Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The conservation of Edison's Tin Foil - the lost recording now found.

How does an art conservator, conserve sound?  Sound is made of waves that penetrate the air, that move and bounce, not something that one holds in their hands or sits on your work bench.  Sound is motion that creates vibrations in our ears, not an inanimate object that one observes, cleans, or consolidates:  all of the typical activities that an art conservator performs.

Conservation of Edison tinfoil, before treatment, object
The Edison tinfoil before conservation.

This was the dilemma that was confronted by Art Conservator, Gwen Spicer, earlier this year, when Chris Hunter, Curator and Director of Collections at miSci, (formerly the Schenectady Museum) brought the earliest known full sheet of Thomas Edison's tin-foil to the conservation lab.

Typically when treating an artifact, a conservator can visually observe the changes that are occurring as the treatment progresses, and how these changes are effecting the end product.  All types of tools are used in order to enhance this ability, the use of specific light, magnifiers and microscopes.  But when the end product is the auditory aspect of the artifact, these modern tools are ineffective.

Edison's phonograph serves as the marker for modern sound recording.  It is the beginning of the technology to preserve sound.  Ironically, Gwen Spicer with every tool and technological advance known to conservators, must use the most rudimentary of tools to painstakingly flatten the tinfoil by hand.

It is not what the foil actually looks like that will determine if the sound can be retrieved.  The technology that is used to retrieve the sound will not rely on the surface being absolutely perfect, which is of benefit since the "found" condition of the tin-foil, and the way it was stored, make it impossible to completely flatten.  The tin foil itself is like an archive, with its importance lying in the information that it holds, as opposed to the actual "beauty" of the sheet its self.

When treating this tin-foil, there was a two part aspect to the project.  There was the flattening of the sheet and removing or lessening the folds and creases, which allowed the new technology to better be able to read the surface of the sheet.  The second part was the creation of the sound that was in the bumps and dips of the surface that creates the sound.  As a conservator, you must consider, how much do you touch or hold the sheet so as not to disturb its ability to create the sound?  But of course, that answer is unknown.  In fact, during the treatment there was no real method to know how the treatment was effecting the final outcome.

A next set of experts at California's Berkeley Lab,who would enable the world to finally know what was hidden in this sheet of tin-foil, would ultimately determine if the treatment was effective.  It would only be evident, once they began their attempts to "uncover" the sound.

Tonight, at the GE Theater at Proctor's in Schenectady at 6:30pm, the world will hear the full contents of this Edison tin-foil.  Right now, we know it is a bit longer than one minute, there is some music and a male voice reading "Mary Had a Little Lamb", but the rest is unknown until later this evening.

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 objects and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Conserving a textile lantern from The Wide-Awakes

by Gwen Spicer

In this political season, why not think about an earlier campaign?  Imagine you are watching a nighttime parade, full of young men, wearing black oil cloth capes and hats, and carrying lanterns.  It would be the year 1860, just before the election of Lincoln and Hamlin.  You would be watching the Wide-Awake supporters, a group who wanted to ensure that slavery did not spread to the Western Territories, a sentiment felt by all Republicans of the day. The Wide-Awakes were a political group that began in Hartford, Connecticut and quickly spread over the north, spreading as far west as St. Louis, Missouri. 
1860 photograph of the founding Wide Awake club in Hartford,
Connecticut, shows the paramilitary theme of the organization.
The large Wide Awake parade in lower Manhattan was part of a
series of demonstrations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland,
and Boston during the first week of October 1860.
Wide Awakes sign, civil war era artifacts, Columbia County Historical Society

A large eye emblazoned on their standard attested to their watchfulness over the nation. The group had mottoes like "free soil and free men".  Reports say that these large parades had many oil light torches, but now there are only a few left in existance.
The Columbia County Historical Society is lucky to have one of these.  It is now in their exhibition, Civil War Panorama: Columbia County 1860-1865, open till December 2012.
Smithsonian Institution

Wide Awakes sign, civil war artifacts, Lincoln presidential campaign, restoration, conservation.The torch banner was quite soiled, but was quite complete for being such an awkwardly shaped artifact.  It was constructed of a wooden box frame that was covered with printed cotton fabric stretched on two sides, the front and back. The sides had been covered with fabric as well, but are now mostly lost.  The top had been kept open.  The box is attached to a tall pole.  Forge iron brackets helped to support the two together.
An example of a lamp
CCHS's torch banner does not have the open eye symbol, but it is printed with Chatham, a mid-size town in the county as well as the phrases "Free soil and free men," with added "Free speech and free homes." In some ways, this torch banner is quite explicit with the issues of the group.  Spattered lighter-colored spots were evident from the oil.

The curator and newly appointed Director, Diane Shewchuk, wanted the artifact preserved, yet, still able to maintain its transparency of light.  Additionally, the cotton fabric needed extra support from its many years of being exposed, yet, often, backings or other supports are opaque.

The inside base of the torch, showing
where the oil lamp was secured.
Art conservation, wide awakes, Lincoln presidential campaign, civil war era artifacts, repair and restoration
Positioning and securing the replacement fabric on the sides.
When the torch banner arrived at SAC's studio, it was cleaned throughly. The original cotton fabric layers were reinforced with a sheer fabric that was stretched onto wooden frames that were custom fit inside the wooden armature.  The new fabric was to provide the original cotton with added support and lessen potential bowing.

Once the treatment was complete, we attempted to figure out what the missing sides of the transparency looked like. We had two clues.  One was the remains of a letter that was still attached to the side.  The other was a loose fragment.  In the image below, a possible location was the "N" in the second line down "FREE MEN !" that was located on the reverse side.  By tracing full letters, it was possible to speculate that the sides were also another version of the printed fabric that was on the back side.  Since  all of the cotton was printed, it shows that a number of these transparancies might have been produced.

Art conservation, Lincoln campaign sign, wide-awakes, civil war era artifactsWhile positioning the tracing next to the two sizes of "F", the fragment is closest to the "F" of "FREE MEN!" The width of this phrase matches the width of the missing side.  The mystery had been solved.  But figuring out what the missing sides said would not alter the final exhibit of the piece.  The missing sides were covered with a fill fabric (above left image) to blend with the front and back.  For more info on the Wide-Awakes, the Columbia County Historic Society please visit the links below.

The Torch banner on display with a reproduction oil cloth cape.
Visit the museum's website: www.cchsny.org

Also read Luykas ground hog's impressions: http://luykasgroundhog.tumblr.com


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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The conservation of textiles belonging to Caroline Parker, the Seneca woman known for her clothing.

by Gwen Spicer

Caroline Parker, was a Tonawanda Seneca and older sister to Levi Parker. They were both friends with Lewis Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer and lawyer from Rochester, New York.  It was Morgan who, with the assistance of the Parker family, amassed collections in the mid-nineteenth century of Iroquois artifacts that are now housed at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York; National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark; and the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York.

Native American beadwork, textiles, historic clothing, Caroline Parker, Spicer Art conservation
Caroline Parker, ca. 1840. Daguerreotype
Art conservation, textiles, Native American historic clothing, Iroquois, Caroline Parker
Caroline Parker wearing articles of traditional
Seneca clothing that were sent by Morgan
to the NYSM in 1851. Colored lithograph

Caroline Parker is unusual in the fact that up to recently, she was only known for the clothes that she was pictured wearing and that she had possibly been the creator of these clothes.  Morgan's two published reports on the collections made for the New York State Regents and his subsequent League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois included colored lithographs of Caroline and her brother, Levi, dressed in clothing, and of the individual articles of dress, now in the collections of the New York State Museum.  The full standing figure image is often used in publications or illustrations in exhibitions of a "typical Iroquois woman".  It is fascinating how the clothing has personified not only her, but all Iroquois.  Her image, as well as that of her brother, have become the ideal or stereotype of the well dressed Iroquois.

In 1849, Morgan acquired complete Seneca woman's and man's ceremonial costumes of the day, including this skirt (see above image).  In the daguerreotype, Caroline Parker is shown wearing the woman's costume, consisting of beaded moccasins, leggings, skirt, overdress, blanket, and handbag.  Most, if not all, of which she herself had made.

A note on the images, first between the daguerreotype and the lithograph, the artist did make a few changes.  But also when daguerreotypes are created, the image that they produce is a mirror image of the subject.  The most notable element is the beaded flower on the skirt.  The lithograph, as well as the photograph (both are featured in the images below) of the skirt show it as the object actually exists. 

The images below are the plates from Lewis Henry Morgan's Third Regents Report, Chapter 8.  The clothing articles are the items that Caroline Parker is wearing in the above images. 
Pl. 6  Over-dress, front
Pl. 6a  Over-dress, back

Pl. 5  Skirt

Pl. 4  Female leggings

Pl. 2  Moccason, for female (spelling in the report)

Pl. 11  Work bag
What wonderful luck to have these images of the individual artifacts, and how the assemblage would have been worn. A true treasure. This is especially the case as the the vast majority of the artifacts were destroyed by the devastating 1911 fire of the New York State Capital, where all of the collections were on exhibition.  Below are the clothing articles that survived, which consists of only the overdress and skirt.  Thanks to an IMLS grant in 1998, these and other fragile textiles from the collection were stabilized and rehoused for study.

Iroquois clothing, traditional Native American textiles, art conservation, Spicer Art
Red overdress, NYSM
Beaded Native American textiles, Caroline Parker, Art conservation, Iroquois
Beaded skirt, NYSM
The surviving overdress and skirt are considered to have been made by Caroline herself.  Her mother, Elizabeth Parker was also known as a needlewoman, so it might be that she also had a part in their construction.  However, the RMSC has two beaded textiles, an overdress and table cover, that are attributed solely to Caroline.

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, Iroquois had made adaptions and were influenced by their surroundings. One case in point is the style and cut of the overdress. It has many similarities to the cut of garments worn by the larger New York community during the 1840s. The exception being the beadwork, in particular, which distinguishes it as Native American. (A non-Indian woman, for instance, would have worn lace-trimmed pantalettes instead of bead-trimmed leggings.) 

Now, thanks to Deborah Holler, a historian, Caroline Parker's biography has come to light. We now know the important roll that she played with her family, clan, and larger community.  It was a time of change and turmoil for the Tonawanda Seneca.  Land was sold, new means and ways of living where needed to be found.  With her knowledge of English, promoted by Morgan himself, she acted as translator for her community during the later half of the nineteenth century.  Her education, as a female at the time, was extraordinary.  She attended Baptist Missionary School at Pembroke, later the Cayuga Academy in Auburn, and lastly the State Normal School in Albany, New York.

The New York State Museum has on their website all of their collections: http://collections.nysm.nysed.gov/morgan/. To read more about the skirt www.nysm.nysed.gov/womenshistory/skirt.html.

Rochester Museum & Science Center also has some of their collection online at: http://www3.rmsc.org/museum/exhibits/online/lhm/LHMmain.htm

Many thanks to George Hammell and his assistance with this post.
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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Famous flags, famous folks.

by Barbara Owens

You cannot escape it.  When we discuss objects and artifacts in collections we must talk provenance.  If the object does not hold a "pedigree", it casts doubt as to whether that object is genuine.  Hence, objects with good provenance are so valuable, not just monetarily, but in historic significance.  Some artifacts are simply so old, that even if the story attached to them cannot be verified, the age of the piece places it close enough to a significant person or moment in time that the piece therefore gains importance.

Tecumseh flag, Spicer, art conservation, historic textiles, repair and restoration, mounting and display
Tecumseh Flag, NMAI.
SAC recently treated a fantastic piece of history, the Tecumseh Flag.  It belongs to the Museum of the American Indian and was recently mounted for the centennial anniversary of the War of 1812.  The term "Tecumseh Flag" can be misleading as there is no ONE flag.  Instead, there are several attributed to be affiliated with the Shawnee leader at various museums and historical societies, as well as private collections, around the world.  So why so many?  And which one (or which ones, in this case) is real?  Tecumseh, like Washington, or Custer, or any other famous person in history has many items "attached" to him.  So, separating fact from fiction becomes difficult, if not impossible.

This particular flag has nice provenance and it is in remarkable shape. It is made of wool bunting and hand-stitched with linen thread. Along the hoist are three hand-stitched grommets.

Tecumseh (1768 - October 1813) a  Shawnee leader.
The design of this flag is a British blue ensign flag (yes, the British used red and white as well, but we'll get to that later), which was used throughout the British Commonwealth beginning in 1801 when the St. George Cross, the St. Andrew Cross and the St. Patrick Cross were intertwined.  Therefore, this flag was clearly used in the War of 1812 as a British Navy flag.  But remember, Tecumseh spends his time mainly in the  Michigan Territory, so what is a navy flag doing in the center of the continent? And more importantly, why would such a flag be given to Tecumseh?

The answer is multi-layered.  First, is that it is the custom of the British to present flags, medals or uniforms to Indian chiefs as an understanding of their relationship and the expectation that the Indians will fight for the British.  Many of these flags were referred to as "treaty flags", but there is often an absence of a formal treaty, so perhaps they are best described as "gift flags"?  Tecumseh was aligned with the British through Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, in hopes of creating or maintaining an independent Indian state in the Midwest.  Tecumseh came to the aid of the British in the capture of Fort Detroit.  But, during the Battle of the Thames in 1813, he was killed.  After his death, his confederation fell apart and the British deserted their Indian allies at the peace conference that ended the War of 1812.  Later, American settlers took possession of all the territory south of the Great Lakes.

Northern Indiana

With that bit of history, let us look back to the large number of flags that are associated with Tecumseh and their similarities and differences.  A British red ensign flag is at the Windsor Museum in Canada, also called the Tecumseh Flag.  This flag is said to have covered the body of Tecumseh following his death at the Battle of Thames and has an oral history associated with it.  So while the colors are correct for the time period, the story that accompanies it, can never be confirmed.  The red background is somewhat a mystery in that a red ensign was designated as a merchant ensign, whereas the blue was a Naval Reserve ensign.

Tecumseh Flag, Windsor's Community Museum, ca 1960s.
Windsor Community Museum's Tecumseh Flag. (June 2012)

The construction and the size of both the NMAI's and Windsor's flags are similar.  But one is blue and the other is red.  Two other similar flags are found at the Kentucky and Minnesota Historical Societies, respectively.  The color differences and their relationship to Tecumseh is a mystery.  Are they simply legends perpetuating more intrigue?  Or in fact, part of symbolic alliances between parties?  Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames marked the end of his resistance movement and the start of a period of myth-making that would craft an imagined hero out of this extraordinary man.

Records indicate that the "flag was carried by Native Americans
 who fought with Tecumseh during the War of 1812"
(Kentucky Historical Society)

Ojibwa Chief Mike Flatte in a ca. 1930 photograph
 wearing British treaty medals and holding the flag.
(Minnesota Historical Society)

Maybe we are thinking of this in too narrow terms.  Perhaps the color is not what is important, perhaps the symbolism of giving a flag is what mattered and the kind of flag, or where it came from was not considered.  Additionally, how many flags were available to give?  Maybe you gave whatever you had on hand?

The major European powers in North America are known to have executed various treaties with the Native American Indians, namely Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia and later their respective successors in interest Canada, United States and Mexico. The execution of these treaties was often accompanied with the exchange of gifts. The Indians often gave pelts, tanned skins, intricate beadwork and other crafts while their European counterparts often presented chiefs with medals, uniforms and flags.

The United States and Canada are all known to have continued the practice well into the 19th century. In the case of Great Britain, the flag most often gifted to the Indians were red or blue ensigns. Clearly flags were not just given to Tecumseh but to other Chiefs as well who the government wanted to have favor with.

To read more about Tecumseh and some of the other artifacts associated with him go to: http: //tecumseh.omeka.net/exhibits/show/traces-of--shooting-star---the/introduction and http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2012/11/a-flag-of-the-fathers.html

Special thanks to Vexologists, James Ferrigan, David Martucci and David Phillips for sharing their wealth of knowledge about all things flag related.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wet Umbrellas!

by Gwen Spicer

I remember the first time I saw a method of containing a wet umbrella.  It was in 2007 and I was in Taiwan, entering a metro station near the National University in the capital.  There at the top of the escalators was a dispenser of plastic bags, made to easily slip over an umbrella.  Later, I was entering a ceramics museum and an even more elaborate vehicle for umbrella containment was there.  In this version, you plunged your umbrella into the contraption, and it instantly enveloped your umbrella in a tight-fitted plastic (or shall we say "rubber") sleeve.  This was great, no wet drips on the floor as you walk to the coat room.  I thought, "Wow, here is a very organized country in a tropical climate".  True in the United States we don't quite have that sort of climate and perhaps not nearly that level of rain.  However, this simply means we are at an umbrella wrapping disadvantage.

Why do you ask is it so important to wrap your umbrella?  Let me tell you...
 Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum (2007)

I have since seen many other solutions in other countries and in the United States.

Ibere Camargo Museum, Porto Alegra, Brazil (Spring 2008)

Umbrella bags at the NMAI's Suitland facility. (Summer 2012)

Outside a historic house