The London Gels in Conservation Conference October 16-18, 2017, “An Introduction” by Jodie Utter

Gels In Conservation
Gels In Conservation

A couple of months have passed since I attended the London three-day conference “Gels in Conservation” co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd), better known as James (Jim) Black.  You will know him from Archetype Publications; he’s the one who always remembers you.

Gels conference audience
Gels conference audience

The conference was the brainchild of Jim Black and Richard Wolbers, hatched over drinks and Indian food a few years back.  They posed the idea, “wouldn’t it be great if we got all the people together working in gels? Scientists, conservators, students, etc., and shared what we know, or were working on in gels?” Apparently they were right, they weren’t they only ones who thought it was a great idea. More than 550 attendees from 39 countries attended the three-day conference.  For me, and judging from fellow attendee’s responses, I can tell you it sure felt like a roaring success.

It was one of the most thoughtfully arranged symposiums I’ve ever attended.  I suspect Jim Black may well be a genius and I hope other program organizers take note. There were three sessions each day, and each session started off with two or three talks about 25 or 30 minutes in length followed by several 10-minute talks. It kept things fresh and helped avoid listening fatigue.  For the most part the 10-minute talks were just as informative as the longer format.  At the end of each session the presenters had a panel Q&A with the audience.  This gave people a chance to clarify and presenters an opportunity to add detail.

The conference was filmed/recorded, so take heart even if you didn’t get one of the sought-after tickets: you can still virtually attend, albeit slightly after the fact.  Having the publication at the conference was brilliant.  I can’t emphasize enough how excellent the publication is. It includes the papers from the presentations and the posters with great images.  It was very helpful to listen to a talk then be able to refer to the paper immediately.  Over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas.  Each day the talks were grouped together loosely by theme such as polysaccharide gel systems, which included agars, gellan gum and methyl cellulose, often compared or alone, sometimes with additives like enzymes or chelators.  Day two, polysaccharide and polyacrylic gel systems, which included solvent gels, such as pemulen, and the new wave of solvents, silicone solvents.  And finally, day three was entitled Novel and Multi gel treatment.  Many speakers talked about trying to utilize less toxic materials as an alternative to “traditional” organic and aromatic solvents, moving toward greener alternatives.  Authors shared their successes and failures, both being very informative.  Many attendees, me included remarked that they really enjoyed the multi-discipline approach, learning what textile conservators and easel painting conservators are doing with the same sort of materials.  It was very inspiring and informative.

The overall tone of the conference was one of hopeful optimism and desire for more research and development.  Richard Wolbers spoke several times, first as the key note speaker and later as collaborator for many of the authors. He emphasized the need for conservators to look to other industries for potential products, greener or less toxic than what we use now, and to know the materials well enough to tailor them to our own specific needs for each specific treatment challenge.  I came away inspired and intrigued.  I have written companion blogs to this one and they will be posted in rapid succession.  I hope I can convey some of what I learned and inspire you to obtain the publication and start reading.   I will end with my favorite slide of the conference.

Your Plan vs. Reality.
Your Plan vs. Reality.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference.   I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

ECPN Interviews: Electronic Media Conservation with Yasmin Dessem

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation, and now we are focusing on practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which can include moving components, performance, light or sound elements, film and video, analog or born-digital materials. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

This is the third post from ECPN’s EMG blog series, for which we first interview Nick Kaplan and more recently, Alex Nichols. For our third interview from the EMG series, we spoke with Yasmin Dessem, currently Head of the Audiovisual Preservation Studio at UCLA Library where she serves as the technical lead as the library continues to develop its program of preservation, digitization and access of its moving image and sound holdings. Previously she managed archive deliverables for new feature releases at Paramount Pictures. She has experience working with a wide variety of moving image and sound formats, as well as pre-film animation devices, silent-era cameras, costumes and paper collections. Yasmin holds Master’s degrees in Art History and Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA.

Yasmin Dessem (left) and Allie Whalen (right) cleaning and relubricating a Betacam deck. [Photo: Walter Urie]
Yasmin Dessem (left) and Allie Whalen (right) cleaning and relubricating a Betacam deck. [Photo: Walter Urie]
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your current position.

Yasmin Dessem (YD): I oversee the preservation of moving image and recorded sound materials at the UCLA Library’s Preservation Department. For nearly 90 years, the UCLA Library has collected audiovisual materials with content such as home movies, oral histories, and radio broadcasts. Examples are home movies of Susan Sontag’s parents sailing to China in the 1920s and field interviews with Watts residents after the 1965 riots. Audiovisual preservation (AV) at the library is a relatively young unit—a dedicated AV preservationist first came on board in 2011. We offer a number of in-house digitization and preservation services and are currently focusing on increasing our capacity and launching a survey.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

YD: The 1996 re-release of the restored version of Vertigo first made me aware of film restoration and preservation as an actual practice. Later, as I was finishing my Masters in Art History at UCLA, I took a wonderful class on restoration, preservation, and conservation with Professor David A. Scott. The course covered the material care issues and decision-making ethics for a wide breadth of cultural heritage materials. The class struck a deep chord with me, but I was eager to graduate and start working. After graduation, I ended up working in the film industry for about six years. I was tracking down historic stock footage at one job when my mind circled back to the preservation field as I considered how the films were stored and made available. I had entertained the idea of potentially returning to graduate school to study art conservation some day, but around that time the idea of film preservation as a possible career path began to fully materialize for me. As a result, I began exploring potential graduate programs.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic media conservation?

YD: My longtime love for film and music intersected with my curiosity for all things historical and technology-related. These were topics that in one form or another always interested me, but I don’t think I had a full grasp on how to combine them meaningfully into a profession. Preservation was the missing key. My exposure to preservation and conservation while studying art history and my later experience working at film studios both helped direct me towards the specialization.

ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

YD: I pursued my studies in the Moving Image Archive Studies (MIAS) Program at UCLA—which persists today as a Master of Library and Information Science (M.L.I.S.) with a Media Archival Studies specialization. While in the program, I completed internships with Universal Pictures and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and volunteered at the Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive at the University of Southern California. Throughout the two-year MIAS program, I also worked as a fellow at the Center for Primary Research and Training program at UCLA Library Special Collections, where I learned archival processing. My experiences weren’t limited to preserving moving image and sound media, but included paper-based collections, costumes, and film technology. After graduating I attended the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Film Restoration Summer School hosted by the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

YD: Digital preservation will continue to be a key area of expertise that’s needed in museums and archives. Preserving the original source material and digitizing content is not enough. There are more resources than ever for strategies and tools for digital preservation, and it’s important to seek them out. Another valuable skill is developing a level of comfort with handling and understanding the unique characteristics of a wide variety of physical analog formats  such as film, videotape, audiotape, and grooved media (LP, 78s, lacquer discs, wax cylinders, etc.). Similarly, it’s helpful to have a familiarity with playback devices for these obsolete media formats (equipment like open-reel decks or video decks.) Lastly, metadata can be an unsung hero in media preservation. Often, we’re the first to see or hear a recording in decades, so capturing metadata around the point of transfer is critical. Metadata standards can be a rabbit hole of complexities, especially when it comes to describing audiovisual media, but understanding their application is an essential skill.

Lacquer disc cleaning and transfer workshop at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba in Havana, Cuba [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
Lacquer disc cleaning and transfer workshop at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba in Havana, Cuba [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

YD: We’re just wrapping up digitization of materials from the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company (GSM), an African American-owned and operated insurance firm established in Los Angeles in 1925 in response to discriminatory practices that restricted the ability of African American residents to purchase insurance. GSM operated for 85 years and their collection is a vibrant resource documenting Los Angeles and the empowerment of a community. We received grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation to support this work. The digitized collection is now available on Calisphere. We’ve just started a crowd sourcing project working with former GSM staffers to describe any unidentified content. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, hearing everyone’s stories and seeing how much it means to everyone involved to have this collection preserved and made available.

We’ve also been in preparation to launch a large-scale survey that will help us gather data on the Library’s audiovisual collections that can be used for long term-planning. Outside of UCLA, we’ve been involved with ongoing work with cultural heritage institutions in Cuba. Last February, I set up equipment and held a workshop on the digitization of radio transcription discs held at the Instituto de Historia de Cuba (IHC) in Havana. I’m heading back there next week to begin a project to transfer IHC’s open reel audio collections.

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

YD: It’s crucial to preserve the expertise related to the operation and repair of playback equipment. Playback equipment will become more and more difficult to source in the future. Engineers, whose entire careers are dedicated to the use and care of this equipment, are some of the best resources for this knowledge. Their knowledge is shared through conversation, YouTube videos, social media, and professional workshops. Documenting the skills required to handle, maintain, calibrate, and service this equipment in a more formalized way and sharing that knowledge widely will ensure that the preservationists can keep their equipment viable for longer.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

YD: Try everything. Media preservation requires a wide variety of skills from computer coding to soldering decades-old circuit boards. Depending on where your career takes you, it’s good to have at least a passing familiarity with the full range of skills you may need to call upon. Apply for internships or fellowships with organizations, like the National Digital Stewardship Residency. Volunteer at community-based archives that need help getting their collections in order. Join professional organizations, like the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) or the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Attend conferences like code4lib, the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG), or the Digital Asset Symposium (DAS). Network with engineers or preservation professionals to continue to grow your own expertise, but also share your own skills when you can. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing are a fundamental part of the profession.

Perforation repair of 16 mm film [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
Perforation repair of 16 mm film [Photo: Yasmin Dessem]
ECPN: Please share any last thoughts or reflections.

YD: One thing to be aware of, if you’re a woman in the field of audiovisual preservation, is that you may occasionally run into people who are surprised to see a woman working with technology (much less wielding a screwdriver!). This response persists to some degree despite the presence of many successful female professionals in the field. What’s encouraging, however, is seeing the growth of groups like the Women in Recorded Sound collective at ARSC providing support.

Audiovisual preservation is such a gratifying profession. Having the opportunity to make historic content available is incredibly meaningful work that I feel lucky to be a part of everyday. On an even more basic level, figuring out a new workflow or getting a piece of equipment to finally work is just so viscerally satisfying. I’m part of an amazing team whose passion, humor and willingness to try out new things inspires me every day and makes me feel so lucky to be doing this work.

45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, June 1, “A Colonial Portrait and a Mystery,” by Rustin Levinson.

Rusty Levinson’s talk was perfectly fitting as the final Paintings Specialty Group presentation. The talk was informative and had some levity and humor to boot.

The portrait (see an auction photo before treatment at left), treated and researched by ArtCare Miami with technical analysis by Emily MacDonald Korth, has been believed to depict Button Gwinnett, one of the three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence. This identification was not certain, and the inscription on the reverse identifying the artist and sitter, was suspect. Moreover, it appeared to be written in two different hands. The inscription is visible through a cut-out window in the lining fabric left by an old restorer. Gwinnett had a short-lived political career before dying in a duel the year after signing the momentous document. Recently, a signature of his came to auction and fetched over $700,000 in its sale, reaching an all-time high price for a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. This event brought this historic figure some current-day notoriety, captured by Stephen Colbert on the Late Show last year, which coincidentally appeared during the treatment and research of the portrait. Colbert and Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda performed “Button!” on the Late Show after an interview with Miranda. The “Button!” rap-style performance in costume is a spoof off Hamilton, and it is hilarious. You can view it at It is definitely worth a watch! I have never experienced such a hearty laugh during an AIC presentation.

 One of the goals in the analysis, research, and treatment of this portrait was to help determine whether the picture likely did in fact depict Mr. Gwinnett. The painting was covered in old varnish and different campaigns of overpaint, making it difficult to compare the likeness with a known, earlier portrait of Gwinnett by British artist Nathaniel Hone (see image at left). The painting in ArtCare’s studio was attributed to Jeremiah Theus, a Swiss-born portrait painter who

worked primarily in and around Charleston, SC. Charleston was known as Charles Town until 1783. This fact creates one of the problems with the inscription, which identifies the city as Charleston, postdating the date of the portrait, which would have been before Theus’ death in 1774. Another issue with the inscription(s) was the presence of modern pigments, identified through analysis, that were part of a red layer on the canvas reverse that lies beneath the inscription(s). Zinc was identified in that layer, thus discrediting the coating as well as the overlying inscription as original to the piece. It is possible that the two inscriptions were written at some point(s) in the past, perhaps early in the life of the painting, but were later reinforced by a restorer.

Scientific analysis was conducted using a variety of techniques including cross-sectional analysis, XRF, PLM or polarized light microscopy, and optical microscopy. The results revealed typical pigments used by mid-18th c. American painters along with modern pigments appearing in overpaint and coatings. Elemental analysis helped identify the pigments vermilion, a lead-based pigment, a chromium-based pigment, and zinc white on the painting, while on the verso, the presence of lead, calcium, and copper were detected, and vermilion and zinc white were identified. Part of the historical research involved looking at archival information about the Theus portrait. One such document was created when Sheldon Keck was asked to examine the portrait in the 1950s. At this time, Keck declared the portrait a “genuine eighteenth century painting.”

Once cleaned the painting was compared with the Hone portrait of Gwinnett and similarities in facial features were noted. Levinson toyed with an online program to attempt to visually age the face in the Hone picture. This rudimentary program, while somewhat amusing, was not revealing. A chance connection with someone from the Georgia Bureau of investigation led to a visual comparison by the Bureau whereby they did a much higher tech, digital rendering of the earlier Hone portrait to artifically age the figure’s face, and they made a comparison with the treated picture. They determined it was plausible that the sitters were the same man.

I wish there had been a bit more discussion on the artist attribution question. Even though the focus was not on the artist, I had hoped for a bit more information on the portrait’s attribution to Jeremiah Theus, particularly since I encounter Jeremiah Theus portraits in my private practice. I would have liked to know more about the connoisseurship used in the attribution, whether/which art historians may have looked at the portrait, and/or whether any of the technical analysis was compared to that of other known Theus portraits. Finally, I also would have enjoyed more discussion of the treatment, as it was somewhat glossed over. A few before and after shots side by side, including details of areas of heavy overpaint before and after with a little more discussion of the overpaint removal, would have been welcome additions to this presentation.

Archaeological Conservation at ASOR 2013

Three weeks ago LeeAnn Barnes Gordon and I co-chaired a conservation session at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Baltimore, MD.  Friends, I loved every minute of it.
This year the session, titled “Conservation and Site Preservation in the Near East,” kicked off at 8:20 in the morning on the very first day of the conference.  We were concerned about the early start time, but attendance was good and the audience was engaged and responsive. This was the second in series of 4 planned sessions, and I’ll tell you about our lofty goals for the series a bit later. First, here are the 6 papers from this year, with a few notes from me about each:
Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Heritage: Experiences Gained and Lessons Learnt”
Michael Jones (Antiquities Conservation Project, American Research Center in Egypt)

I was surprised to learn in this talk that ARCE’s fantastically comprehensive conservation and education programs in Egypt, underwritten by USAID, all began as a simple salvage response to the deadly 1992 earthquake. Michael spoke about building stakeholder support for conservation in Egypt, about the challenges of recent political turmoil, and showed us the wonderful results of conservation efforts at the Red Monastery in Sohag, among other sites. If you don’t know much about ARCE and its conservation programs, read more here.

Training for the Conservation and Management of In Situ Mosaics: The MOSAIKON Initiative”
Leslie Friedman (Getty Conservation Institute), Jeanne Marie Teutonico (GCI), Kathleen Dardes (GCI), Thomas Roby (GCI)and Zaki Aslan (ICCROM)

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about mosaics preservation, MOSAIKON is improving and teaching it. How to do a great job with locally available materials? They’re on it. Training for the next generation in-country? That, too. Conservation education in Arabic? Yes! Mentoring for conservators in the Middle East? Of course. What about my favorite site preservation solution, reburial? They’re studying the most effective ways to do it for mosaics. And of course, they are producing publications about it all. Check it out here.

Digging on the Edge: Archaeology and Conservation at Kourion, Cyprus”
William Weir (University of Cincinnati), paper delivered by Stephen Humphreys

This site-specific case-study delivered great information and dramatic visuals of mosaics perched precariously on cliff-edge. It detailed, from the archaeologists’ perspective, the experience of working with conservators to document and save mosaics at a site. It also illustrated the complexities of conservation at archaeological sites; within a single site, the response to each mosaic differed depending on the mosaic’s location, construction, and the project’s ongoing research. A great talk illustrating successful collaboration in archaeological conservation and research.

Painted Roman and Byzantine Cypriot Tombs: Properties, Processes and Preservation”
Ioanna Kakoulli (University of California, Los Angeles), Christian Fischer  (UCLA), and Demetrios Michaelides (University of Cyprus) 

This was an excellent talk for anyone interested in conservation of wall-paintings; these Cypriot rock-cut tombs have undergone structural damage from shifting bedrock and water damage from floods and rainfall. Ioanna also discussed the technical analysis of plaster, pigments, and binders for the paintings. This talk was also great for anyone interested in preservation and management of active tourism and pilgrimage sites: littering, vandalism, education and interpretation! How about making your conservation plan work for nearby hotels as well as an active monastery? Done. This talk detailed a comprehensive approach to a complex series of problems.

Dilemmas in Preservation of Iron Age Sites in the Valley of Beer-sheba”
Zeev Herzog (Tel Aviv University)

Zeev’s talk beautifully, and humorously, detailed the decades-long effort to preserve mud-brick architecture at the site of Beer-sheba in Israel. An unusually inventive series of campaigns beginning in the 1960’s tried almost everything the determined teams could think of: chemical consolidation, firing the bricks in-situ with a portable kiln, capping the walls with new mudbricks, and, finally, capping and restoration with modern, fired bricks. In addition to illustrating a half-century of conservation and site preservation at a single site, this talk explored preservation and interpretation goals for important Iron Age sites in Israel.  

The Conservation and Technical Analysis of Ancient Near Eastern Objects at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum”
Sanchita Balachandran (Johns Hopkins University)

As a conservator in a university archaeological museum, I’m always impressed by the JHU Archaeological Museum’s (and Sanchita’s) commitment to linking conservation to undergraduate teaching and using object-based projects to improve learning for students. This talk was especially useful because it had detailed case-studies of specific objects and projects. I especially liked the way Sanchita used these projects to develop transferable skills like observation and critical thinking for her students.

Back to our lofty goals – LeeAnn and I began this series of sessions with the goal of fostering collaboration and better integrating continuing education in the allied disciplines of conservation and archaeology. We want to bring more conservation information to our archaeology colleagues, and we hope to promote archaeology meetings as a forum for conservators.  So far each session has been an excellent educational opportunity for us, and we hope our audiences have felt the same way. We’re grateful to our speakers in both years thus far and to ASOR for embracing the series.
Archaeological conservators, we hope you’ll join us for future meetings in San Diego (2014) and Atlanta (2015).  If you’re willing to contribute to conservation sessions at either meeting, please write us! We’d love to hear from you. The deadline to submit abstracts for 2014 is February 15.
Suzanne Davis:
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon:

Presentations from Anoxia and Microfading: The impact on Collection Care (12-13 September 2011) are now available online

Presentations from Anoxia and Microfading: The impact on Collection Care (12-13 September 2011) are now available online and can be
found at

Presentations include:

Keynote Speaker: Dr David Grattan
Former Manager of Conservation Research at Canadian Conservation
Institute, Ottawa
“Anoxia and Microfading: The Impact on Collection Care,
Context and Challenge”

Stephen Hackney
Senior Consultant for Conservation Science, Tate, London
“The Benefits of Sealed Enclosures for Works on Paper”

Zane Cunningham
Project Manager and Product Developer, Tate, London
“Designing Low Oxygen Frames”

Dr. Shin Maekawa
Senior Scientist, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles
“Getty’s Oxygen-Free Display and Storage Cases”

Dr. Matija Strlic
Senior Lecturer
Centre for Sustainable Heritage, University College London
“Hypoxic Storage of Organic Materials: Paper, Ink, Parchment,
Photographs, Canvas”

Jacob Thomas
Research Assistant, Kinetics of Heterogeneous Reactions Group,
Jagiellonian University, Krakow
“Early 20th Century Pastel Drawings: An Anoxic Case?”

David Thickett
Senior Conservation Scientist, English Heritage, London and
Salome Guggenheimer, Haute Ecole Suisse, Switzerland
“Oxygen and Archaeological Iron”

Chris Collins
Head of Conservation, Palaeontology Department, Natural History
Museum, London
“Reduced Oxygen Enclosures and Natural History and
Anthropological Materials”

Luisa Casella
Photograph Conservator, Harry Ransom Center, The University of
Texas at Austin
“Display of Original Autochrome Plates in Low-Oxygen
Enclosures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

Dr. Yvonne Shashoua
Senior Researcher, Department of Conservation, National Museum
of Denmark, Copenhagen
“Anoxic Storage of Polymers”

Bruce Ford,
Consultant Conservator and Scientist, Tate, London
“Microfading and Anoxic Enclosures”

Nicki Smith
Deputy Manager, Conservation, National Museum of Australia,
Canberra (with video from Guy Hanson, Senior Curator Guy Hanson,
National Museum of Australia)
“Into the Light: Lighting Guidelines at the National Museum
of Australia”

Dr. Mark Underhill
Analyst, Tate, London
“Oxygen Measurement”

Dr. Bertrand Lavedrine
Director, Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des
Collections (CRCC-CNRS), Paris
“Development of Microfading Testing for Transmission
Measurement on Colour Transparencies”

Dr. Haida Liang
Reader in Physics, Nottingham Trent University
“Latest Developments on Portable Microfading Spectrometry at
Nottingham Trent University”

Dr. Julio M. del Hoyo-Melendez
Scientist, National Museum of Krakow
“Microfade Testing: A Promising Tool for Evaluating the Light
Fastness of Coloured Fabrics and the Impacts on Lighting

Dr. Eric Hagan
Conservation Scientist, The Canadian Conservation Institute,
“An Overview of Current Light-Fastness Testing at the
Canadian Conservation Institute”


A group discussion with Dr Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist, The
Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles; Deborah Potter, Head
of Conservation, Collection, Tate, London and Nicki Smith,
Deputy Manager, Conservation, National Museum of Australia,

Roundtable discussion with panel: Bruce Ford, Consultant
Conservator and Scientist, Tate, London; Dr Eric Hagan,
Conservation Scientist, The Canadian Conservation Institute,
Ottawa; Dr Julio M del Hoyo-Melendez, Scientist, Laboratory of
Analysis and Nondestructive Investigation of Heritage Objects,
National Museum of Krakow; Dr Haida Liang, Reader in Physics,
Nottingham Trent University; Dr Bertrand Lavedrine, Director,
Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections
(CRCC-CNRS), Paris; Dr Han Neevel, Senior Conservation
Scientist, Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency, Amersfoort;
Boris Pretzel, Principal Scientist, Victoria and Albert Museum,

A working session with George Gawlinski, Planning Together
Associates to build collaborations and explore the research

The conference coincided with the culmination of a five-year Tate
research project funded by the Department for Business, Innovation
and Skills (BIS) Public Sector Research Exploitation Fund.

Dr. Pip Laurenson
Head of Collection Care Research
London SW1P 4RG
+44 207887 8776
+44 796606 2962

Plying the Trades: Report from NATCC Conference

“Plying the Trades: Pulling Together in the 21st Century,” the 8th North American Textile Conservation Conference (NATCC), met in Oaxaca, Mexico this past November, 2011.  Following two days of apropos workshop offerings, including an introduction to biological classification for textile conservators held in the local ethnobotanical gardens, two aqueous cleaning courses with the ever-in-demand Richard Wolbers, back-strap loom weaving (with regional artisans specializing in different techniques), natural dying (using local products including the hand-spun wool slated to be dyed), and feather mosaics (following a traditional technique using adhesive derived from a specific orchid flower), the program got off to a resounding start with a thought-provoking keynote address by Dr. Sven Haakanson.  If anyone present already felt sated from the successful workshops and early regional tours they could not help but quickly be drawn into the flow of the following two days.  Dr. Hakkanson’s touch points of living heritage, community, and repatriation of knowledge paved the way for an exciting conference filled with multi-cultural and disciplinary presentations, covering the territory of regaining lost traditions, sharing knowledge with local communities, creating discussions between communities, collection holders, and conservators, and finding paths for mutual ground or compromise for object care.

A few highlights included a history of community development and outreach at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), conservation in the public eye (quite literally due to their on view textile conservation laboratory) at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, UK, and the immense challenges and rewards of building international education programs.  Participants were further inundated with information during poster sessions, set during coffee breaks, which successfully promoted many discussions.

Planned to the nines, the conference also included a cocktail reception in the beautifully restored Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo (originally established as a Dominican convent in 1529), and, the following evening, the conference closed on a high note with a full parade down the streets of Oaxaca complete with band, balloons, dancers, lanterns, and fire works leading the attendees to a lovely dinner set in the local Ethnobotanical Gardens.  Everyone left Oaxaca full of knowledge, mescal, and a new found appreciation of community.  Not to worry if Oaxaca proved too difficult to reach: post prints are available for purchase through (CD format) and plans are in the works for NATCC’s next conference.  Moving from one welcoming community to another, and focusing on modern materials, NATCC is slated to meet in San Francisco, November, 2013.

—Denise Migdail


Conservators “Keep Austin Weird”-WAAC Annual Meeting, Final Day

The final day of talks at the WAAC Annual Meeting did not disappoint. There was another great group of talks in the half day session that included practical information as well as papers that discussed larger ethical issues presented during certain conservation approaches.

A talk by Wyndell Faulk (Concept to Fabrication: The Deniro Collection, “Men of Honor” Deep Dive Suit Stabilization Device), a preparator at the Harry Ransom Center, explained a system he developed for displaying a very heavy canvas and rubber dive suit used in the movie “Men of Honor”. As we learned that morning, Robert De Niro donated a collection of papers, movie props, films and costumes (about 1300 items) documenting his film career. This dive suit was one of those items and Wyndell had to prepare a mount to be able to hang the suit on the wall to display it. He created an acrylic support, like a hanger, which he padded, that would fit into the neck and shoulders of the suit. The support could then be tied to the wall to display it. This was a great example of how his creativity transformed the idea of a hanger into a “deep dive suit stabilization device” to safely display this object.

Later that morning, a talk by Albrecht Gumlich (Juggling “Material Time Bombs”-Dealing with Ephemeral, Mixed Media Items from Special Collections at the Getty Research Institute), objects conservator at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), made us think about how we conserve mixed media, contemporary art made of materials that decay due to inherent vices in a collection that is accessible to researchers. Items in the collection are made from plastics that degrade, metals that corrode, have items that contain food or other organic materials that decompose. Albrecht talked about the struggle between wanting to preserve these items, knowing that the best way to do that is to keep them for example in cold storage, but needing to step back to allow researchers to look at the materials because the items are in a research collection. In order to help monitor the condition of these pieces during their life in the research collection, a system of periodic checks of the more sensitive materials, or those more likely to decay, has been implemented. Condition sheets have been made to record the condition of all the components of these “time bombs” and indicate materials that may need more frequent examination. Other staff members at the GRI, such as registrars and interns are trained to identify and record any potentially problematic items so that several people are involved in the documentation. The information will be incorporated into the GRI’s collection database and will be shared with other institutions that have similar items in their collection. Looking at the items Albrecht was discussing in his talk, it certainly made me think about how difficult it must be to preserve these ephemeral works of art that could degrade at any moment. It also brought up a lot of questions about what should we really be trying to preserve with contemporary art. Should the focus be on preserving the physical items or should we, as conservators, accept that things decay and we cannot preserve them? Should the focus be on preserving the artist’s intent, even if it means replacing materials or being able to only keep a photo of an art object and not the object itself? These are larger questions that conservators who deal with these types of collections must often ask themselves, and it definitely creates a lot of interesting ethical discussions.

Looking back at the conference, I certainly enjoyed listening to such a broad range of talks and discussing many conservation issues with colleagues. It was a great first WAAC conference for me and I can’t wait for next year’s conference in Palm Springs. And as for the quote in the title, “Keep Austin Weird” is something you hear or see all over the city. Coined about a decade ago, it celebrates the uniqueness, and sometimes eccentricities, of the city and local businesses. Looking at the range of papers presented over the course of the last 4 days, you can certainly say that conservators are working on some very unique materials. By presenting our work at the conference, we, in our own way, certainly kept Austin weird.

The value of collaborating with different experts-WAAC Annual Meeting, Day 3

One of the things I’m most enjoying about the WAAC Annual Meeting is the variety of the papers that have been presented. I usually attend conferences that focus on my area of specialization or have to pick and choose which talks to go to maybe missing something that could be very interesting or relevant. The other advantage of having such a mix of topics and professionals presenting is that you can get non-conservators presenting about work relating to the preservation of art. We had two talks today from specialists who work with conservators or are interested in the field of conservation. It was great to see them take part in this conference and want to share their work with us. Conservation is a very collaborative discipline and for some of us, working with different experts is not something that is very surprising. It is always helpful, however, to be reminded that this kind of participation in conservation conferences is valuable because we can learn from another area of expertise and see information from a different perspective.

In the morning session, Jamie Hascall, a preparator with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Exhibits Division, presented a talk titled The multipurpose mount: An adjustable support for photography and radiography of fragile Dinetah pottery. A group of Navajo ceramic vessels, that were seized by the Bureau of Land Management, were brought to the conservation department of the New Mexico Dept. of Cultural Affairs for examination and conservation. The vessels were generally intact, though some were damaged and had a few missing areas. What was most interesting about these vessels was that some had been repaired when the vessels were in use. Cracks or broken areas had been reinforced with plant fiber ties and then had some kind of resinous material, thought to be pine resin, applied. The conservators were tasked with documenting the vessels through photography and x-radioagraphy, but because the vessels had a pointed bottom, positioning them for photography was difficult.

Having worked with conservators, Jaime was aware of the needs of the conservators in regards to documentation and the needs of the vessel in terms of stabilization. He worked with the conservators to come up with a mount that would sufficiently support the vessel but be unobtrusive in a photo. He designed an acrylic telescopic stand with a movable arm that inserts into the vessel to hold it in place. A Volara form sits at the end of the insert and expands to support the interior of the vessel. Nylon clips at the base of the stand supports the bottom of the vessel. The stand was made out of acrylic so that it could be used when the vessels were x-rayed and not appear in the xray. Instead of questions at the end of the talk, Jaime and the conference attendees started brain storming about ways to modify the mount if increased support was needed on the bottom or interior (this turned into a discussion about the use of weather balloons!). Jaime mentioned he is working on a book about mountmaking, and after hearing his creative ideas for supporting these vessels, we are all eagerly awaiting it.

In the afternoon session, Michelle Bushey, a chemistry professor at Trinity College, and one of her undergraduate chemistry students, Madeline Corona, presented on a series of interdisciplinary research projects combining art and science in a talk titled Have (XRF) gun, will travel-To museums and historical sites! Interdisciplinary studies at the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Alamo. Like the presentation we heard yesterday by JoAnn Peters, Michelle also teaches a course that introduces undergraduate chemistry students to conservation science. The projects discussed included collaborations with chemists, geologists, curators, conservators, art professors and students. Michelle talked a bit about the course and then Madeline took over to talk about the 3 projects they worked on: the study of markings on Greek pottery, the analysis of a marble sculpture of Antinous, and a study of Spanish colonial pigments at the Alamo. The department was able to purchase a portable XRF unit and used that technique for most of the analysis. Though the work on some of these projects is still ongoing they’ve already obtain some interesting results, such as finding the remains of gilding on the back of the head of the sculpture. This is another great example of the way conservation, art and science come together and can create great collaborative projects between chemists, conservators and museums. This is also a wonderful opportunity to educate students about conservation and chemistry. As a result of her work with Michelle, Madeline has decided to pursue a degree in art conservation.

These two presentations are just a sampling of the types of collaborations that occur in the field of conservation between conservators and other experts. They certainly highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the field. They also illustrate the importance of working with other specialists and the value their expertise has to our work, conservation education and outreach.

Let the Talks Begin-WAAC Annual Meeting, Day 2

Restoration of a video installation, disaster response due to Texas wildfires, conserving a sandstone facade, cold storage of photographs, treating paper collections in 12 Alaskan museums and developing an architectural conservation plan for a university…those were just some of the topics presented today on the second day of the WAAC Annual meeting.

Conservators from all over the western part of the US came together today for the first day of talks. A broad range of topics and specialties were presented to the approximately 60 WAAC members attending the meeting. Here are some of the talks I found particularly interesting:

Luminous: How Conservation Studies, Treatment and Advocacy are Integrated in an Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum
Nicholas Dorman, Seattle Art Museum

Nicholas Dorman discussed a current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, Luminous: The Art of Asia, that has incorporated the information gathered from the research and treatment conducted on the materials in preparation for the exhibit, into the didactic material presented to the public. Detailed images to highlight technological features or materials identified, xrays and CT scan images provide additional information to viewers and are an opportunity to educate them about conservation and the activities of SAM’s conservation dept. The website for the exhibit includes several videos highlighting the treatments and examinations conducted to give the public an inside view to the contribution the conservators made to what they see on display. This is great example of public outreach about conservation and integrating the hard, and of course interesting, work conservators do into an exhibition.

Color: Review of the Main Color Producing Mechanisms and Illustration with Feather Colors
Christel Pesme, Getty Conservation Institute

Christel’s talk demonstrated that the way that we perceive color is very complex and affected by many factors such as the material we are observing, the light used and how that material interacts with the light. Christel has been working on a project to look into the fading of feathers in California featherwork and showed us how looking at this material changes the way we think about the color we see on artifacts. The way that color is structured in feathers is very complex and through visual examples, she showed us that the same feather in reflected light can be two different colors on either side. She also showed us that transmitting light through a feather drastically alters the color and makes a blue and red macaw feather look brown. Her talk certainly made us all think about how we view color and how that affects our determination of what we observe as and determine to be fading. I know I’ll never look at something again and not wonder if whether the light, and the object itself, is playing some trick on me and drastically changing the way I view the color it contains.

What to Do When a Chemist Comes Knocking on the Door: Identification of Plastic Materials in Museum Collections through Collaboration with and Undergraduate Chemistry Program
JoAnn Peters, Central Washington University

JoAnn Peters is an organic chemist who teaches at Central Washington University and became interested in conservation science after attending an NSF funded workshop on chemistry and art. This interest, and work that she did with the Royal British Columbia Museum on the identification of plastics in their collection, inspired her to create a collaboration between museums in her area and the undergraduate chemistry students she teaches. As part of her work at the university, JoAnn teaches students about chemistry and conservation science while having them identify the types of plastic materials found in the collection of the Yakima Valley Museum. The information is used to help the museum determine how best to care for these objects. The students have so far only used microchemical testing, but JoAnn hopes to be able to use infrared spectroscopy as well, a technique that is taught as part of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. The creation of this collaboration is a great example of the benefit of such partnerships between institutions and universities/scientists, which also extends to the education of students both in chemistry and conservation science. The collaboration seems to be positive for both institutions and hopefully can be a model for other museums and university faculty to follow.

The Watercolors of Charles Russell: An Examination of the Artists’ Materials and Techniques on the Montana Fronter
Jodie Utter, Amon Carter Museum

The next to last paper of the day was presented by Jodie Utter, a conservator of works on art on paper who for the last four years has been studying the materials and techniques used by artist Charles Russell who painted watercolors depicting the Montana Frontier. Using techniques such as polarized light microscopy, XRF, infrared reflectography and UV light, Jodi has been able to trace the changes in his technique and the paints he used throughout his career. In the examples she showed us, we got to see how his early paintings had detailed underdrawings and his figures had no shadow, but as he gained more experience and practice, his underdrawings became sketches and his paintings more sophisticated. His use of paints changed over time as well, choosing initially watercolors that would give the scene a transparency and luminescence to later choosing more opaque paints and employing the impasto technique to give a three dimensionality to his work. Jodi is working on this technical study for a book that is being written for an upcoming exhibit of Russell’s work. I’m sure the viewers will be as interested in the technical information she discovered about Russell’s paintings as much as seeing the paintings themselves.

At the end of the day the WAAC attendees made their way to the Byrne-Reed House, a historic home that was restored by the Humanities Texas who uses it as a place for exhibits and offices. We enjoyed good food and drink on the beautiful open porch of the house and in the restored living room. We also got tours of the upper floors of the house and got to see rooms that still kept the original floor plan, the sleeping porch with a section of original railing and some beautiful plaster work on the upper exterior walls. It was a wonderful way to end such a great first day of talks.

Wonderfully WAAC-Y: the WAAC annual Silent Auction

For the last seven years, WAAC meeting attendees have eagerly anticipated what has become a staple event at the annual meeting, the Silent Auction. An idea conceived by conservator and former WAAC board member Beverly Perkins, the Silent Auction is usually held over two days of the meeting to raise money for a local organization in need. WAAC attendees are encouraged to bring items to donate to the auction, and WAAC board members are typically major contributors as well. The items in the auction range from practical art conservation items-tools, materials, and conservation books-to fun, silly, handmade and/or locally-inspired items, which are some of the most popular among bidders.

Suzanne Morris surveying the auction items and contemplating her strategy


This year, auction items included gingerbread pancake mix from local favorite restaurant Kerbey Lane Cafe, a cowboy hat, Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town by Red Wassenich (who is also the spouse of Austin-based conservator Karen Pavelka), a plush Clara Barton doll, a glass plate negative, an attractive pair of extra large ladies sunglasses, Amelie on DVD, and Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color. Bidding wars really broke out for items such as Changing Views of Textile Conservation by Mary M. Brooks and Dinah D. Eastop, a Teflon spatula, colorful vegetable and fruit-print cloth napkins handmade by conservator and WAAC newsletter editor Carolyn Tallent, Russell Brand’s memoir My Booky Wook, and for those feeling particularly daring, several mystery items, donated by LA-based conservator Albrecht Gumlich.


The colorful cloth napkins handmade by Carolyn Tallent were popular items in the auction


The highly coveted Russell Brand memoir


This year’s auction was a great success, raising over $600.The proceeds will benefit art and artifact preservation activities at the French Legation Museum in Austin, TX.


Beverly Perkins calls the end of the Silent Auction



Post by Molly Gleeson and Vanessa Muros