Saving historyMay 31, 2023 01:40PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
The objects included a grave marker, a wallet and a bust of a Supreme Court justice. Their tools included saliva, a scalpel and a reversible acrylic adhesive called Paraloid B-72.
And the tools were used on the objects only after extensive documentation and sensitive contemplation by the University of Delaware students in their art conservation internship class.
“We take care of artifacts so that we can take care of the people who created them,” said Nina Owczarek, their instructor.
UD runs one of only six undergraduate art conservation programs in the United States, said Madeline Hagerman, the program’s chair, and it’s the only one of them where all the instructors are experts in conservation (as contrasted to other museum skills).
There are only five graduate art conservation programs in the country, she said, and UD runs one of those, too, along with Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. UD is America’s only university with both undergraduate and graduate programs in art conservation.
“Why do we conserve objects?” she asked. “Because they’re important to somebody.”
Much more than paintings
Art conservation is probably best known for its work on paintings, which have the frustrating tendencies for colors to change by light or pollution and for surfaces to become marred by tiny cracks called craquelure. But conservationists work on all sorts of objects, with all sorts of issues.
The department plans in October to host an open house that will showcase the fascinating and delicate work. Details will be posted on www.artcons.udel.edu.
People in the field today are very attuned to respecting the cultures that created the objects. Is it appropriate for outsiders to investigate, clean and repair them? “It always starts with documentation,” Owczarek said, “so we know what we’re doing is done with thought and respect, without insulting a culture.” That lesson to think and analyze first was clear to the students in this class.
Here’s another question they need to answer: What period should the conservation aim for? Its creation, today – or some time in between?
The department regularly treats objects for several partners. They include the New Castle Historical Society; the Iron Hill Science Center, near Newark; Wilmington Friends School in Alapocas; Central High School in Philadelphia; George Leader, of the Arch Street Project, a salvage archaeology project at the site of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia’s burial ground; and Adam Fraccia of the Wye House Plantation, a 1792 plantation on Maryland’s Wye Island.
Art conservation has always been dominated by women, Hagerman said, tracing its history to the wives of archaeologists working on items found by their husbands and their crew.
Art history + chemistry = art conservation
UD in 1971 created its interdiscliplinary bachelor’s degree in art conversation, sponsored by the art history and chemistry departments. It was rethought a decade later and renamed technology of art and historic objects. A second rethink returned the original name. A modern sample curriculum of the degree includes at least a dozen courses in art conservation and five in chemistry, plus recommended courses in art, art history and anthropology.
Students are encouraged to double-major or minor in related fields, such as chemistry, art history, anthropology, a foreign language, art or material culture studies. “Name a discipline, and I can find how it’s connected,” Owczarek said.
Chemistry remains critical because conservations need to understand what the object is made from to develop the best treatment. “We’re affecting objects as little as possible,” Hagerman said, noting that starts with properly handling. Support the spines of books. Avoid using handles, which are inherently weak points for ceramics. Wear gloves when appropriate (hint: it’s inappropriate when their reduced friction might cause an object to be dropped).
Conservation is about specific objects, Hagerman said, as contrasted to preservation, which includes the mechanics of deciding how objects are stored and displayed.
Some seemingly mundane objects reveal important stories about the past, she said, and those stories are best told when they are conserved. Consider a wedding ensemble recently donated to UD. The love letters that came with it added to its depth.
In recent class, Hannah Covel was examining a multicolored Berber wallet, and she had been working with art history professor Ikem S. Okoye on its heritage. There’s nothing known about its recent provenance, but microscopy determined it was made from goat or sheep leather.
She also showed off an earlier project: a shovel blade excavated from the Wye House, a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Her research determined that shovel blades were made in adult and child sizes (this was for an adult) and for different purposes (she’s not sure what kind this is). She used a scalpel and other tools to separate the pieces from the dirt it was found in. The she used that special adhesive to glue together the largest pieces, stowed tiny remnants in a plastic bag and packed it all in a custom-made box.
Sabrina Hetlinger was assessing a broken grave marker, from the Lelna culture, now in Nigeria. They stopped making the markers in the 1940s, she knew, and she also knew that she had all the pieces. But she was still in the research stage and hadn’t determined the best way to repair it and return it to Philadelphia’s Central High.
Then there was that dirty and chipped plaster bust of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, from the Supreme Court archives. Student Kate Knesek has been carefully cleaning it, starting with the gentlest tools: deionized water and cotton swabs. She moved up to tougher areas with saliva (the enzymes do wonders, and artificial saliva is a thing), ethanol, vinyl erasers and cosmetic sponges.
Along the way she was also inpainting damaged areas – using a color that doesn’t quite match, so that future conservationists know what’s original and what’s rehab.
“It’s the coolest thing to see it go from being pretty gross,” Knesek said.