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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Collections Care Workshop Part II
Large Lessons from Little Pests

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 textile conservator 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 Biltmore, and Catherine Coueignoux London of Oak Street Conservation.

The author of our second post, Allison Kelley, is a 2016 graduate of the College of William & Mary  with a BS in Chemistry and a minor in Art and Art History.  While working as a student research assistant, she discovered the field of conservation and was attracted to the connection between science and art.  She has volunteered in the objects lab at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and plans to apply to graduate conservation programs in the near future.

Allison Kelly, workshop participant and blog author, vacuums a chair at Staatsburgh.


My time participating  in the Preventive Conservation Workshop hosted by Staatsburgh State Historic Site this past June was perhaps the best experience I could have had as I begin to gain conservation experience after my undergraduate career. I am fascinated with the history and stories that accompany cultural objects, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in the Gilded Age Country home of Ruth and Ogden Mills. Of equal interest to me is the interactions the objects have with one another. Being able to see the objects in their intended context provides a more complete understanding of the lives of those objects. It is one thing to see a Grecian urn in a gallery next to a dozen Grecian urns, but another experience entirely to see the urn placed on a mantle in a living room where it complements and engages with the objects around it to create a livable space.

However the unique experience created by viewing a collection in an historic home is accompanied by a unique set of problems for the individuals charged with caring for those objects. The collections housed within homes such as Staatsburgh have to contend with environmental factors and situations particular to homes that caretakers in a gallery setting have more ready control over. During the workshop we discussed ideas about preventive conservation as they applied to historic homes and the best strategies that caretakers of such sites can employ to protect their collections  and minimize their risk for damage.

While I have just spent time discussing the uniqueness of historic homes, the largest lesson I was able to take away from this workshop was that the philosophies of preventive conservation could easily be extrapolated to any other context where objects in a collection are involved. Though perhaps not to the same extreme degree, traditional museum galleries also need to deal with issues like pests, changing relative humidity, and visitor traffic. The guiding principles behind assessing risk, monitoring environmental conditions, and how to mitigate any problems that crop up are common to all situations. A specific moment that we encountered during the workshop drove this idea home for me and I would like to share what we found and what we learned from that small interaction.

The round room: A 2nd floor bedroom at Staatsburgh and site of a pest issue.

One of our assigned tasks during the recent workshop at Staatsburgh was to vacuum the carpet in one of the guest bedrooms, referred to as "the Rose Round room" on the second floor of the house. Getting the room clear of furniture so we could have full access was challenging enough, as we had to move large and fragile pieces of furniture as thoughtfully and delicately as we could. When the moving was complete, we were able to get our vacuums into the space and get to work. Because the carpet in this room is historic, special care had to be taken when cleaning it. We couldn't bring in traditional floor vacuums, pass over the carpet a few times and call it a job well done. The individual wool piles that make up the body of the carpet become fragile with age, so vacuuming must be done using a low suction hose while cleaning small areas at a time. Though time consuming, the meticulous nature of this process allowed for better examination of the carpet to determine its overall condition. It was during this cleaning process that we found evidence of pest damage where small portions of the piles were thinned out. A more thorough search revealed a collection of frass (pest waste) and the larval casing of a carpet beetle, indicating that there was a pest issue that needed to be discussed.

A member of the workshop carefully vacuums the carpet using low suction.

The first thing our instructors impressed upon us was that the presence of pests such as carpet beetles was by no means an indication of a poorly cared-for house. As our textile instructor said, “bugs happen.” Just as we get bugs in our modern homes, historic homes can readily attract bugs with all of the wood and fibrous food sources inherent to an historic collection. As we discussed plans for minimizing any further damage, the point was made that even when monitoring systems such as “sticky traps” are in place, they are only indicators of the bugs that happen to wander into them; therefore they cannot give a good indication of the numbers of pests present. The cleaning we were already doing by vacuuming the carpet was the best treatment for the object at that time  because we were removing any remaining pests. We were pleased to note that while we saw evidence of previous damage, the larval casing we found was the only one we saw. While we couldn't be certain, it was likely that the damage we observed was old and not actively progressing. However, it is still possible for new pests to find their way in and cause more damage, so as a preventive technique we suggested the use of pheromone traps which actively work to attract carpet beetles rather than the sticky trap which only catches them by chance.

Image of a larval casing of a carpet beetle after the beetle emerges.

Another larval casing with frass; the waste material of carpet beetles is the same color as the fibers they eat because their bodies cannot process the dyes in the wool.

Once the issue with the carpet beetles had been resolved, the furniture was replaced and the workshop moved on to other tasks within the house. I later found myself thinking back on the series of discussions we had surrounding the issue. What stood out to me was that even though the issue we were dealing with was highly specific and localized, the steps we took to address and resolve the matter could be applied to almost any context where damage has been identified in an object. The pattern of identifying damage and locating the source, then protecting the object from any further damage and discussing the most efficient and effective measures to prevent further damage, is usually applied in regards to any object historic or otherwise, even if we aren't naming each step individually. If there is a constant awareness of this process, and an acknowledgment of the importance of preventive conservation, then potential risks can be anticipated and pre-emptive measures can be put in place to dismiss the chance of future damage. This idea of calculating risks and preventing damage, rather than reacting to it, is so critical to the care of an historic home, and has the ability to translate to collections of any sort. I am so grateful for my time at Staatsburgh and for the chance to find a tiny little bug that instilled a larger philosophy that I can carry into all the work I do moving forward.

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