact of solvents on various plastics types. Deionized water and white spirit (organic clear solvent made with a mixture of hydrocarbons) seemed to have the least effect, whereas acetone showed significant physical change. Great fun was had examining residual strains in clear and translucent plastics using a strain viewer. This instrument provided a fabulous myriad of colors which enabled the examiner to measure the internal stress areas. Learning adhesive and consolidation methodologies provided good pragmatic solutions to repair and stabilize plastic objects that are physically or mechanically damaged. Understanding surface energy of plastic surfaces (low energy a water droplet will remain on the surface, high energy the water droplet will disperse evenly) was useful to know when thinking about adhesion levels and prevention of causing further internal stress and strain. There was dedicated sessions to the specific properties and consolidation of polyurethane foam as this material can degrade quickly depending on its polymeric make-up. Cleaning strategies were reviewed and practical sessions included the effects of dry cleaning methods, solvents and mild detergent solutions on various plastics materials.
View of clear polymer-based object on the strain viewer.
Preventive guidelines were discussed; display parameters of 50- 150 lux (5-14 foot-candles), dark conditions preferred in storage, 50%RH, a temperature of 18-20 centigrade (64.4-68 Fahrenheit), good ventilation to prevent a build-up of gaseous degradation products from off-gassing plastics and maintaining a low temperature to help slow down the degradation process. Oxygen scavengers were mentioned as a useful product to help maintain a good environment. Encapsulating rubber objects was also demonstrated in order to slow down the deterioration of rubber being one of the most vulnerable plastics.
All participants were provided with a folder with useful theory, a bibliography and documentation of the presentations that were given during the course. One of the most useful sections for me were the tables reflecting the solubility parameters and chemical resistance of plastics, these would certainly help when deciphering appropriate cleaning systems if appropriate at all.  I would certainly consider the use of micro emulsions and gels as other applications which were not included in the workshop. Also, the data sheets referring to adhesive properties and their appropriateness to various plastic types would be a good reference point to selecting adhesive and consolidation treatments. All provided good starting points for investigation.
With many thanks to Thea and Anna, they were both marvelous!
The plastics workshop participants

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.

42nd Annual Meeting – RATS Joint with Objects Session, May 30, “Technical Study and Conservation of the ‘Bat Wing Ship,’ Background, Challenges and Surprising Discoveries, Lauren Anne Horelick , Objects Conservator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The compelling object at the center of this paper is an experimental prototype of a Nazi German jet powered fighter aircraft discovered by the Allies at the end of World War II and brought to the United States for study. Designed by the Horten Brothers (Reimar and Walter), this craft with a steel structure, paper-thin plywood veneers, and no vertical tail is regarded as a design predecessor to the stealth bomber. The aircraft, a model Horten Ho 229 v3 (the third and final version of this particular airframe) was captured when it was near completion in the Gotha workshop http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19600324000 Charcoal was said to have been added to the construction adhesives to make the aircraft invisible to radar.
While always a favorite of air flight/military history buffs, this craft has never been exhibited and has been the subject of increased interest in recent years due to what the paper’s author describes as a “sensationalized” documentary entitiled “Hitler’s Stealth Fighter.” This video, available on YouTube, is replete with inaccuracies including the assertion that it is stored in a “secret government warehouse” when, in fact, its current home is the Smithsonian’s Paul E Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland. However, it will soon be moved to another disclosed location – The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia where it will have its big reveal.
In preparation for this move, conservators at the Smithsonian NASM carried out a technical study to inform treatment protocol for the stabilization of the unstable and extensively delaminating veneers. They sought to characterize and identify the adhesives and other materials employed and, in particular, seek evidence for the presence (or apparent lack) of charcoal.
The aircraft is 55.4 feet wide with a tubular steel frame. The engine rests in the center of the craft and it is covered in a plywood skin. There is a clear canopy for the pilot. Due to complications of working on the object in its storage location, the decision was made to disassemble the damaged plywood portions to allow for treatment of the panels in the conservation lab. The composite materials that were examined and analyzed included the plywood board, structural supports and spacer blocks including the adhesives used to attach these portions to one another.
After a literature review of plywood available in Germany before WWII, reference materials were acquired for the potential materials. A sampling protocol was developed and the object and reference samples were examined under visual and Polarized Light Microscopy, FTIR, Raman, and for selected samples XRD was employed. (There may have been other methods employed that I missed in my notes– GC-MS and 3-D microscopy were mentioned in the abstract – sorry if I have omitted something significant.) The analysis was done in conjunction with the Museum Conservation Institute.
The analyses yielded some unexpected results as some of the wood sample results varied from those specified by the Horten Brothers (as reported in their interrogation). However the substitutions of European Beechwood/Scots Pine for the specified birch was not very surprising to the authors given the materials shortages at the end of WWII. The adhesives tested were identified as urea formaldehyde and phenol formaldehyde. Confirming the presence of charcoal in the black paint/adhesive layers proved elusive. The black particles were difficult to separate from the matrix. PLM examination did not support the charcoal identification and they were found to be amorphous with XRD. FTIR analysis pointed to the presence of cellulose, hemi cellulose and phenolics. This could mean oxidized or charred wood – or neither.
Plans for treatment do not include repainting damaged areas as the author mentioned a growing trend toward exhibition of aircraft in a less heavily restored state. Beech veneers will be employed in areas of loss but were unavailable in the United States in the <1mm thickness required so must be ordered from Germany. Because the urea formaldehyde has cross-linked with age and become insoluble, the conservators are not as concerned as they might have been about adding new materials when they choose an adhesive to stabilize the veneers.
Details and updates on this research project and the treatment are available on the on the National Air and Space Museum’s Airspace blog http://blog.nasm.si.edu/restoration/horten-h-ix-v3-bat-wing-ship-may-2014-update/   The Bat Wing Ship is poised to be a popular attraction when it goes on exhibit – I know my interest has been piqued by this interesting talk!

Contemporary Print Identification Workshop

Print workshop looking at Intaglio-Type prints brought by Keith Howard
Print workshop looking at Intaglio-Type prints brought by Keith Howard

I was very happy to be part of the group of paper conservators gathered in Washington, DC from October 16th- 19th, 2013 for an in-depth study of print identification.
On day 1 and the first part of day 2, the workshop hosts Scott Homolka and Stephanie Lussier, led us through the different categories of print processes, starting with traditional, familiar techniques; then looking at examples of variations and recent developments that might be harder to identify unless you know what you are looking for. We also had several guest lecturers on day 2. Shelley Langdale, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, gave a lecture on the history of American printmaking studios in the 20th century. Keith Howard, Head of Printmaking and Research at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Bernice Cross, master printmaker and owner of White Cross Press, brought in examples of contemporary prints created by them and their students in a variety of techniques for us to examine closely. Keith Howard invented the field of non-toxic printmaking with a process he named Intaglio-Type. He has published several books about his techniques and kindly gave each participant a copy of his most recent one, entitled The Contemporary Printmaker: Intaglio-Type & Acrylic Resist Etching, which is considered an essential manual by many people in the field of printmaking today. Lastly, the three printmakers behind the printmaking website Printeresting; Amze Emmons, R.L. Tillman and Jason Urban, gave a talk about the world of printmaking today.
Scott Homolka explains Richard Serra's process of applying paintstick through silkscreenScott Homolka explains Richard Serra’s process of applying paintstick through silkscreen
Day 3 was spent at the National Gallery of Art. Lucky for us, the government shutdown ended just in time to spend our final day at our planned venue. Our first exercise in the morning was to identify the processes behind some prints in their collection. Some of the prints were particularly tricky, while others were deceptively easy. Then we went to the galleries for a tour of the exhibit Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press given first by the curators Judith Brodie, head of modern prints and drawings, and Adam Greenhalgh, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow; then by one of Crown Point Press’ Master Printers, Emily York. This show features both working proofs and final prints in order to show the process that goes into making a print. Not all of the projects resulted in a print that the artist considered exhibitable, but all showed the creative and technical process behind the creation of prints and in some cases expanded what was possible in printmaking by pushing at the boundaries of the techniques.
Then it was back to the lab to look at Marian Dirda’s collection of printmaking papers from the late 20th and early 21st century. She is a great resource for information about fine art paper mills, and the papers that particular artists or printmaking studios prefer. In fact, I should emphasize that all of the lecturers of this workshop are very accessible and happy to share their knowledge with the conservation community. I recommend reaching out if you have questions about contemporary prints.
Rosemary Fallon practices a non-toxic version of the 'acid bite' techniqueRosemary Fallon practices a non-toxic version of the ‘spit bite’ technique
On day 4, we travelled to Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, MD, where we got to try out Intaglio-Type printmaking for ourselves. Keith Howard and Bernice Cross led us through plate preparation, exposure, development, and printing. After 4 hours, we each had 1-2 prints to keep as references. Day 4 was absolutely my favorite part of the entire workshop. I learned that many studios offer summer weeklong intensive courses in printmaking. I hope to take one someday.
Thanks again to everyone who worked behind the scenes to make this workshop possible despite the government shutdown.
Bernice Cross demonstrates 4-color printing from plexiglass plates
Bernice Cross demonstrates 4-color printing from plexiglass plates



41st Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, Friday May 31, "Panel Discussion: Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation" by Levenson, Phenix, Hill Stoner, Proctor

I’m am extremely excited that I signed up to write a blog post for this Paintings Group Session at the  41st Annual Meeting for AIC: The Contemporary in Conservation this week in Indianapolis. As an emerging conservator specializing in the conservation of paintings, I found this discussion very important for our field and I was so pleased that Matthew Cushman gathered this renowned group of  conservators together for the discussion. The discussion (Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation) was well attended and the four presentations provoked important questions and topics for group discussion. This post isn’t intended for solely paintings conservators, but for all fine art conservators, restorers, and any people looking to find out more about the preservation and future of fine art.

Photo of discussion panel for Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation. (second from the left: Joyce, Hill Stoner, Rustin Levenson, Robert Proctor, and Alan Phenix).
Photo of discussion panel for Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation (from left: Tiarna Doherty, Joyce Hill Stoner, Rustin Levenson, Rob Proctor, and Alan Phenix).

Fair warning: this post is going to be a long one. I found so much relevant and notable topics were mentioned and I think they all deserve to brought up. This post is a little less personal opinion and a little more regurgitation of the facts – which is great for anyone who was not able to attend the discussion. The discussion panel consisted of mediator Tiarna Doherty from the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian Art Museum, and panelists: Rustin Levenson private conservator and owner of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates; Alan Phenix conservation scientist from the Getty Conservation Institute; Joyce Hill Stoner educator in paintings conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation; and Rob Proctor Co-Director and private conservator at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation.
Tiarna started the discussion with an introduction to each panelist, which was followed by a 10 minute slide-show presentation by each panelist discussing key points and topics each thought related to current trends and upcoming challenges in paintings conservation. This format acted as a starting point for the group discussion which followed. All the panelists came from different backgrounds which consisted of private, educational, institutional, and scientific positions,  so different perspectives for the field of paintings conservation could be properly represented.
Continue reading “41st Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, Friday May 31, "Panel Discussion: Current Challenges and Opportunities in Paintings Conservation" by Levenson, Phenix, Hill Stoner, Proctor”

The 2012 Great Debate at AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (Updated)

I’ve had countless great debates with conservators at AIC, but I think they’ve usually happened outside in the hallway, over coffee, dinner, or drinks.

This is year that all changes.  

For the first time ever, at the 2012 Annual Meeting in Albuquerque I’ll be moderating the Great Debate at AIC.  This is a modified Oxford-Style Debate that will feature two tough topics that will be debated by the best and brightest minds in the field of conversation today.  (I got the idea from seeing it at the Annual Meeting for Museum Computer Network; you can watch one of those debates here.)

An Update & Important Note: I have placed debaters on one side or the other arbitrarily!  The side they are arguing from may not actually be the side they truly believe. This was done in an attempt to surface the best argument from both sides.

So, without further ado, here are the topics and the teams set to do battle:

First Statement: Publishing accurate and complete “how-to guides” for conservation and restoration treatments online is the best way for us to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.

Affirmative Team

  • Karen Pavelka
  • Paul Messier 
  • Mary Striegel

Negative Team

  • Scott Carrlee 
  • Victoria Montana Ryan 
  • Matt Skopek 

Second Statement: Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession.

Affirmative Team

  • Vanessa Muros 
  • Kristen Adsit 
  • Camille Myers Breeze

Negative Team

  • Suzanne Davis 
  • Hugh Shockey 
  • Sharra Grow 

To make the debate successful we’ll need lots of help from a highly engaged audience.  And I don’t mean just to cheer on your favorite team, we need you to participate in the Great Debate at AIC!

There will be a significant amount of time in the debate in which members of the audience will get to ask each team questions to which they  have to respond.  Plus, the audience will decide who wins the debate.

The goal of the Great Debate is to create a new forum at the Annual Meeting that encourages meaningful discussions and provides conservators the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to address challenging issues directly, openly, and in a fun way.

So be sure to come out on Friday the 11th  from 2:00 to 3:30 pm to see your colleague do battle on stage in front of a lively audience.  I know I’m bias, but this is going to be the most fun you’ll have at the Annual Meeting this year!



39th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, June 2, 2011, “A Neoclassical Mystery: The Technical Study and Treatment of an Iconic French Portrait” by Kristin deGhetaldi

There were three very interesting aspects of this presentation if you love the quality of high society French painting between 1775 – 1825… or there abouts:


First, Kristin gave a very nice art historical review of Jacques Louis David’s studio culture and influence, which included more than 400 students that studied directly with the master. She gave some really interesting comparisons between the styles of some of the students and David but ended up focusing on the work of a female student, Marie Benoist.


Second, Kristin focused on Marie Benoist as she presented the very interesting technical and historical study of a very intriguing “iconic” female portrait that was previously misattributed/unattributed and is logically attributable to Benoist, according to deGhetaldi’s research. Actually, I personally liked the portrait better than the David and other portraits that were shown for it’s interesting positioning and thoughtful mood. Flat out, it’s a great picture.


Third, the thorough conservation treatments of the portrait were interesting but not unusual. At the beginning of Kristin’s presentation of the portrait, I was hoping that she was going to let us see the differences through cleaning. I was not disappointed as the final conservation presentation and aesthetics were wonderful.

Portrait by Marie Benoist
The "Iconic French Portrait"


The plentiful photographs, of course, made Kristin’s presentation that much more enjoyable. And the thorough technical analysis with documentary microscopic studies of greens particular to that time period and location that will aid future researchers in authentication clues.


Contact Ms. Kirstin deGhetaldi at k-deghetaldi@nga.gov


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Scott M. Haskins

Fine Art Conservation Laboratories (FACL, Inc.)



(805) 564 3438