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Student Blog: Field Museum of Natural History

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A student wearing a magnifying visor and gloves examines a preserved iguana that is posed on the rock.

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​Mackenzie Fairchild examining a cellulose nitrate sea iguana model. (Image: M. Fairchild)​

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Multiple images laid side-by-side to show the pagoda imaged using x-rays.

41 X-rays composited together to capture the entire pagoda model. (Image: M. Fairchild)​

​As I near the end of my graduate studies at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in ​Art Conservation (WUDPAC), I find myself coming full circle in my conservation career. For my third-year fellowship, I am delighted to have returned to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. I worked as an intern and conservation technician at the Field for three years prior to embarking on my graduate school journey. Because of this, I knew the Field would be a great fit for me to return to with all that I have learned during grad school. At the Field, I have the pleasure of working with Regenstein Senior Conservator JP Brown, ​Assistant Conservators Dan Kaping, Erin Murphy, and Nicole Schmidt, and Conservation Cultural Liaison J. Kae Good Bear.​

The Field Museum is a natural history museum with a significant focus on anthropological collections from all over the world. As someone specializing in object conservation with a minor in preventive, I coudn't think of a better place to expand my expertise than at a museum with such a diverse collection and impressive department. Since beginning my fellowship in September, I have had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting projects, including preparing polychrome wooden pagodas for loan, assisting with recovery efforts from a recent water leak, and treating previously exhibited cellulose nitrate reptiles.

​One of my primary projects has been treating and preparing three polychrome wooden pagoda models for an upcoming international loan. These models were built around the turn of the 20th-century at the Tushanwan woodshop in Shanghai, part of a male orphanage and vocational arts and crafts training school. The intricately crafted models represented real pagodas throughout China. A total of 84 Tushanwan pagoda models were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Shortly after, they were accessioned into the Field’s collection. Ultimately, 81 of the models were deaccessioned from the Field in 2007.​

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A student, wearing a protective lead-lined apron, positions the electronic x-ray plate along the bottom of the pagoda.

Taking X-rays of the largest pagoda model. (Image: JP Brown)​

I thoroughly enjoyed working on the three pagodas that are still stewarded by the Field. Each of them required different levels of attention to make them loan-ready. One needed simple cleaning and stabilization, while the others required more extensive treatment such as recreating missing elements. One of the highlights of this project was 3D scanning and printing a section of balustrade from one of the pagodas. This was done to facilitate the creation of an accurate silicone mold that would help to make replacement balusters to fill missing sections. The cast balustrade sections still required careful carving and painting, making them a great example of combining modern conservation tools and techniques with practical handskills.

I also had the opportunity to X-ray the largest of the three pagodas. Because the largest pagoda is over six feet tall, it took 41 X-rays composited together to capture the entire model. The composite X-ray was useful in revealing the internal structure of the model and helped me understand how the finial was secured at the top. I already knew the finial was very loose, and the X-rays confirmed it was only held in place by two nails that were likely applied during a previous repair. Equipped with this insight, I was able to safely remove the finial and install a magnet system that allows for easy detachment and reattachment.

My time at the Field Museum has been a great way to conclude my graduate studies. I am happy to return to working with a collection and group of people that I grew so fond of during my time as a pre-program conservator. Working alongside the department here has provided me with valuable learning opportunities, and I am grateful for the chance to contribute my skills and ideas to a variety of projects each week. Through these experiences, I have been able to refine my abilities, and I look forward to continued growth in my role as a conservation professional. While there are several interesting projects on the horizon for the rest of my fellowship, I am particularly excited about the upcoming treatments of cellulose nitrate models, including a sea iguana and a lamprey.​

— Mackenzie Fairchild, WUDPAC Class of 2024

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A student stands outside an exhibition display case and shines a flashlights on objects within the case.

Carrying out exhibit walk-throughs to check on the condition of items on display. (Image: Michelle Brownlee )​

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In this blog post, WUDPAC class of 2024 Fellow Mackenzie Fairchild reflects on her third-year fellowship at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, from preparing polychrome wooden pagodas for loan to treating cellulose nitrate reptiles.
 
 
4/7/2024
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