In honor of May as Preservation Month, this post is about a preservation issue inside a building that is iconic for all of North Carolina as well as its capital city. Since its completion in 1840 many visitors to the Old State Capitol Building in Raleigh have left their marks. The large hand-cut stone blocks bear the chisel indentations of various stone cutters; the worn stone steps attest to many footfalls and heavy loads dragged upwards; and wooden banisters in the house and senate chambers boast carvings of names/ initials and dates. Is it a sense of the structure’s significance that has compelled some of those passing through to carve their names into the wood? These marks of creation, use, and commemoration (however subversive) are visible to all who visit the Old Sate Capitol for one of its free tours.
Recently I took advantage of an opportunity for NC Department of Cultural Resources staff to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the building. We snuck peeks at staff offices, attic storage areas, and views near the rotunda. The marks individuals had left behind continued, and perhaps became even more pronounced, as we climbed and pressed our way into non-public areas. This wall (left) near a roof access door exhibits over a hundred years’ worth of visitors proclaiming “I was here!” Earlier marks from the 1900s or so have been carved into the wood, whereas modern graffiti artists chose markers to commemorate their visits.
Additionally, several of the more hidden corridors bear the marks of hands which have accomplished the difficult and often dangerous work of building maintenance duties. These marks on the right are from electricians who have squeezed into tight spaces and balanced themselves on ledges to change light bulbs around the senate chamber rotunda.
When do preservationists view marks like fingerprints and graffiti as defacement in need of correction and when do we view them as interesting testaments to a building’s (or object’s) use and significance? This is a question object conservators must ask themselves before each treatment, and sometimes the answer is different. Cleaning is irreversible and permanently strips away evidence of human interaction with the material. The Old State Capital staff has taken two different approaches to this quandary. For some of the wooden railings bearing carved letters and numbers from visitors (dating from the building’s period of use, 1840-1963), the marks remain. For others, staff has in-filled the carvings and painted over the rails.
Which approach (or combination) has your site taken?
–Adrienne Berney, C2C Collections Care Trainer
Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s frock coat is currently on exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy’s new Appomattox branch, which opened in March 2012. Some visitors, like the one who posted this photo to a Facebook community page last month, assumed that the Museum of the Confederacy was exhibiting the frock coat as the garment Cleburne was wearing when he died at the Battle of Franklin (outside Nashville, Tennessee) on November 30, 1864. The damage, then, made sense as a result of exploding shells.
Another Facebook poster commented, “this worn tattered coat sends chills down your back, if you arent a true gray southerner, this pic proably does nothing to you, my great grandfather fought with the macon county guards..james o. dixon, there is something deep inside that when you look at this pic it touches you, and i can see how when the brave confederates saw such horror, it inspired them to give thier all,,god bless the south!!”
Other comments followed, debating the cause of the losses:
- “Unfortunately, according to the museum officials, that is not actually the coat that General Cleburne was wearing when he was killed.”
- “That’s definitely moth damage from [what] you can see. I’m not sure where he was hit or how many times but none of those holes seem to go through the coat’s inner liner.”
- “That’s not all moth damage gents. General Cleburne was hit no less than 40 times. Thats right, his body was literally ripped to shreds by Federal musketry and cannister.”
- “The museum has already said he wasn’t wearing the coat. I suspect if he was in this coat when he was hit 40 times, there might be some BLOOD stains on it. Most of these holes are tiny except for the one on the right hip. Moth holes. If these were canister shot or musket ball holes, the coat would be soaked in blood.”
The photo and subsequent commentary were interesting enough to come to our C2C team’s attention. When the damage to an artifact detracts from the experience of the object’s original form, museum staff often choose to store that piece until conservation can be funded and accomplished. Why did MOC staff decide to exhibit this piece without conservation to camouflage the losses? MOC Curator Cathy Wright explained that staff debated that question at length. They ultimately decided not to conserve the piece because of the tremendous cost, as well as the significant alterations to the original fabric that conservation would involve. They also judged it was important to exhibit the frock coat–one of the few artifacts available to represent the war’s western front.
The MOC’s website contains a brief description of the piece’s provenance and condition. “This uniform coat was sent to a family friend after Cleburne was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Thirty years after the event, the donor of the coat found it ‘so dirty and so moth-eaten’ that she ‘hesitated about sending it on to Richmond…’ This is the first time in many years that this unique artifact has been on public display.” This description and the caption beneath the accompanying photo indicate that Cleburne was wearing the coat at the Battle of Franklin. A museum staff member answering the MOC phone lines explained that the Cleburne was carrying, rather than wearing, the coat into his final battle and the garment fell off into the mud. According to the staffer, the damage, then, resulted from “rot” rather than enemy fire.
In the Facebook discussion quoted above, the damage became the main idea the artifact conveyed, for at least one group of beholders, and it inspired controversy among them. As we’ve written previously, exhibits can and should be forums to present various possible answers to questions that artifacts can pose. The piece’s damage certainly generated interest and discussion, which is a wonderful result of providing access to engaging artifacts. However, in the case of the Cleburne coat, the piece’s condition and its cause(s) dominate any other point the MOC hoped to present, leading to confusion or even misinterpretation.
What do you think? Should the piece be exhibited without conservation? If so, should its display be altered in any way?
Although these tips should not substitute for a conservator’s inspection and/ or treatment, the following advice has been recommended by conservators in the event that circumstances (often lack of funds) prohibit conservation in the foreseeable future. Remember that as far as artifact treatments are concerned, less is usually more, and it may be best to leave the artifact alone, while documenting its condition problems. However, there are several preservation-appropriate materials and techniques that can safely prepare a wooden piece with distracting losses for exhibition when necessary.
- cracks and splits in doors, floorboards, and window casings: Reid Thomas, Restoration Specialist for NCDCR’s Historic Preservation Office, recommends filling voids in wood with linseed oil putty. Unlike common wood epoxies which often contain polyvinyl acetate (PVA), linseed oil putty will expand and contract at a similar rate to the wood, consequently inducing less stress on the artifact. You can mix your own inexpensively or purchase pre-mixed from a few online suppliers.
- failed joints or pieces and veneers coming un-adhered: The risks of dissociation or further loss (in the case of delaminated veneer) may outweigh the risks of gluing with preservation-appropriate materials. We’ve discussed this dilemma and a possible solution earlier in a post about high tack fish glue. Since that time we’ve also experimented with another type of liquid hide glue that many conservators use—Titebond. Given our trials of both of these products, Titebond has several clear advantages: 1. It can be purchased off the shelf at several hardware stores, thereby eliminating special ordering procedures and shipping charges. 2. It is less reactive to changes in temperature and humidity than the fish glue. Consequently its bond is more secure and longer lasting. This could translate into less reversibility than the fish glue has, but there is more of a chance that the broken or delaminated piece will stay with the whole.
- scratches or losses with unfinished areas left visible: Sometimes there are scratches or finish losses in places that detract from the experience of the artifact. This can be especially true with framed pieces where a nick in the frame becomes noticeable and distracts the viewer from the central image. Never use wood-colored magic markers to “touch up” these spots. Somewhat less harmful is advice to use wax crayons to fill in areas of loss. The safest option, recommended by Conservator Perry Hurt at a recent C2C workshop, is to use watercolors to in-paint the unfinished wood area and camouflage the loss by matching the paint color as closely as possible to the wood finish surrounding it. Watercolor paint is most likely to be reversible if a conservator is ever able to treat the artifact.
Stitches count in both textile conservation and mount making. As part of our C2C “Textiles Intensive” workshop during Preservation Week, Instructor Paige Myers led our group in learning four different stitches. Myers, the Textile Conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History, explained why the herringbone stitch is the one she uses most often.
If your job includes any mount-making responsibilities, it may be worthwhile for you to practice this stitch. [Click here for a tutorial on the herringbone stitch.] It is a good way to secure a fabric layer to a substrate—like quilt batting—without having to bring the stitch all the way through the substrate layer. The stitch is also very flat, while being fairly strong. The flatter the stitch, the less pressure the historic textile placed upon it encounters. Another way to keep stitching as flat as possible is to avoid knots. A back stitch or a perpendicular stitch can help keep the thread tail in place without introducing a knot on the mount surface. To see photos of padding layers stitched to a mannequin and learn more about the process, see the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum’s discussion of preparing floating forms for a costume exhibition.
A great way to get an up-close view of herringbone stitches is to look closely at crazy quilts in your institution’s collection. Late-nineteenth-century quilters often used a variety of fancy stitches to join one scrap of fabric to another, while securing them to supportive layers. The herringbone stitch is one of the simpler stitches they used for crazy quilts and served as an important staple stitch. A detail from the Rebecca Wall quilt in the Orange County Historical Museum‘s collection shows herringbone stitches curving along the piece of red calico below the 1862 embroidery. Rebecca and her late fiance’s mother and sister made the quilt in 1883 to commemorate him and embroidered it with the year of his birth as well as many other symbols representing his life. Another example in the North Carolina Museum of History’s collection shows plenty of herringbone stitching throughout. Lina Gough of Lumberton made this quilt in 1890.
Do you have any techniques that work really well for making mounts? If so, please share them with our NC cultural heritage community. Also, consider joining C2C staff and Paige Myers at our upcoming Mount-Making Summer Camp in Yadkinville on July 9th. During the workshop we will share mount-making ideas, practice creating various mounts, and learn more about local sources for preservation-appropriate supports.
This post is by Kyle Elizabeth Bryner, Registrar and Collections Manager, and Sara Cromwell, PR, Marketing and Membership Coordinator. Bryner and Cromwell originally presented this information at the North Carolina Museums Council Annual Meeting, March 2012.
First, determine what collections the museum holds. A full object inventory is a priority – if you do not know what you have you cannot plan for your needs! Obtain conservation assessments, create long range conservation plans – work closely with trusted conservators. Create a list of objects in need of conservation and prioritize by severity of damage, interpretive importance and ease of conservation.
At the MOA, we choose objects based on the previous criteria but also on a rotating schedule. Objects are conserved based on world region, culture and availability of funds. Accidents happen and sometimes an object is moved to the top of the list for immediate repair.
Ask fellow professionals for recommended conservators or use the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) resource center to find a recognized professional. Obtain estimates. Laugh at estimates. Choose the bid that is right for your museum. Brainstorm ways to obtain funding.
Work with other members of your museum staff to identify funding sources. Step outside of your comfort zone – ask everyone for ideas! Cooperation on this type of project helps you to educate others about what you do and also to understand their positions in the museum. Collaboration allows museum departments to share resources and build goodwill.
Identify past and present financial donors to the museum. Identify object donors who may contribute to object conservation. Ask for recommendations for potential monetary donors from board members.
Collaborate among departments to create the “ASK.” Clearly define what funds are needed, why they are needed and how a donor’s support will make a difference. Offer incentives for financially generous contributions. Plan events and interpretive opportunities to educate donors about the conservation projects.
The MOA’s development and collections departments created a letter campaign to attract donors to conservation projects. MOA’s Advisory Board was involved in developing the letters and the Board President signs the letters each year. Initiated in 2008, with the conservation of a Native American hide robe, the “Save Our Hide” project raised over $1300. At the time, this was the most raised to date for conservation.
We send letters in November to encourage year-end giving and structure the donation form to encourage higher levels of giving. The average gift amount has shown an upward trend. Due to the restrictions of being a university museum, MOA accepts cash or check, and recently moved into the 20th century by accepting credit cards by phone.
We were reluctant to depend solely on the untested letters, so we also applied for grants. The initial conservation project received additional funds from the North Carolina Preservation Consortium and the IMLS – Bank of America, American Heritage Preservation Grant program. The granting agencies applauded our resourcefulness in preemptively soliciting individual donors to the project.
2008- Painted Native American Hide. Amount raised: $1,340 in donor funds. $4,645 from grants.
2009- Yan Ka Di Puppet from Mali. Amount raised: $1,635 from donors.
2010 – Conservation and Storage Supplies Drive – Amount raised: $1,305 from donors.
2011 – Barongsai Masks from Bali. Amount raised from donors to date: $1,075.
Thanks to John Campbell, Director of Collections at the NC Museum of History, for contributions to this post.
If you are considering adopt-an-artifact programs for your institution’s collections, several North Carolina examples may be useful to review.
The North Carolina Museum of History began an Adopt-An-Artifact program in 2007. The idea was for groups or individuals to choose artifacts which appealed to them and were in need of conservation. Often the costs of conservation are more substantial than the museum’s budget will allow. The adopters underwrite those costs, and thus make the artifacts available for exhibition and study, which promotes understanding of the history and heritage of North Carolina. An additional reason this project is so attractive to the public is that 100% of the conservation funds raised by outside support groups goes into the conservation treatment of the object; the museum pays all administrative costs.
The best example of the success of this program to date would be the conservation partnership between the Museum and the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th Regiment North Carolina Troops, Inc. to preserve the Museum’s Civil War flag collection. In practice, the Museum and the 26th NCT mutually choose a flag from the collection as the preservation project. This information is transmitted on the 26th NCT website and at meetings so the reenactors can raise conservation funds within their community.
Once the Museum reaches its fundraising target, it contracts with conservation specialists to preserve and frame the flags. When the flag returns, the Museum schedules an unveiling ceremony for members of the fundraising group. This provides a nice reminder of the purpose of the fundraising and showcases the accomplishments of their organization. The 26th NCT has raised funds to conserve 7 flags, which NCMOH would not have been able to exhibit without their support. They have also inspired other reenacting groups to fundraise for conservation as well. It does take time to form partnerships with fundraising groups, but the opportunity to conserve significant artifacts is well worth that time committment.
While NCMOH’s most successful adoptions have involved partnerships with fundraising groups, its website program description targets individuals. Appeals to individuals are also the focus of the Orange County Historical Museum and the Museum of the Albemarle adoption programs. The Orange County Museum has several levels of recognition for adoption. The top level ($500 or more) allows for donor names to be included on the artifact label whenever that piece is on display, and donors receive a copper leaf on the museum’s Donor Tree. Base-level donors ($25 – $100) are listed on the museum’s Honor Roll. The Museum of the Albemarle also promises to list names of artifact adopters in its quarterly newsletter.
The very premise of an “adoption” program is an emotional attachment to something, an implied sense of nurture in sponsorship. Although individual adopters probably do not want an unveiling ceremony of the kind that NCMOH holds for its re-enactor fundraising groups, tangible benefits would make adoption programs much more attractive. Why not set a minimum adoption fee and send small packs of notecards with photographs of the conserved piece to each participant in the adoption program? Captions on the backs of the notecards could promote the program further. Theoretically, the adopter would spread at least some of the cards among close associates, folks who may also be sympathetic to your institutional cause. Notecards are simple and fairly inexpensive to produce using online services like Snapfish or local printing companies. They would also be a tangible benefit for individuals participating in your adoption program and would further solidify the personal connection the donor likely feels for the artifact adoptee.
What other benefits could your institution offer for participation in its adopt-an-artifact program?
Those who have been in the museum field awhile have surely noticed an evolution in professional standards over time. Conservation know-how is one area especially prone to obsolescence. For instance, years ago a conservator recommended polishing brass with wenol to one of our staff members who then worked at an historic house. Current advice, however, acknowledges that wenol contains ammonia, which is harmful for brass.
Dressing leather with neatsfoot oil, or some other product, used to be a routine part of professional care. In contrast, conservators today have documented the build-up of grime and outbreaks of fatty bloom as potential effects of these treatments years after application. Most now recommend preventative conservation measures for leather, such as storage in a regulated environment and dusting with a soft brush.
Similarly, our recent Wood & Metals Workshop participants heard from Conservator Jane Bynon that problems with decades’ old archaeological treatments have prompted British conservators to rethink unearthing materials in the first place. It may be best to leave known artifacts in the ground or under water in an environment that has allowed their preservation thus far, rather than removing them and initiating a series of treatments. As careful as conservators try to be, loss is often involved in treatments. The ideal of reversibility frequently translates into the reality of re-treatability. Some in the archaeological branch of the field question whether routine cleaning is ethical. Even the simple process of brushing dirt off a shard removes irreplaceable contextual information and evidence of the artifact’s history.
For those responsible for museum collections, then, the lesson of obsolescence should not provoke mistrust in conservators. Rather it should be a caution to undertake any kind of treatment without education, research, training, and experience. Seek advice from those you know to be knowledgeable; gathering multiple opinions will inform your decisions more thoroughly. Most importantly, work to establish storage environments that will promote preservation: managing light, temperature, and RH levels and protecting artifacts from pests and pollutants. With good collections care practices, artifact treatments will still be necessary, but less (handling and solution applications) is usually more.
High Tack Fish Glue is another appropriate product for artifact preservation that our C2C workshops recommend and use in hands-on practice. It is fairly affordable and accessible, sold online by Lee Valley Tools.
A one-liter bottle costs $19.50, but a little goes a long way for most collections repair needs. The vendor also offers a ½ ounce, nail polish-style brush bottle for $3.50 (shipping charges additional). Unlike granulated hide glue, liquid forms do have a limited shelf life, so consider ordering a small bottle or distributing a larger amount amongst your regional cultural resources network.
This product is completely reversible with ethanol, and several conservators who work regularly with wood recommend it for our C2C audience. David Beaudin, Frame Conservator at the NC Museum of Art, first introduced high tack fish glue to us as a good solution for a common collections care problem. Often in working with wood collections, both furniture and frames, small bits of carving or veneer detach—either by becoming unglued or by a mechanical break. In an institution with a fairly large collection, the risk of dissociation is high. It is much safer for the perpetual care of the object to re-adhere the piece using appropriate and reversible materials.
Animal hide glue is a well known as a conservation product, but the expertise and equipment used to cook and apply the glue and clamp the parts may seem too daunting for many collections managers to undertake. Consequently, a North Carolina furniture conservator reported that he once had to drive several hours to a museum just to re-attach a small piece of wood with hide glue. With the right products, such as a ready-to-use liquid form of hide glue, museum collections workers can safely accomplish simple repairs. Even if efforts result in some misalignment, the glue’s reversibility ensures that a conservator can correct the problem, if need be, at a later time.
We will be distributing and practicing with high tack fish glue in our upcoming September 26th workshop, “A Closer Look at Wood and Metals.” In addition, conservators Jane and Mark Bynon will present on the special challenges these materials pose and describe their treatment strategies.
Exhibition poses several dangers for fragile artifacts, and textile items are among the most vulnerable. Light deteriorates textile fibers over time. Exhibit cases and custom-built mounts must be constructed from preservation-appropriate materials, otherwise the risk of acid migration is high.
While many museum textile collections show evidence of damage by both light and pollutants, examples from two county historical museums in North Carolina are particularly instructive.
Years ago “Museum A” framed a 130+ year-old silk flag and hung it for display.
Lovely, damaging, natural light flooded the galleries, and the flag’s silk ground gradually disintegrated. (Notice the dark loss areas on the piece’s proper left.) Sadly, this flag should be retired from exhibition and Museum A should take measures to control light in its galleries in order to protect other textile pieces (shown in the frame’s reflection). There is still hope, however, for Museum A’s exhibition goals. Digital technology now generates high quality reproductions. This museum should reproduce its piece to maintain its current exhibition and perhaps distribute the facsimilies more broadly. In addition, the museum has recently instituted an “Adopt An Artifact” program and the flag is up for adoption. If conservation funds materialize, the original artifact can be stabilized and stored safely.
“Musuem B’s” textile tale also contains elements of degradation and hope. During the 1990s Museum staff retrieved a beautiful appliquéd quilt from storage, dating circa 1825, with a strong local provenance. In order to prepare the piece for exhibition, Museum B spent more than a thousand dollars to send the piece to a New York conservator for stain removal. At the same time, Museum B found a place inside its historic house to display the quilt permanently and had a case custom fabricated for that purpose.
Unfortunately, staff or contractors placed inadequate barrier layers between the case’s wooden frame and the quilt. After more than a decade, acid migration stains from the wood’s off-gassing mar the piece. Current staff members at Museum B are aware of the problem, are seeking funds to send the piece out for further conservation, and are planning to design (with a conservator’s help) “permanent” housing for the quilt, using carefully selected materials.
These local stories highlight the need for continuing accessible training in collections care across our state. From Currituck to Cherokee (C2C), our team is traveling around regularly to teach preventative conservation methods in order to avoid this kind of damage to our state’s artifactual treasures.