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Stabilization of glass mosaic pieces using Paraloid B-72 retouching gels. Credit: Angie Elliott
Last fall, I began my third-year internship in the Objects Conservation Lab at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. I am working under the supervision of Angie Elliott and Gregory Bailey and have so enjoyed working with and learning from each of them!
I was drawn to objects conservation because of the diversity of materials, and in turn, the challenges, that the specialty inherently encompasses. I am always looking to expand my knowledge and knew that the diverse collection at the Walters would give me the opportunity to work with and learn about many different materials. During my internship I have had a wide variety of projects from a 7th century Byzantine copper alloy and glass polycandelon to a Song dynasty ceramic pillow. The Walters has a truly incredible collection with so many hidden treasures, one of which, an ornately decorated wooden Thai Thammat or pulpit, was my first treatment project.
The Thammat was donated to the Walters as part of a major gift of artworks from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which originally obtained it for installation at Shangri-La though it was never installed there. The object was acquired by the Walters in the early 2000s and has been in storage ever since. To make the Thammat ready for display in Across Asia, the soon to open reinterpretation and installation of the Asian and Islamic collections at the Walters, a multi-year treatment project was undertaken.
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Trial assembly of the roof pieces of the Thammat, starting with the basic frame (top) and adding the panels and numerous decorative elements (bottom). Credit: Angie Elliott
Joining a project in the middle can be a challenge but I jumped right in. While I have some experience with wooden objects, I had never worked on anything like a small building before and was excited by the challenge. I appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with other conservators and colleagues across the museum, as this project was truly a group effort. Treatment of the Thammat ranged from stabilizing glass fragments to gap filling damaged wood pieces, to cleaning and attaching roof slats and decorative elements. Much of our time was spent test fitting the 108 pieces, making sure the mechanical joins functioned as intended and that everything could come together correctly and safely. While we were hoping to only use existing joinery (often partially rebuilt with epoxy) to bring all the pieces together, it became clear that this would not be sufficient in some cases. We did not want to add any new hardware if possible and found tying the pieces in place with coated picture hanging wire to be a sound option that wasn't visually intrusive but sufficiently strong. I really enjoyed this chance to problem solve and find creative solutions and feel my WUDPAC education prepared me for confronting and embracing the unknown in this way.
Attaching decorative brackets to the Thammat columns using a combination of extant non-original nails, tenon joins and monofilament. Credit: Elena Damon
With Across Asia opening soon and the associated treatments completed, I've been able to turn my attention to other projects including research into metal Ethiopian processional and hand crosses, experimentation with treatment techniques for consolidation and desalination of limestone, and treatment of a Louis XVI Sévres porcelain garniture.
I've so enjoyed exploring the breadth of materials the objects specialty encompasses through my internship at the Walters and can't wait to see what object crosses my bench next!
— Katie Shulman, WUDPAC Class of 2023
The completed Thai Thammat installed in Across Asia. Credit: Julie Lauffenburger