Sunday, July 19, 2015

Week Seven at Independence: The Basics of Silver Polishing

             This week was a whirlwind of meeting an art conservator, building boxes, and learning how to polish silver. You may be thinking, “Polishing silver? That sounds easy enough.” But trust me when I say that it takes patience often only found on the resumes of elementary school teachers.

            On Monday morning, I met Karie and another coworker in one of the Second Bank storage rooms to meet with an art conservator. There are dozens of racks that hold various paintings owned by the city of Philadelphia before they were transferred to INDE’s care. One such painting was done by a local Philadelphia painter who copied characteristics from Charles Willson Peale. Upon a request from Mount Vernon, INDE is loaning out the painting. While the painting is in relatively good condition for its period, it needs to be reframed and its canvas needs to be conserved.

            Before the painting can be sent to Virginia or even to the art conservator, the painting needs to be appraised for its market value. The museum technician and I brought the painting out for the appraiser since the painting measured over six feet. He measured it and took several notes on its condition so he could make comparisons to local market value. When I asked Karie about it later, she told me that it would take about a month and a half for him to send her the final value. I wasn’t aware that it was such a long process to contextualize this painting among its contemporaries and current prices attached to it. I had met an art conservator my second week at INDE who handles the more technical, artistic side of the evaluation process, but it was an informative process to witness how the value of a painting is actually determined. I hope to attend more of these meetings in the future.

            The following day, I built several archival-material boxes to house some deteriorating books in one of the storage rooms. They are currently stored in a cabinet in one of the storage rooms, but their condition is so poor that they need to be stored with extra care. My coworker ordered the boxes, which I later folded. She’ll later build inserts to firmly hold the books within the boxes so that they don’t shift around when they’re shipped to be conserved or when they’re moved to be examined.

            Most of my week, however, revolved around polishing silver. I was tasked with polishing a reproduction silver inkstand in another building in the park. The inkstand is a reproduction of the original that was purportedly used to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was badly tarnished, but polishing it with a custom application of oils and minute amounts of water would do the trick. I had never polished silver before, so my coworkers gave me a crash course in how it’s done.

            Using these small raw cotton wipes with polishing oil removes the tarnish embedded in the silver that accumulates over time. The oils remove the tarnish, but the problem is that it brings up black debris that never really seems to go away no matter how fervently I wiped it away. That’s why the process takes so long, but my coworkers showed me a trick that helps to move it along. Once the brass-like tarnish is removed, using very small amounts of distilled water dipped in lint-free cloths can remove the black streaks. It worked! But what really took the longest was working on the tiny grooves in the detail work, particularly on the base of the inkstand. I used large cotton swab sticks to remove the tarnish, which took the bulk of my time.

Unpolished silver reproduction inkstand. Gloves, polishing wipes, cotton swabs, and lint-free wipes are used to polish the silver.

Top of unpolished inkstand base.
Tarnished bottom of silver inkstand base. 

 While it took me awhile to finish, it felt really empowering to care for something that goes on display for the public. Maybe you’ll see it and think of me! It’s a great skill to learn, and I’m happy that I got some practice in it. Here are the after photos:

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