Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Week Two at Independence: Conserve, Inventory, Repeat.

                After waiting almost two weeks for my background check and fingerprints to clear, I finally received my NPS identification card and key into the storage areas at the Second Bank. I suppose the process was a test in patience, resilience, and desire for the job. Either way, I learned the complicated steps needed to work for the federal government.

                Last week, I continued to inventory, inspect objects for damage, and clean the drawers of the flat-file cases. As I mentioned in my first blog post, the flat-file cases contain paper-based materials. These items haven’t been inventoried in about five years, so going through them is a big help to our museum registrar.

                Some of the drawers were problematic, however. For example, several drawers included wallpaper samples from various Independence park sites. The wallpaper samples were stored in folders that measured over a foot long, so one of Independence’s museum technicians helped me to lift them out of the drawers. We did so with the makeshift support of sturdy cardboard to stabilize the center of the folders. Some of these materials were not only problematic for their large size, but because of the natural aging process that causes paper to shed over time. Physically removing the wallpaper also brought the risk of further shedding, so extra care was required.

                The question of removing the material at the risk of further deterioration was a question with many of the book drawers well. Many of the books range between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which is a cause for concern. Some of the books are made from animal skins, which over time, are materials that cause of specific form of deterioration called red rot. It’s essentially the shedding of the binding that looks like rust. The process is inevitable, but it’s important to limit movement as much as possible. Due to the fire, however, it was important to ensure that none of the books had been exposed to soot.

                On Wednesday, I finished inventorying the flat file cases and began helping two other museum technicians with some of the pastel paintings hanging in the Portrait Gallery, located on the first floor of the Second Bank. You can read more here about the collection:

                I was tasked with inspecting the 30+ pastel paintings hanging in the Portrait Gallery for any soot damage from the fire. Called the “sharples” after British artists James and Ellen Sharples, these artworks were wrapped about ten years ago in conservator’s tape to seal them from dust and any other inconspicuous particles. They are hanging on the wall in a very specific way to prevent theft, so my coworker gave me a crash course in removing the frames from the wall. 

                    Once I removed the painting from the wall, I sat down at a table under a bright light and opened each individual frame. The frames were custom-made for each individual pastel. I unscrewed the frames, some of which had more screws than other to support the different sharples. 

                   Upon removal from the frame, I took the pastel out of its holding. Each one is wrapped in conservator’s tape, as can be seen here from the front and back views of this portrait of First Lady Dolly Madison. 

Back view of the pastel painting covered in plastic conservator's tape. 
      I checked each painting for any gaps in the tape, which this one didn’t have. This was fortunate seeing as the inside of the wood had quite a bit of dust, as can be seen on the cloth’s debris. I inspected the approximately thirty sharples on the wall, some of which I set aside. Someone on staff will later reapply tape to the exposed areas of these problem pastels. Fortunately, the sharples were protected from the soot from January’s fire. 

These lint- and acid-free cloths are used to clean artifacts. The one on the right shows the debris from the inside of the wooden frame. Fortunately, the tape on the pastel was well-sealed, which prevented any of the dust from seeping in.

               While quite a bit of work, it’s a lesson in the importance of consistent conservation. While the aging process is inevitable and disasters can occur, the preparation process can go a long way in slowing natural and man-made damage to important historic objects. 

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