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News Student Blog: Colonial Williamsburg

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​WUDPAC Class of 2021 Fellow Marie Desrochers working with environmental data in the Preventive Laboratory at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Greetings from Williamsburg, Virginia! I am currently working at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a fellow in preventive conservation. While things are definitely not up and running normally, strategic planning and organization has allowed me and other staff to work on-site, socially-distanced with masks. Navigating an internship amidst a pandemic is certainly unprecedented; however, we are managing to work while prioritizing our physical and mental health. I am very fortunate to be here at my third-year site.

Major draws for training in preventive conservation at the Foundation are its magnitude and prioritization of preventive maintenance. The living history museum spans 300 acres with over forty historic sites and trades as well as two art museums. In the mid-1920s John D. Rockefeller Jr. led and funded the restoration of the historic sites in Williamsburg that eventually opened to the public and grew into what it is today. In order to preserve and maintain the expansive site, a team of conservators, architectural preservationists, as well as technicians, aides, interns and volunteers all work together to conserve the physical history present.  

Covid-19 has made us think deeply about the work we and others do, as certain jobs were deemed "essential." Here at Colonial Williamsburg, conservation staff, including the Historic Interiors Collections Care (HICC) staff have continued to (safely) work through the pandemic.  Pandemic or not, their work is essential to preservation. HICC staff fulfill many needs in collections care, but their primary responsibility lies in their care of the Colonial Williamsburg historic area. With nearly ninety historic structures as well as several reconstructed buildings open to the public, the HICC's team of twelve is always busy, being the eyes and ears of conservation. As technicians and aides visit sites weekly, they get to know their assigned buildings through close observation, noting any changes in collections or structures and identifying possible issues within mechanical systems, leaks, or pests. If you are wondering how much an old building really changes over time... well, potentially a lot. Anyone who has lived in an older structure or worked to care for one knows that left unchecked, deterioration can wreak havoc. Whether this results in flaking plaster, wall condensation, or warping of wooden elements, historic structures are dynamic systems responding to their environment. HICC staff know this better than anyone. My previous coursework in building pathologies and diagnostics have prepared me to maximize my learning from the ever-changing historic structures here at Colonial Williamsburg.

Left: Dining room at the Wythe House, one of many eighteenth-century structures and historic interiors interpreted at Colonial Williamsburg. Center: Exterior of Bassett Hall, the Rockefeller family's residence in Williamsburg, VA. Right: Front Hall of Bassett Hall, filled with colonial American antique furniture and art collected by the family.

One of my projects is to work with the HICC staff, taking on the care of a building in their regular rotation. Bassett Hall is an eighteenth-century house that the Rockefeller family remodeled and took up as their residence in Williamsburg. It is an odd site for the historic area, because unlike the buildings that are interpreted to their eighteenth-century use, Bassett Hall's interpretation is to the Rockefeller family's life during World War II. Walking through the house, you can find ephemera dating to that period, illustrating the impact of the war on daily life. The site itself hosted the gatherings of Rockefeller family and friends even into recent decades, thus, the site is a fascinating snapshot of the romanticized Colonial American lifestyle fashioned by the early twentieth-century aristocracy. Many of the objects remain in the house from their not so long-ago use by the family.

​Left: Kitchen inside the house (there is also a separate historic kitchen building). Right: WWII ephemera.

Aside from regular dusting, vacuuming, and inspection of all surfaces and objects at the site, we are implementing a more thorough environmental-monitoring study. Temperature and relative humidity data are already continuously collected by four dataloggers placed throughout the house. We will be placing additional loggers in the space, to increase the resolution of data and better understand the conditions. For example, leaks and moisture influxes may go unnoticed until more dramatically visible deterioration has taken place. We are hoping to improve our understanding of the performance of the building and its systems before and after a major renovation to the HVAC at the end of October. 

Throughout the summer I participated in a course to improve my skills in data analysis and interpretation, which was excellent preparation for my time here at Colonial Williamsburg. My colleagues and I have learned to use a variety of software tools for managing and analyzing environmental data. I have also learned the critical lesson that "cleaning up" and ordering data is typically the rate limiting step of analysis, and proper design in how we collect data makes a world of difference. In our field, we as conservators are good at collecting data, but typically fall short in effectively analyzing and utilizing the data we are paying to store. Through this study at Bassett Hall, I will implement and continue to hone my skills while serving the Foundation's preservation goals.

— Marie Desrochers, WUDPAC Class of 2021

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2021 Fellow Marie Desrochers talks about starting her preventive conservation internship with the Historic Interiors Collections Care staff at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2021 Fellow Marie Desrochers talks about starting her preventive conservation internship with the Historic Interiors Collections Care staff at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489