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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Friday, May 18, 2018

Conserving the Details From a Poet's Life

Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1914

A conservator's work often entails dealing with art and artifacts that span the spectrum from the truly spectacular to the mundane. All need to be treated with the same respect no matter their type or provenance, and the conservator's training allows her to see and understand the importance of each and every item in her care.

Passing through the conservator's studio a couple of years ago were some everyday objects belonging to one of America's most respected and successful poets. Born in 1892, Edna St. Vincent Millay grew up in a household with a strong, independent mother who took an intense interest in seeing her daughter exposed to a broad and liberal cultural education. Millay flourished in this environment, went on to graduate from Vassar College, and become a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and feminist activist. 

Millay spent the last twenty-five years of her life with her husband at their home, called Steepletop, in Austerlitz, NY. Today the house still holds all of her furniture, her books and other possessions, many of which remain where they were on the day she died in 1950. The site is maintained by the nonprofit Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. 

Steepletop as it appears today

Enter the conservator sixty-five years after Millay's death. Three items -- a pastel portrait of Millay, a lampshade, and a Do Not Disturb hotel sign -- were all in need of treatment. 

The large portrait (30 x 25 inches) had been executed in 1937 on a dense laminated board by illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein for McCall's magazine. Because of Steepletop's humid environment, mold was present, as was staining, on Millay's face and the background. Extensive dirt and debris were found when the frame was opened during initial examination. The goal of the treatment was to compensate for the mold damage and reframe the picture using archival materials. The backing board and matting were removed and discarded, mold residue was removed and the staining was in-painted with a similar type of medium. Reassembly required attaching the portrait to acid-free board with Japanese paper hinges, creating a new window mat of acid-free board, cleaning the frame and adding glass with ultraviolet filtering.

Before and after treatment of Edna's portrait.

The early 20th century lampshade consisted of six paper panels containing three alternating bird prints. Not only was the shade dirty from coal soot, the metal support at its top had separated from the paper and it had been repaired with tape. It appeared that a coating, possibly to imitate thin wood veneer, had been allied to the panels. Compounding the condition were losses at the edges of the shade and a 3-inch tear with smaller tears radiating out from it. The focus of the treatment was to secure the metal support and mend the tear with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. Creases and paper distortions were reduced through humidification.

The most curious artifact of all was the circa 1927 paper sign reading "DO NOT DISTURB / THE COPLEY-PLAZA / BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS", which hung from the doorknob by a string. What would be an occasion that would cause someone to keep such a memento? It's interesting that Millay was in Boston along with other writers in August 1927 to protest the verdict of Sacco and Vanzetti and was arrested for her participation. Her prominence afforded her a meeting with the governor where she made the case of Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence. Could a simple hotel sign symbolize such an important event?

Before and after treatment of the sign

As often happens with ephemera, careless use or storage often get the better of it. The paper had separated into three pieces, there were tears around the string holes, and fragments of the sign had torn away. The cotton string was kinked, creased, knotted and dirty. After cleaning, the sign was reinforced with acid-free board for additional support and the tears were mended with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. Losses were replaced by toned Japanese tissue and in-painted as necessary. Lastly, a support stand was created for the sign.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Successfully Mounting Barkcloth with Magnets

A few months ago I was fortunate to have a visit with Monique Pullan, a conservator of organic artifacts at the British Museum. I was interested in seeing how she was mounting a range of artifacts using a magnetic system, and I was especially curious to talk with her about mounting barkcloth, which has long been a challenging material to display safely.

First, what is Barkcloth?

"Barkcloth is a versatile material that was once common in Asia, Africa, Indonesia, and the Pacific. Barkcloth comes primarily from trees of the Moraceae family, including Broussonetia papyrifera, Artocarpus altilis, and Ficus natalensis. It is made by beating sodden strips of the fibrous inner bark of these trees into sheets, which are then finished into a variety of items. Many texts that mention "paper" clothing are actually referring to barkcloth."    -- Wikipedia, accessed February 24, 2018

Making barkcloth

Given the fibrous nature of the material and methods of fabrication, barkcloth is often characterized by creased surfaces, undulating edges and irregular sizes. It is used for clothing, for masks and various ritual objects, to support painted decoration and to mark sacred spaces. Write Nicholas Thomas and Jonathan Watkins, "... barkcloth formed a major vehicle for creativity, kinship, exchange, and the expression of political prestige. Everywhere these fabrics maintained and communicated the artists’ deep connections to ancestors and country." [1]

As you can imagine there are large collections of barkcloth in museums ranging in date from the early nineteenth century up to the present day. Also called Tapa cloth, they are important culturally, symbolically and historically, but are often collected for their sheer decorative appeal.

Mounting with Magnets

Barkcloth has long been a challenge to mount in museums due to its wide variety and difficulty of fitting it within standard mounting museum methods. For one, is it a textile or paper? Actually, neither of these fully describe the nature of this material. Conservators have in the past generally mounted barkcloth as though it was a textile, using Velcro, sleeves for rods, hinges or even Plexiglas clips in an attempt to find a suitable method to support these widely varied materials.

As one can imagine the possibilities of using magnets is now an increasingly viable option. What has become clear in researching magnetic systems for mounting barkcloth with magnets, however, is that few systems have been published. The few systems that have been published do not fully describe the system such that could be fully reproduced.

Part of the reason to visit Monique Pullman at the British Museum was to see she how she has mounted barkcloth in their collection. She showed me a method were she attached a 'magnetic' stainless steel sheet to a Tycore (honeycomb archival paper board) mount. The full mount was covered with flannel and display fabric (for information about 'magnetic' stainless steel see our recent post 'What is magnetized stainless steel?'). The fabric-covered, disc-shaped N42 grade magnets were positioned along the upper and side edges of the barkcloth, as shown below. The outer surface of the magnets were covered with toned Japanese tissue paper (more can be read about camouflage of magnets by reading 'How do I camouflage my magnets?').

Cross-section of the magnetic mounting system used by Monique Pullman and the British Museum (left);
Schematic showing the location of the individual disc-shaped magnets along the upper and side edges.

Monique Pullman's mock-up board for her
magnetic system for mounting Barkcloth.

This is only one of the many variations of magnetic mounting systems that have been used and that I have documented. A summary of all of the systems found at this time is that they are all 'point-fasteners', in essence where single individual magnets, either disc- or block-shaped, are used with a receiving metal.

In studying the magnetic systems used, I have been interested in the spacing and location of the individual magnets, the weight and thickness of the barkcloth, the grade, size and shape of the magnet, as well as the type and gauge of the receiving side metal or the ferromagnetic material, whether stainless steel or steel. All of these details are important to gather in order to replicate the mounting system or to even develop a possible 'rule of thumb' to mount an artifact as varied as barkcloth.

In my forthcoming book, Magnetic Mounting in Art Conservation and Museums, many magnetic mounting systems are illustrated to mount barkcloth and other types of collections -- with an attempt to present systems that can offer solutions to meet the variety of types of cloths that can be found in museums.

[1] Nicholas Thomas and Jonathan Watkins. Tapa: Barkcloth Paintings from the Pacific. Exhibition Catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK. 2013.

Additional Resources
Kimberly Adams. World in Progress: Modern Bark cloth in Uganda. Deutsche Welle. (2016-01-27). 2016-01-28.

Margot M. Wright (ed.). Barkcloth: Aspects of preparation, use,deterioration, conservation and display, 96-111. London: Archetype Publications. 2007.
Peter Mesenhöller and Annemarie Stauffer (eds.).  Made in Oceana: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Social and Cultural Meanings and Presentation of Oceanic Tapa. 117-28. Newcastle on Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2014.

UNESCO. Bark Cloth Making in Uganda. 2005.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hands-on magnet experiments that look closely at particle size

One of my local museums, MiSci, in Schenectady, New York, is a popular hands-on science oriented museum. During my last visit, I was greatly surprised to find a small exhibit with strong magnets that tested the attraction of various iron particle sizes. The exhibit consisted of three vessels filled with liquid (see photo below); at the bottom of each vessel were particles of iron. Each of the three vessels held a different size of iron particles, starting with a "nano" size. Positioned near the vessel were two magnets on vertical sliding rods.

Three vessels with magnets on rods. Each vessel contained different sized
 particles of iron, yet the magnet near each vessel was the same size and strength. 

The purpose of the exhibit was to learn how the particles behave in the presence of the magnet. For the interest of conservation and understanding more about iron particles, this was a wonderful activity to see!

Below is the image of the iron particles that are considered "nano" size or 100 nanometers or 0.1 microns. In the presence of the magnet, the particles are all clustered together very near the magnetic field. As the magnet moves up the vessel the particles stay together following the magnet and traveling easily together in a tight group.

The image below shows a larger size particle, called "magnetite sand" at 1,500,000 nanometers. These particles followed the magnet as it moved up and down on the rod, but did not remain as a tight group. These particles are so small they have fewer magnetic regions that can align to be attracted to the magnet. More about domains can be read in a previous blog post "Magnets are only as strong as ....".  

Next is "magnetite powder", at 3,000 nanometers. These particles only slightly are attracted to the magnets. These particles are hardly attached to the magnetic field force. They really just want to sit at the bottom of the container.

So, what is going on here? What might be the difference between "sand" and "powder"? Clearly it is the activity of the small regions, even smaller than the particles called "domains". It is how these domains align in the presence of a magnet that make them attach to a magnet or not.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Conserving New York's Suffrage Wagon

The journeys of historical artifacts often take many twists and turns; their stories become embellished and some undergo physical changes that make deciphering their histories all the more challenging. In honor of Women’s History Month, we thought it would be interesting to share the conservation challenges of a wagon that was used by the New York State Suffrage Association to advance the cause of women’s right to vote in the early 20th century.

The treated wagon as on display at the New York State Museum. The
later letting 'Sprit of 1776' can  be easy seen

In June of 1913, the Association received the wagon as a gift from the I.S. Remson Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn for use in suffrage parades in New York City and Long Island. The wagon was said to have a Revolutionary War pedigree, although that story has not been corroborated. After the right to vote was successfully achieved, the wagon was retained by the Kearns family who accepted it on behalf of the Association until it eventually made its way to the New York State Museum by way of the short-lived Museum of Women in Manhattan. A side panel on the wagon is painted with the lettering, "Spirit of 1776," the name Edna Buckman Kearns is said to have named the vehicle, according to her great-granddaughter. Was this because of the unfounded pedigree? We'll likely never know.

The wagon when on parade. The lettering visible
in the image can only faintly seen, but still
present (see the image below).

The wagon, accurately termed a New England Pleasure Wagon, received conservation treatment by Gwen Spicer and Ron duCharme in 2000, with the goal of stabilizing it for exhibit. The treatment focused on the three materials used in the wagon’s construction – the wood wheels, axles, and body; the body's painted surfaces; and the iron springs, wheel hubs and rims.

Inadequate storage and exposure to weather take their toll on wood and painted surfaces. Dry rot, shrinkage, warping and crumbling paint are common problems. In the case of the wagon, they were compounded by grease, oil and bird guano.

A thorough cleaning required removing the wood body and wheels from the carriage. What was left of the lettering on the wagon body’s sides needed to be protected to prevent further paint loss during the remainder of the cleaning process. This was achieved by consolidating the painted surfaces with a dilute solution of Acryloid B-72, applied by brush. Dirt and soil could then be removed from the body with diluted detergent and water. Grease and oil on the running gear were cleaned with mineral spirits.

The wagon during the stabilization of the painted regions. At
least two campaigns of  paint are present. The '6' of 1776 can
be seen in the image above.

A separated side panel was glued back into place and small wood losses and missing molding were reproduced, glued in place and toned. Plaster fill from a previous restoration was removed.

All heavily corroded metal components were cleaned with brass bristle brushes, degreased with mineral spirits and then coated with magnesium phosphyl in order to chelate the metal before being painted with dilute black enamel.

The uneven color of the wood surfaces was evened out by brushing on water-soluble aniline dye. A final protective application of dilute Acryloid B-72 in xylene was thinly applied to all surfaces by spray gun and a second thin-layer was applied to heavily weathered areas.

Despite its centuries of use, the Suffrage Wagon has earned its place in history. It can no longer withstand prolonged stress and most certainly cannot hold people or be pulled any distance. For long-preservation, the recommended temperature is between 60-70 F, and relative humidity between 40-55%. Light levels should be between 5 and 10 footcandles.

Additional Resources

Bill Bleyer. Women's groups petition NY state museum to display LI suffrage leader's wagon.    Newsday.  June 27, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2018.

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. Preserving and Restoring Furniture Coatings. Accessed March 23, 2018.

Monday, March 5, 2018

When Water Strikes, It's a Freezer to the Rescue!

Unusually warm temperatures last week have caused rivers and creeks in our area to swell, flooding low-lying areas. Earlier this winter the River Seine rose to flood stage, causing the Louvre to implement emergency protocols and close its lower level.

When a water disaster strikes a textile collection or organic collection, a humble freezer can become an institution's best friend. Subjecting items to a deep freeze will halt bacterial and fungal activity and give an institution time to develop a remediation and conservation plan. Procedures for freezing textiles should be a part of any organization's disaster plan.

No natural water disaster or leak is too small or large for a freezer to be helpful.

And the faster the response time, the better.

It is important to place the textiles into the freezer as soon as possible to minimize mold growth. Ideally, items should be wrapped in plastic with minimal folds or overlaps, thus creating a larger surface area. Interleave fabric layers with freezer or waxed paper to prevent dye transfer.

Attached labels added to the packages

Items should be spaced apart from each other to promote rapid freezing, preferable in separate packages. Insure that the package are labeled with information about the artifact, including the accession number. The more information included the better since it might be a while until they can be addressed. Do not rely on your memory of what is inside.

Fabric layers are separated with freezer or waxed paper 
Previously frozen textiles await cleaning

Water damaged textiles can then be removed from a freezer and quickly wet cleaned.

In consultation with a conservator a proposal can be developed to treat the water-damaged textiles.

Additional Resources

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. "Salvaging Water Damaged Textiles."  Accessed February 15, 2018.

Connecting to Collections Care. Video, "Salvage of Water Damaged Textiles." Source: Video demonstration of salvaging wet textiles – Preservation Australia. Accessed February 15, 2018.

FEMA Fact Sheet. "Salvaging Water-Damaged Family Valuables and Heirlooms."  Accessed February 24, 2018.

National Park Service. Conserv-O-Gram, "Salvage at a Glance, Part V." 2003. Accessed February 15, 2018.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What is Magnetized Stainless Steel?

If you don't know it by now, we at Spicer Art Conservation think about magnets a lot. And with Gwen's book, Magnetic Mounting for Art Conservation and Museums (to be published by Archetype later this year), we like to share what we're discovering about their properties and applications.

The other day a client called about how to mount an artifact in their institution using magnets. We worked out a system where counter-sunk disc magnets would be secured to the wall allowing the artifact to be held in place with thin stainless steel discs. The registrar proceeded to order the supplies. She called back a few minutes later asking, "what is magnetized stainless steel?" and then stated, "but stainless steel is not magnetic!"

As it turns out stainless steel is not just one metal, but instead is composed of a group of metals or alloys. All of the metals in this group are magnetic, except one. The confusion lays in the fact that the non-magnetic type of stainless steel called "austenitic" is the most commonly used stainless steel for producing domestic products, and thus it is the type of stainless steel that we are most familiar with. (An example is stainless steel utensils/flatware that have 18-20% of chromium and 8-10% nickel, which is not magnetic.) 

When nickel is added, as with the utensils/flatware example above, stainless steel becomes non-magnetic and its anti-rust properties are enhanced. The more nickel the greater the corrosion resistance. But, its presence also causes the stainless steel to be non-magnetic. This stainless steel is the austenitic type.

The stainless steel alloy has at least 10.5% chromium. It is the added chromium that creates the protective layer of chromium oxides on the surface that prevents the development of iron oxide rust. It is the added chromium that makes the metal both rust and scratch resistant, and with the increase of chromium, resistance is also increased. Chromium can make up as much as a quarter of the weight.

Magnetic stainless steel is based on the amounts of alloying elements as described above as well as on the grain structure and the amount of cold working. Another interesting fact is that austenitic type stainless steel with a low amount of nickel can be reverted to a magnetic type when cold hardened. However, it is true that the metal has a crystalline structure that has a lower magnetic permeability than just steel alone.

The odd thing you might now being asking is, "But nickel is ferromagnetic! How can it NOT be magnetic?" Therefore, you would think that when nickel is added to iron and chromium it would be even more magnetic. But this is not the case! Why this happens is based on the different atomic arrangements between face-centered cubic (FCC) and body-centered cubic (BCC) -- austenitic with nickel and ferritic without nickel, respectively.

Face-centered cubic (FCC)                        Body-centered cubic (BCC)

Therefore, if you want a ferromagnetic material that will not easily corrode and has a thin profile, stainless steel is a great option for that magnetic system.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Conservation and Mounting for the Exhibition of an 18th Century Silk Officer's Sash

What do you do when you are asked to perform the seemingly impossible? You bring in the troops.

Much of conservation and museum work is about team work. Spicer Art Conservation, LLC recently completed a project that encompassed the conservation and mounting of 28 military artifacts. (you might be reading more about these artifacts in upcoming future blogs, and if you missed it, check out our recent blog that discussed just the hats that were treated in the project: "Conserving, Storing, and Mounting Hats").

18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic garments, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservaton, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display, restoration, repair, preservationSprang weave closeup of an 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic garments, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display, restoration, repair, preservation

Left: The Silk Sash as it appeared before treatment.

Above: A close up of the weave structure of the Silk Sash. Sprang weave is unique, and while the sash may appear to be a knitted textile, upon close examination, it is not.

For this particular artifact, the curators from the owning institution desired that the Silk sprang-weave Officer's Sash would be mounted as it was worn by the officer. The difference between this request, and other more traditional mannequin based mounts, is that the sash was to be mounted alone, without any other artifact. Instead the sash would be displayed on a singular, custom designed and fabricated, three-dimensional mount that appeared to float in midair.

design of mount for 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic garments, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservaton, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display
The sketch that showed the original display idea of the curators.

We were given a sketch of the concept (see above) and the rest was ours to design and execute. Luckily, we were working with the very talented staff of Brigid Mountmaking on this project. A member of their group, Deanna Hovey, came to the studio and we soon worked out an idea. The mount would meet the needs of the curator's display concept, and at the same time, would provide full support of the long sash. The mount would then be fabricated by Deanna and brought back to Spicer Art Conservation later for covering with show fabric, and a final fitting of the sash.

Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, LLC and Mountmaker, Deanna Hovey of Brigid Mountmaking, discuss the design of the mount of an 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic garments, textile conservator, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display, restoration, repair, preservation
Deanna Hovey (left) of Brigid Mount Makers and Gwen Spicer (right) of
Spicer Art Conservation, LLC work to design a mount to provide support
for the 18th century sash, and to meet the display needs of the exhibit curators.

A custom made mount to exhibit an 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic officer's sash, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, exhibit and display, restoration, preservation
Once Brigid Mountmaking fabricated the mount, it returned to
Spicer Art Conservation. The team worked to carefully mount the Silk Sash.
Above the photo shows how the sash is supported by first being folded
around one side of the "yin and yang" mount halves. The sash then is
supported at the rear (bottom of photograph above, and detail in photo below)
with another piece that holds it securely in place. The mount is supported
on ethafoam blocks to provide easy manipulation of the mount.

Custom mount for display and exhibit of an 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, mount making for historic garments, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display, restoration, repair, preservation
The rear of the display mount has a fully supportive contoured
back support which holds the sash securely in place with overall
pressure between the soft surfaces. The long rod that sticks out
of the back will secure the mount on to the display deck.

The fully supportive custom made 3D mount for an 18th century red silk officer's sash, conservation, historic garments, textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display and exhibit, restoration, repair, preservation
The bottom of the mount shows the hardware and metal securing
components. Notice that all metal pieces are perfectly toned
to match the color of the show fabric. 

The sash was fully supported because of the method it was placed within and wrapped around the custom mount. But as that the actual duration of the exhibit was not fully known, additional anchoring stitches were placed at the waist. This was a safety feature to ensure that the effects of gravity would be lessened. Of course the stitches were carefully placed so as not to penetrate the yarns of the sash, rather they anchor loops of the stitches to the mount.

The after conservation treatment photograph of an 18th century red silk officer's sash, the sash was custom mounted and conserved, mount fabricated by Brigid Mountmakers, historic garments professionally and expertly conserved by textile conservator Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservaton, Military artifacts, collectibles, antiques, display, restoration, repair, preservation
The finished treatment. The Silk Sash is securely mounted in a free-hanging display.

The display of this sash was a different approach than the way other silk officer's sashes that have been prepared for exhibit at Spicer Art Conservation, LLC. These sashes are amazingly stretchy (thanks to the sprang-weave) and much like this one, appeared on American officer's waists as early as the Revolutionary War. In fact, we have treated officer's sashes from the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. If you would like to know more about officer's sashes, check out our blog post that discusses them in depth, particularly the characteristics of sashes from different eras and conflicts: "How do you know? Dating a War of 1812 Sash".

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.  

Look for Gwen's book, "Magnetic Mounting for Art Conservators and Museums",  to be released in 2018.