The subject of this talk was the treatment of “Flak Bait”, a World War II B26 Marauder at the National Air and Space Museum with an impressive track record – 207 missions with no crew loss, the only remaining B26 from the Normandy landings, with its original paint intact, though a green and grey overpaint had been added when it originally was put on display. The aim of the treatment was to make the aircraft look exactly as it did at the end of the war. This included not only the painted surfaces, but the doped fabric elevators, rudders, and ailerons, which were the main focus of this talk.
The doped fabric sections had historic patches, from repairs made while the aircraft was in use, as well as post-historic tears. Traditionally, doped fabric parts of aircraft are re-covered, rather than repaired, and the art of doing so is maintained by the aircraft maintenance restorers at the NASM. In order to preserve the “patina of use” of the object, this standard approach would not be an option. Lauren opted to explore different treatment options, and opted to look at how known methods from paintings conservation could be applied to this project, as the doped fabric had a lot in common with a painting on canvas. The eventual treatment involved careful facing of the material and removal from the frame, followed by cleaning thoroughly to remove ingrained dirt and mold. This worked largely according to plan, with one issuee when the stabilized fabric was returned to the frame – the repair of a major tear had allowed 0.5% shrinkage over the length of the object, causing significant registration issues. Eventually it was possible to relax the fabric and return the object to an acceptable position on the frame. A resin coating applied over the surface successfully shifted the color from chalky yellow back to the original olive green, addressing another overarching issue of the treatment, maintaining uniformity of appearance over the entire object.
The part of this talk that resonated the most with me was the discussion of conservation versus restoration, especially when restoration practices such as re-covering doped fabric aircraft are “celebrated practices”. Another presenter also made this connection – Davina Jakobi, in her talk on conservation of ship model riggings, quoted Lauren and expressed that she had found the same challenges in deciding to repair rather than re-rig. Navigating these ethical questions can be tricky territory, but when handled with grace as both Lauren and Davina did, can provide great results. Lauren counted the improved collaborative relationship between conservation and restoration as one of the main benefits of this treatment, along with the development of new methods to save an ephemeral material, and I would have to agree.
Do the things that survive trauma become imbued with additional meaning? Must conservators find and understand both the empirical and the non-empirical when treating objects? These questions are key to understanding the theme of Jane Klinger’s general session presentation on Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance. Klinger brings the Pathos to the conference. She points out objects that become survivors of war, terror, assassination, or persecution, carry with them the emotion of the assault. Klinger is the Chief Conservator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and brings to her presentation an intimate knowledge of treating objects of trauma.
Klinger presents three main examples of the way Pathos plays a key role in the conservation of objects of trauma. She begins by describing the top coat worn by Danish Resistance Fighter Jorgen Jespersen in 1944. The coat, now located in the National Museum of Danish Resistance, is a symbol of national pride in the resistance of Nazi oppression. According to Jespersen’s testimony, the Gestapo attempted to arrest him but he reached into his upper pocket and shot through his topcoat to wound and escape his captors. In an example of the emotional weight of the object overshadowing it’s preservation, it appears that holes where added to the coat to emphasize the danger Jespersen survived.
The second example of the emotional weight associated with objects can be found in the Baker collection of objects at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Helen and Ross Baker were Americans who found themselves in Vienna during the time that Nazis took over the city. They recorded the occupation and the closure of Jewish stores to non-Jews in both film and through diaries. Their son, Stan Baker, later used the diaries to present the observations of his parents. Upon donating the collection, the curators found that Stan had added notations to his mother’s diaries. When the conservators were asked to remove the notations, they explained that the ink would still be faintly seen and impressions in the paper would be permanent. Because of a thorough understanding of the emotional value as well as the physical condition, the decision was made to leave the notations as part of the historical record of the object.
Klinger uses objects that survived September 11 as a third example of Pathos and ethical considerations in the conservation of objects of trauma. She discusses the Vesey Station Stairs and the Ladder Co. 3 Fire truck as objects that survived the horrors of 9/11. The stairs have become a symbol of safety and escape to the survivors of the terrorist attacks. The damaged fire truck carries with it the evidentiary authority of September 11, 2001. Should the brutally damaged object be cleaned of the dust of 9/11? Klinger argues that the emotions surrounding 9/11 are so emotionally raw that rational decisions may not be possible.
Through these examples, Klinger argues that it is the role of the conservator to incorporate rather than evade the Pathos of the object. As a conservation scientist, there are times I get lost in the materials used and mechanics of deterioration of the object. This talk serves as a vivid reminder of the added value of the emotions associated with the cultural object.