Flag conservation

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vacuum Vexations and Victories while conserving a large hanging textile


How many times does it take to safely vacuum an 18' x 18' projection screen?  That was the question we asked ourselves on Tuesday while working on-site at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ.

Thomas Edison's Laboratory, textile conservation of lab coat and projection screen
Thomas Edison Laboratory, view of original archway and water tower.


Thomas Edison Laboratory, Library exterior

Projection screen conserved by textile conservator, Spicer Art Conservation projects
The screen while rolled.  (It is the cylindric tube spanning
across the top of the clock and upper windows.)
We arrived Monday, December 10th for a four-day stay in New Jersey for the primary purpose of cleaning and repairing the two-story high projection screen located in Edison's library.  The library itself is three floors high and houses remarkable documents attesting to Edison's various certifications and honorary awards, along with numerous volumes dating back to the late 1800's, as well as the screen where Edison would show films to those who visited his laboratory complex.  Needless to say, I found myself overwhelmed and consumed by sheer excitement about the pieces of history surrounding me as I walked around the library to take various photos of the screen, as seen to the left and below.


Art conservation of Edison's laboratory projection screen, historic sites, textile repair and restoration
The screen fully unrolled
The beginning of the treatment process was very simple.  Using the vacuum we brought from the studio, I systematically cleaned the front and back of the bottom portion of the screen while Gwen followed behind with the soot sponge to further loosen any embedded particulates.  The bottom portion of the screen is considerably darker, as seen in the picture above, which we determined was purposefully stained either as a protective coating or as a visual countermeasure to the shadows cast by viewers' heads.  This is only speculation, due to the fact that we do not have an original photo of the screen.  Of course we did not wish to remove this discoloration, only the dirt and dust caked on the surface.  To the knowledge of current park employees, it had been 15-20 years since the last time the screen was unrolled.

Working along, I proceeded to vacuum ever higher with the assumption that when I reached a certain point I would be able to safely proceed with the screen's treatment.  However, such was not exactly the case.  Within the last year or so the site had discarded their backpack vacuum, as well as their scissor lift.  We were then told that it was possible to set up scaffolding behind the screen that would allow me to reach the very top of this immense canvas.  But of course, the scaffolding was not available for our use, and no one had a clue where it was.

Taped attachment

Now here was the predicament: how do I stand on a ladder while holding a small, but still weighty, piece of equipment for an extended period without risking my life in the process?  Holly, one of the park employees, was so kind to find a potential solution to my predicament.  She brought a 3M vacuum, which I could swing over my shoulder.  However, the 3M vacuum unsurprisingly no longer had any of its original brush attachments or a wand extension.  So what did Gwen and I do?  We improvised!  Holly Marino, who works at the Edison site, brought us a wand attachment from another machine which we taped to the hose, then we taped our brush attachment to the wand!


Example of 3M vacuum with only crevice tool

I proceeded to climb up our little step ladder and extend the wand in order to vacuum the backside of the screen as far as I could reach.  It was not long before I started to notice significant cramping in my arm and the strap cutting into my left shoulder, not to mention how awkward it was to maneuver with this huge black box swinging freely around my hips catching on everything.

In addition, I could not control the suction power, which not only resulted in an almost deafening noise, but was also not ideal for the artifact.  After cleaning what I could reach on three of the six canvas panels, I got down and said, "there has to be a better way to do this!"

"the contraption"
On to improvisation part 2.  We removed the wand from the now dubbed black box of misery and attempted to attach it to our vacuum, but only to find that the inner ridge on the wand prevented us from simply connecting the two parts.  We taped the two together, but it was clear that the contraption was nowhere near strong enough.  I indicated to Gwen that I needed a splint of some sort to fix the issue.  She looked around our tools and offered first the small 1/8" thick sticks we use for swabbing, then metal micro-spatulas, both of which I rejected as insufficient support for the task saying, "I need more reinforcement than that!"  After a few seconds Gwen returned with a small chip brush that I taped to the wand and hose as she held it in place.  At this point both of us are giddy with amusement at the lengths we have had to go to so far to come up with a solution.  But that was just the beginning.
Vacuum splint 
Now that the issue of extending my reach was solved, we had to next figure out how to rig the body of the vacuum to the ladder to free my hands for the task.  Gwen had brought small bungee-cord-like elastic bands that I used to hook the vacuum to the step ladder, which worked as I finished doing what I could of the last three panels.  However, I still had over nine feet above me that I still could not reach.  Now it was time for a taller ladder.  With the assistance of another park employee, Walter Baginski, I retrieved a 10' ladder, brought it into the library and slid it under the tables supporting the bottom of the screen and stood it up successfully behind the screen.  The problem arose again of how to keep the vacuum up there with me.  With some clever thought on my part (not to pat myself on the back or anything...wink, wink),  I removed the support strap from the bulky black 3M box and strung it through our machine's handle.  Carrying it up the full height of the ladder, I was able to secure it to the top with the strap, as well as, some of the elastic ties from before.  Gwen handed me the wand and hose, which we had disconnected beforehand, and upon reattachment I was finally good to go!  With the wand fully extended, and standing on the top step of the 10 foot ladder, I was just able to reach the top of the screen and finally vacuum the screen with confident speed, all while Gwen and I are laughing at how ridiculous things get, and the improvisation needed when working on-site away from all your usual tools.

vacuuming large textiles, art conservation, Edison, projection screen
Me at the top of a 10-foot ladder after finally securing the vacuum to the very top.
Thank God I'm not afraid of heights!

Here I am when all is said and done, finally vacuuming after all that hassle, and still with a smile on my face, because after all my effort I was victorious and could proceed with relative ease.  The lesson of the story is of course: where there's a will there's a way.  And my own personal inspiring quote: "Be the hero with a smile on your face because life is too short to sweat the small stuff, or in this case the big and tall stuff!"

written by Nicolette Cook, Assistant Conservator, Spicer Art Conservation, LLC
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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.

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