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News Student Blog: Winterthur Museum

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Left: John Davies works on a painting by Jimmie Mosley, Sr. in the Winterthur Paintings Conservation Lab. Right: Melissa Tedone, John Davis, and UD undergraduate intern Nova Sturchio.

In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern John Davies, a rising Junior at Fisk University (Nashville, TN), talks about his summer working with the conservation staff at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library:

I would like to dedicate this post to Dr. Melissa Tedone, my supervisor for the entirety of this internship. She was very patient with me, and understanding of my errors. She never lost her temper, but simply guided me toward a better way. To her I send much love and appreciation.

Making book cradles was the first skill I learned after I arrived, and it presented itself an interesting challenge that involved careful measurement, precise cutting skills, and a boatload of patience. These skills were instrumental to my success while working at this internship, because the same skills applied to many other conservation activities, especially those involving the creation of various storage devices for books and other documents in need of adequate protection. The tools were rather simple, consisting of an Olfa knife, cutting mat, T-square, ruler, and 40pt mat board. Whenever I made a serious error – most of which occurred during the cutting procedure – I had to re-measure and cut again. The whole experience made me extremely grateful that there are capable surgeons in the world, because my cutting skills are sorely lacking, but I digress.

​Left: Winterthur’s handheld XRF device. Right: The XRF spectrum produced from testing a lead-coated chromolithographic greeting card in the Library Conservation Lab.

One very insightful experience occurred when I was invited to work for one day, under the leadership of Dr. Joyce Stoner, WUDPAC paintings conservator. I was given the opportunity to work on the treatment of a photo inspired painting by artist Jimmie Mosley Sr. that had been damaged in a flood. Due to the expansion of the canvas material from moisture and its subsequent contraction upon drying, the paint flaked away from the canvas and fragmented into hundreds upon thousands of individual specks. I used a brush accompanied by an adhesive called Berger Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (BEVA) to replace and glue down as many of the tiny fragments as possible, in order to restore the painting to a shadow of its former glory.  As tedious and lengthy as this process may seem, it is a very important effort and can be well worth the results when all is said and done. This experience helped me to understand the immense amount of patience and hard work that goes into the field of paintings conservation, and that it takes a very passionate individual to successfully complete such a taxing endeavor.

Another interesting portion of the internship, was when I was invited to participate in an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis of some of the mirrors in the museum, conducted by Catherine Matsen and Rosie Grayburn (two of Winterthur’s chemists). XRF is a variation of the standard X-ray, that can detect the chemical and elemental composition of a given object or substance. The task was to check the deteriorating mirrors for mercury content, as it could pose a significant health risk to staff and visitors if inhaled. The process of analysis was rather simple: the XRF gun, which was connected to a laptop, was carefully held to the mirror for 60 seconds. A reading of the elements in the form of a line graph was displayed in real time on the computer screen, while the analysis was being conducted. After the analysis was complete, the file containing the graph was transferred to its own folder, which was then labeled with the mirror’s accession number. Rinse and repeat. After all the mirrors were analyzed in this manner, the files were transferred to a desktop for further processing.  Along with traces of mercury, other dangerous substances such as lead and arsenic were also present in the chemical makeup of some of the mirrors. This experience showed me how very important it is to be aware of the historical nuances and subsequent dangers behind the construction of an item, so that patrons and staff are not placed in harm’s way during preservation processes.

​Antique book press, before (left) and after (right) treatment. 

I was also given the opportunity to assist our Senior Furniture Conservator Mark Anderson with the restoration of a 19th century cast iron book press. Some parts of the press were extremely rusty and in poor condition at the beginning of the project. What can’t be seen in images is the 300 lbs. of sheer weight, and the significant amount of physical exertion it took to disassemble and clean the press. After placing one of the four large pieces beneath the fume hood in the lab, we began using brushes to apply Strip-x to help us remove what was left of the ancient black paint. After it sat for a short time, we scraped as much of the paint off as possible, and then repeated the process until almost all of the paint was gone. We then sanded the piece in its entirety, knocking off the rust that was caked onto the parts that were not covered with paint. On one portion of the press where the paint was not too severely damaged, we decided to maintain its original aesthetic and simply used a bit of wax to polish the piece to the best of our abilities. To the parts that were too rusty to turn as they were designed, we added penetrating oil and allowed them to sit overnight. We then returned, and placed these pieces in a clamp and scrubbed them with a wire brush in order to knock off any remaining rust. Some of the rusty bolts and smaller pieces were soaked in a petroleum benzine solution and subsequently placed in the clamp to be wire brushed as well. Two large pieces were then placed on a cart, and transported upstairs to be painted with black spray paint. They were allowed to dry momentarily, then were transported back to the lab where they were reassembled.

​John Davies uses a Teflon lifter to separate carefully-humidified layers of historical wallpaper fragments from the Dennis Farm.

I also had the opportunity to work with Joan Irving (Paper Conservator and Assistant Director of Conservation) on the treatment of wallpaper from the Dennis Family farm, located in Susquehanna County, PA. The Dennis Farm was established over 200 years ago, and is quite possibly the oldest Black owned farm property still currently held by the original owner’s family. First, we conducted a humidification process in order to moisten and relax the brittle or folded fibers of the wallpaper, and to soften the adhesives that held the many layers together. Two large pieces of blotter were lightly dampened with a pressurized spray bottle, and placed on a clean surface. The wallpaper was then sandwiched between two pieces of Gore-Tex (a semipermeable type of fabric that is often used in water resistant clothing) with the permeable sides away from the wallpaper, placed atop one of the wet blotters, and covered with the remaining damp blotter. The wallpaper was then allowed to humidify in increments of 30 minutes, and was periodically checked for malleability. When the wallpaper became pliable enough to work with, a Teflon spatula was used to carefully separate the adhered portions, and the wallpaper was gently surface cleaned with non-latex cosmetic sponges immediately after separation. In the final phases, tears in the wallpaper were mended with wheat starch paste applied to strips of Asian paper by brush, then the wallpaper fragments were photographed and encapsulated in thin polyester film known as Mylar.

Despite all the new and intriguing activities I was able to participate in, the best part of my experience were the staff, students and interns at Winterthur; I have never met a more dedicated and passionate lot who so greatly value the idea of preserving the past for the betterment of the future. Also, everyone was quite wonderfully quirky and kind in their own way, which made me feel welcome in a place far from home. I will forever cherish and look fondly upon my time here at Winterthur, and I hope to one day return.

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In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern John Davies talks about his summer working with the conservation staff at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern John Davies talks about his summer working with the conservation staff at the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

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