Treatment of a WPA era topographical map of the state of Louisiana

Shelley Reisman Paine, James Bernstein, Richard Wolbers and Mary Zimmerman


The conservation of a WPA era painted plaster topographical map was a very successful collaboration between the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, conservators and student interns. The Museum was built in 1938 to showcase the products and industries of the State of Louisiana. The map was created c. 1939 by Duncan Ferguson, sculptor and Conrad Albrizio, painter. It is 14.3 meters (14 feet) in diameter and located in a 1.22 meters (4′) deep floor well in the atrium of the museum. It depicts Louisiana with each parish, parish seat, river, neighboring state and the Gulf of Mexico. Microscopic cross-sectional analysis revealed the surface was repainted approximately eight times covering the original muted surface with layers of glossy bright colors. Each successive repainting, colors, roads and icons representing Louisiana’s commerce were altered or relocated to update information. This fabricated surface turned the artwork from an artistic expression into educational tool.

The treatment project was organized as an advanced work-study project spanning two nine-week summer seasons. This approach permitted the conservators to research the artwork, train and supervise conservation graduate and pre-program students to master techniques to complete the treatment. Working as a team, each conservator and student worked “in one hand”, treating the map in such a way that it appeared as if only one person performed the treatment. This required intense training and collaboration. Further, the site precluded using a scaffold. This required the team to work directly on the map, and to develop specialized treatment materials and techniques to accommodate the site. The treatment removed multiple layers of garish overpaint, using solvent gels, followed by filing and inpainting to reveal the beautiful muted colors of the original presentation.

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2007 | Richmond | Volume 14