Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Collections Care Workshop Part I
Visitor Perception of Age in Historic Sites:
In Defense of the Wrinkles and Face-lifts Alike

During June 2016, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive workshop at Staatsburgh.  "Housekeeping for Conservators", sponsored by The Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

NYS Bureau of Historic Sites Furniture Conservator, David Bayne, organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie and Kirsten Schoonmaker from the Shelburne Museum.  Several conservation experts also participated in the workshop's instruction including John Childs from the Peabody Essex Museum, Genevieve Bieniosek from the Biltmore, and Catherine Coueignoux London of Oak Street Conservation.

The author of our first post, Courtney Books, is an artist and art historian with experience in historic preservation.  She received a B.S. in Fine Arts and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin and a Master's in Art History from McGill University.  She is currently an assistant at Parma Conservation in Chicago.  Her love of painting, architecture, and travel drive her aspirations to specialize in mural conservation.

Workshop participant and blog author Courtney Books

If a house museum convincingly hums with historic authenticity, the environment can induce a time-travel romp. Step through the entrance of the Staatsburgh State Historical Site and fall into the c.1900 footsteps of one of Ruth and Ogden Mills’ guests. Reverse the same path and one assumes the role of a housemaid or footman, slipping about to dust a prized lacquer vase. Alas, we visitors cannot touch the objects on display but we hungrily consume the sights that build our fantasy. Curators, housekeepers and conservators all laboring to hold the performance together have orchestrated this fantasy to the tiniest detail. If we are not convinced, the dream dissolves.

Walking these paths as students of an AIC Preventative Conservation Workshop, our lens was that of housekeeping. Through this lens we boosted our detective senses, scanning each room for jarring edges – objects that might disrupt the narrative of Gilded Age refinement. One culprit unsettled our rookie inspection room after room: textile. If this site was a country cabin, wood, as the dominant material, might be the obvious bearer of age. Yet Staatsburgh is no humble cottage but a mighty estate from the turn of the 19th century when textiles were the ticket to displaying wealth. Indeed textiles are one of the materials most vulnerable to common agents of deterioration: moisture, light, and pests. When our sight catches a piece of furniture that cannot hide its tatters, we react aghast. I admit this reaction was my own. I write now in defense of those tatters, as they complete a harmonic story in collaboration with their conserved and reproduced counterparts. Their defense is important, for their shaggy state does not betray neglect but rather brave resilience.

AIC workshop participants examine the silk fabric on a chaise lounge in a Staatsburgh bedroom.

When an object appears distressed, such as the chaise lounge located in one of the bedrooms for unmarried female guests(above image), a misconception is to assume the object has been misused or allowed to fall into disrepair. The devoted efforts of staff, volunteers, conservators, symposiums and fundraising testify to a high level of concern towards textiles at Staatsburgh.[1] Instead, the obvious distress of the material can stem from ill fated “inherent vice.” For example, a piece upholstered with silk from the 18th century might weather less than one dressed with 19th-century silk. This is due to the 19th-century popularity of weighted silks – where tin and metallic elements were added to denote higher-grade weight and quality.[2] The metals become brittle and unstable with age, resulting in decisive splits for which no lack of cleaning or an ample posterior can be blamed. An object succumbs to intrinsic weaknesses and the caretaker decides the best course of action: to conserve, to restore, or to remove the object from view.

A former bedroom at Staatsburgh now serves as a storage space.
While “resting” an object – its complete removal from light and tour – is considered beneficial, stored objects are not entirely safe from threats of moisture or pests (right image).[3] Retiring an object to perpetual storage also inspires a rousing debate – like the proverbial tree falling in a human-less forest, does an object retain significance if removed from collection and sight? Philosophical debates aside, if the object remains in performance, caretakers decide whether signs of age warrant a bit of TLC or a thorough face-lift.

To return to the example of the pink chaise lounge, delicate netting helped stabilize the silk during handling, but otherwise the piece rests untouched. In contrast, two sofas within Mrs. Mills’ Boudoir present excellent comparisons of treatment. If the chaise lounge betrays the raw, wrinkled face of an aged textile, the boudoir sofa – after a full conservation treatment – demonstrates the power of a full face-lift and tuck. Across the room a third example is found in a settee with an historically appropriate, digitally printed fabric – a layer of rejuvenating skin stretched over original framing. With such disparate treatments, are viewers irked by the variety of condition?

I argue no. Due to a previous human occupancy, generational differences suggest an evolved aging that is relatable and palatable. Age after all is both the enemy and the desired impression. An object in a house museum, unlike the setting of a gallery, is expected to carry the visual clues of age empowered through use.[4] As voiced by our host at the neighboring Rokeby estate, Wint Aldrich: “It would bother me if things looked fresh.”[5] Inherently young or supple, “freshness” rips apart the trust we place in patina and wear to mark human “use.”  If everything in the room gleams, the viewer feels duped. Yet a lone piece of ageless textile in the room becomes a vampyric Dorian Gray amongst the trusted lines and wrinkles of other objects. No restoration robs the viewer of original aesthetic and no conservation eliminates original survivors. The evolving collection at Staatsburgh presents a healthy solution: a mixture of the bravely aged, conserved and restored.

Therefore the housekeeper, the estate manager, the conservator and the curator must coordinate a tight-rope act of balance: to make the best informed decisions for each object without losing the trust the viewer places in objects as historic. Whether one is an advocate of exquisite reproductions or the shaggy bastions of age, I call upon the visitors of Staatsburgh to embrace each face-lift and wrinkle.

Bibliography – Further Reading

Aldrich, J. Winthrop. 2016 AIC Preventative Conservation Workshop - Tour of Rokeby Estate, June 24, 2016.
Lee Trupin, Deborah. “The Interior Restoration of Staatsburgh State Historic Site: An American Gilded Age Example of a Holistic Restoration Approach.” Rome, 2010.
Miller, Janet E., and Barbara M. Reagan. “Degradation in Weighted and Unweighted Historic Silks.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 28, no. 2 (July 18, 2013).
Ponsonby. “Textiles and Time: Reactions to Aged and Conserved Textiles in Historic Houses Open to the Public in England and the USA.” In Textile History, 42:, Iss. 2:200–219, 2011.

[1] Deborah Lee Trupin, “The Interior Restoration of Staatsburgh State Historic Site: An American Gilded Age Example of a Holistic Restoration Approach” (ICOM; Multidisciplinary Conservation: a Holistic View for Historic Interiors, Rome, 2010).
[2] For more about silk history and conservation, see: Janet E. Miller and Barbara M. Reagan, “Degradation in Weighted and Unweighted Historic Silks,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 28, no. 2 (July 18, 2013).
[3] One of our workshop tasks was to clean a room full of “resting” objects in storage. While protected from UV rays, dust and mold growth on sheet coverings due to the secretion of starch were still unavoidably present. 2016 AIC Preventative Conservation Workshop.
[4] For more about age reception and house museums, see: Ponsonby, “Textiles and Time: Reactions to Aged and Conserved Textiles in Historic Houses Open to the Public in England and the USA.” 
[5] J. Winthrop Aldrich, AIC Preventative Conservation Workshop - Tour of Rokeby Estate, June 24, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment