Flag conservation

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Museum Storage Success

by Gwen Spicer
Occasionally I have the opportunity to see a museum make real improvements in the storage of their collections. Recently, I had such an opportunity. I was asked to visit the Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, NY to examine an artifact. As part of the visit, I was invited to see their storage, and gladly accepted, as I am always interested in museum storage. So off we went.

I had in fact performed a CAP survey for this museum back in the summer of 2008, with the purpose of  thoroughly examining the collection storage as well as prioritizing items for conservation. Back then, the museum's storage was actually scattered in several locations, with a real need for consolidation of artifacts, and expansion of the actual space allowed for storage. Some rooms were better organized than others.

Therefore, when I saw all that was done since my last visit I was very impressed with the effort of the staff over the years. Collections were now completely off the floor, shelving was covered with soft Tyvek dust covers, and collections were grouped by type.

This might seem like a simple effort, but often there are conflicting pulls on staff time, perhaps even staff changes, where such projects do not get accomplished. Even this one did not happen overnight, but has taken several years. It should be noted that the Museum did also receive an NEH Preservation Assistance Grant in order to purchase supplies.

I thought that I would show some before and after photographs of their great work.

Above, items in the collection are placed on open shelves.   
Below, everything is covered with Tyvek dust covers.

Spicer Art Conservation has helped countless museums and historic sites to improve their storage space and environment
Before photo (left) shows many items in cardboard boxes, most of which were stacked on the floor.
The After photo (right) shows the switch to acid-free boxes and the ever-important dust-covers.

The gift shop storage (seen on the Left) was moved from artifact storage,
allowing for painting storage racks (Right).

Awkward shelving was replaced with more standard metal shelving.

Perhaps my favorite part of the Museum of Firefighting's storage is their wonderful use of magnets!
A low-tech solution to hold the dust covers was done with large metal washers fastened with plastic rivets and 1" disc magnets. All sides of the metal shelves were covered with a layer of soft Tyvek. At the back and sides of the units, the Tyvek was secured around the perimeter with the washers and rivets. At the front of the units, the Tyvek was positioned as two overlapping parts. The sides were secured with the washer/rivets, but the top edge and center was secured with 1" ceramic disc magnets.

The metal washers were held in place with pushed-in, ribbed shank plastic rivets.

The pushed-in, ribbed shank, plastic rivet (illustrated above) can be 
purchased from McMaster-Carr.
Spicer Art conservation provides museum and historic sites with proper storage methods for the best care of their collections.
 On the Left, the soft Tyvek is closed, covering the front of the shelf units.
On the Right, removing the ceramic magnets to view the artifacts behind.

Corroplast sheeting was secured with plastic tie wraps.

For their storage needs, the Museum selected ceramic or ferrite magnets over a stronger rare earth option. In this situation, it was found that the rare earths were just too strong for the job. And in fact, they were correct, had they selected the stronger rare earth magnet, the sharp attraction or shock from "jumping" onto the metal shelving would, over time, demagnetize the magnet. For this specific type of use, the less expensive ceramic magnet with the low to medium pull force is the best choice.

At SAC we discuss storage often with our clients simply because storage is incredibly important. Over the next few posts we will be talking about some storage specifics and some storage generalizations to assist everyone involved in artifact storage to find the best solutions and avoid making costly mistakes. Stay tuned!

I cannot overstate the success of this Museum's storage overhaul. It was just wonderful to see that the artifacts in this museum are cared for in such a dedicated and thoughtful way. Great work to all who worked on this project!

Do you have a storage success story?  Share it with us!

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",  available in 2018.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Historic Amazon cultural treasures and the need to protect them

by Gwen Spicer

The Amazon region is full of surprises and variety. The majority of us know about the rich diversity of plants and animals, and perhaps even the region's role in our understanding the origin of species in evolution. Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace made many scientific discoveries in the Amazon that rivaled and ultimately complemented Charles Darwin's great insight. In the last few decades researchers have realized how early this region was settled and the landscape altered.  Recent work on the "black soil of the Indians" has demonstrated how Native Americans manipulated their environment to make the soil more fertile. Large regions in the Amazon Basin were totally changed well before the arrival of the Europeans. Deforestation, which began and has continued since the arrival of the Europeans has not been an equally beneficial landscape alteration.

The black soil manipulated from the orange colored sands.

I recently had the amazing experience to visit one of these sites, that is believed to have been inhabited as long ago as 11,000 years. In the early 1990s, Dr. Anna Roosevelt of the Field Museum and the University of Illinois excavated area caves and carbon dated the materials.  Her work overturned the idea that the jungle was not a virgin forest that was simply inhospitable and therefore, uninhabitable by humans.

In the middle of an island of natural savanna along the north bank of the Amazon River near Monte Alegre, in Pará state Brazil are a number of striking sandstone formations. After staying for weeks in the vast and nearly level expanse of the lower Amazon Basin, coming upon such formations is quite a surprise. This unusual region with tall rock outcroppings is a place that offers long vistas of the Amazon channel. This area is the southern beginning of the Guiana plateau that continues north to the top of South America. Early on, the Portuguese established a town close by, Monte Alegre, 50 miles downriver from Santarém. This region was once ocean floor, part of an expanse of water that linked the Pacific with the Atlantic.

Cactus are actually a common sight in this region.

These same rock formations were used by these early cultures. Among the surviving evidence of their presence are the amazing paintings, among the earliest cave paintings in the Americas. They are called the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or Cave of the Painted Rock.

The great Amazon River to the south.
Yes, that is the Amazon River in the background.

This is all intensely interesting, but what became clearly apparent, just like the Museu da Amazonia (See earlier post), this site too is in severely threatened. It is true that the roads are not good--a four-wheel drive vehicle is needed to reach the site--but for the Amazon, I have seen worse. There is no sign to direct you to the region or the park, though our guide, Roberto do Deus, said that one is in the works, as is a plan to make the Monte-Alegre State Park a more viable entity. Though well-worn paths lead you to the various locations, we were extremely fortunate to have a guide with 20 years experience at the site, what Roberto calls his '"University of the Painted Rocks". Some of the popular caves can be reached on an easy walking path; others required much more stamina. In such a hot and humid environment, consuming lots of water was essential.

Presently there is no security on site, so there is nothing but the good will of the visitors to prevent vandals from defacing these treasured and ancient paintings, truly a national cultural treasure.

The path leading up to one of the caves with the paintings

Monte Alegre is a small town and is not growing as fast as a major city like the Brazilian city of Manaus, but it is none the less in the grip of change. It is now a small community, where people still sit out on the sidewalk and talk across the street to their neighbors and the plaza is filled with people at night amid small stands selling home made foods. Walking the streets, walls around houses were low and one had less of a sense of insecurity one feels in the larger cities. Kite flying is a popular past-time for children and adults alike. An improved electrical service is coming soon to replace the local generator, and the Federal University over Western Pará based in Santarem is opening up a satellite university. These are all great improvement for the community, but locals fear that with these will bring changes and additional people unfamiliar with local customs and respect for the archeological sites.

An increase in tourism will follow, and the need for it to be regulated will become necessary, simply because more protection is needed of these historically important sites.

Nothing is present to prevent touching or marking these pre-historic cave paintings. How to do this would require research preferably without creating additional issues. A extreme solutions was performed at Grotte Chauvet in Southern France. For this site, becoming a Federally owned park is probably the first step where more funding and resources could be available. Such was the case for another Brazilian cave painting site that then became a World Heritage Site. Whether such level of protection is possible here, is yet to be known.

Our guide, Roberto do Deus and others seek to find this balance, allowing more visitors to learn, but also for the community to have respect of these unique and special sites. We only hope that they are successful!

A proposal for the Monte Alegre Park facility is in the works that would have integrated areas, where visitors can meet, complete with rest areas with benches. A building would have exhibition space, work areas for education workers, and bathrooms. Read more about it on Roberto's blog www.montealegrehoje.blogspot.com.br

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Challenge of Protecting the Culture, Artifacts and Natural Resources of the Amazon

Museums are charged with the protection of culture, including artifacts and natural resources. Such is the case of the Museu da Amazonia (MUSA). A giant land reserve, 10,000 square kilometers, in the center of the Amazon region. The reserve was established in 1963 and called Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke, in honor of the botanist, Adolpho Ducke (1876-1959) who saw the need to preserve the forest. It is part of the National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, INPA), whose mission is to further scientific research of the Amazon region. INPA is a vital institution, where new discoveries continue to be made at a rapid rate. Then the Ducke Reserve evolved into a public botanical garden, with trails and pathways created for the public to see the diverse rain forest ecosystem, now combined with exhibits that make the MUSA a 'living museum'.

With the enthusiastic leadership of Director Dr. Ennio Candotti, the MUSA has developed quickly into a place where urban dwellers can experience, and learn to appreciate, the ecological diversity of the rain forest that surrounds the exploding urban area of the city of Manaus. Exhibit spaces dedicated to indigenous survival skills are interspersed with orchid and butterfly areas. Recently a collection of hand-woven fish traps has been on display. Continuously running videos show how they were made on site by Amerindians who came to visit.  Dr. Candotti explains that the MUSA actively recruits young people from the urban neighborhoods bordering the museum to be guides, part of the mission to make the local population better appreciate their special environment. From the top of the newly constructed observation tower (more on that below), the visitor can see urban sprawl to the south, and relatively undisturbed rain forest to the north. The visitor standing on the tower is confronted with the immediacy of development in the Amazon. The MUSA offers a place in which a vision of responsible growth in this region might be incubated.

Termite ants across the path, neatly staying within their trail, slowly building a tunnel over their path.

In the meantime, the nearby city of Manaus has rapidly grown, in a chaotic and uncontrolled way. It is among the fastest growing cities in Brazil. The outline of the protected land at the Ducke Reserve can now easily be seen as in the images below where the city stops at its edge.

The two photos above show the growth of the City of Manaus over the last 19 years.

Another ~20year comparison. The shift from small waterside
community to hugely populated waterside resort town,
complete with hotels, restaurants and boardwalks.

The unprotected borders of the Ducke Reserve could easily suffer human occupation, a small bit here and there. This issue can be found around the world, from Ukrain's Folklore museum, Pyrohiv, to the most remarkable list of the 46 properties which the World Heritage Committee includes on the "List of World Heritage in Danger" found on the UNESCO website. My colleague, Linda Norris has written extensively in her blogs about these various threats and the solutions the museums are attempting to find (see Uncataloged Museum and Museum, Politics and Power.)

Part of the Museu da Amazonia's solution is education, enabling the public to understand fully the importance of the forest, not just seeing it simply as the "wild jungle" or "selva" in Portuguese. By hiring the local neighborhood guides, it is hoped that the people bordering the reserve will take "ownership" of the reserve, embrace it as part of their neighborhood, and will perhaps want to protect it as a means of national pride. From their photos on their Facebook page, family programs are also a large part of their activities.

Newly built observation tower with viewing platforms.

A major project to build a special observation tower was just completed. As mentioned above, the tower extends above the forest canopy allowing for unencumbered views in each direction. The guided tour goes through the forest canopy, with platforms for long viewing at various levels. This tower will bring the undeniable changes and challenges facing the reserve immediately to the observer.

The Reserve is not on the list of world heritage sites in danger.  But without the dedication and advocacy it currently enjoys, that could quickly change.

What do you think?  Can this site survive?  Do you know of similar sites that could be in danger?