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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Collections Care Workshop Part III
Where Housekeeping Ends and Conservation Begins

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 third post, Stephanie Hufford, is an aspiring conservator and artist. She received a BA in Studio Art with a minor in Art History from Rowan University, where she focused on printmaking. She also has an AS in Chemistry from Middlesex County College. She has completed internships in conservation at Quarto Conservation of Books and Paper, the National Museum of American History, the New-York Historical Society, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. She will be starting as a technician at Rieger Art Conservation in the fall. Her background in printmaking has led her to focus on book and paper conservation.

Workshop participant and blog author, Stephanie Hufford

In a historic home like Staatsburgh, furniture often needs to be moved to be cleaned. But at what point does the danger of moving such fragile objects outweigh the need for cleaning? On one hand, regular dusting and vacuuming keeps furniture looking clean and presentable. It can also mitigate future damage as well. But what about objects that are already damaged, or are just incredibly fragile to begin with?

This dressing table in the Rose Round Room has shattered silk due to light damage.
It would be nice to keep everything nice and clean, but the stability of the object in question should always be considered. Loose areas on a gilded frame, chair legs that are no longer securely attached, strips of shattered silk dangling from an upholstered sofa: these are all scenarios where regular housekeeping must be practiced more carefully than usual. And if the damage progresses, maybe even stopped altogether.

Conservation of historic furniture doesn't begin in a lab. It begins with the housekeepers, who keep an eye on the collections they care for on a regular basis. They practice a kind of preventive conservation, hopefully to keep objects from ever needing to be brought to a lab in the first place. For this reason, careful consideration of the needs of each individual object have to be taken into account. While quite a few rooms at Staatsburgh have been fully restored to resemble their Gilded Age opulence, some other pieces of upholstered furniture have different levels of degraded and shattered silk. Some were in better shape than others, and this made them easier for us to handle, but a few pieces were in much worse condition.  There were two pieces of upholstered furniture that were particularly problematic, and would definitely pose problems for future housekeepers as well. But before we go into those specific examples, I'd like to explain how silk is made, and why it 'shatters' the way that it does.

Silkworms are caterpillars that feed mainly on the leaves of mulberry trees. Silk fibers are harvested by boiling the cocoons of these silkworms. The fibers are too fine on their own to be used, so they are spun together to make silk thread. This thread is then used for weaving the silk fabric that we know.

Weighted silk was often used in the past for upholstered furniture and other objects. Weighted silk has been treated after production to increase its weight, just as its name implies. The reason being that silk was sold by weight, not by yard. During the process of spinning silk thread, the fibers are washed, or de-gummed, to remove any stickiness. Afterwards, the silk fabric could then be treated, usually with metallic salts, to add back the weight that was lost in the de-gumming process. However, this doomed the silk to fail from the start. Silk is generally a strong material, but it becomes very fragile with exposure to light and moisture, and weakens considerably with age. As weighted silk ages, it becomes too heavy to support itself and begins to shred and shatter. This is an example of 'inherent vice' - a specific quirk in how something is made that will lead to its degradation and failure in the future.

Chaise lounge in the Rose Round Room
The chaise lounge in the rose round room was in particularly bad shape. The silk upholstery was shattered throughout, with many pieces of fabric barely holding on. Additionally, the rear proper right leg was damaged at some point in the past and bent upwards. The back of the chaise lounge was being supported on a stack of padded blocks. In order to clean the rest of the room, the chaise lounge had to be moved. We couldn't vacuum the carpet or disassemble the bed with it being where it was. The challenge was to move the chaise lounge and the stack of blocks simultaneously to the other side of the room, without losing any more of the silk.

Workshop participants pin loose silk to the chaise lounge.
Before the chaise lounge was moved, the loose silk fragments needed to be supported. They were lightly pinned to the cushions with sewing pins and mesh screen. It took five people to move the lounge - four moving the couch and one moving the stack - as well as spotters to help guide them. To perform this task regularly as a part of a housekeeping plan would be dangerous to the object. With an object as fragile as this one, it's inevitable that there will be losses, no matter how many precautions are taken. It would probably be in the best interest of the chaise lounge for it to be moved as little as possible from now on.

Staatsburgh sofa - Currently in storage.
This sofa, currently in storage, is another piece of furniture with fragile upholstery. Although all of its legs were intact and supporting the weight of the sofa, the dust cover underneath was falling off and made it very difficult to move without dragging it and potentially tearing it even more. Because of the size of the sofa and the failing dust cover, it took more than five people to move it. This task was made even harder by the limited amount of space, as well as the heat and the dustiness in the storage room. It left us all feeling pretty fatigued. In order to clean the room, we had originally planned to move the couch out of the room and into the hallway. However, in order to get the couch out of the room, we risked damaging it further. This was due to a number of factors: the condition of the sofa, its weight and our team's combined strength, the angles of the door and hallways. In the end we didn't move the sofa out of the room; we just moved it out of the way and worked around it. But we still needed to consider that it would have to be moved out one day, especially if there's to be work done on the room itself.

The question of whether or not to move historic furniture for regular cleaning is something that needs to be asked for each individual object by housekeepers. There is no right answer that can cover every possibility. Ideally, we want to be able to keep collections clean, for the benefit of the objects as well as the public. But as we don't live in perfect world, we make the best compromises that we can to ensure collections live for many years into the future.


  1. A blogger told me recently about a vintage car show held at the mansion. This led me to want to read about the mansion! I am so impressed with the ongoing work on behalf of this significant country estate in NY. Although I'm in California, I hope to visit NY in the future and I'm so glad to know more about Staatsburgh. Someone puts a lot of work into these informative, well-written blog posts and I'd like to express my thanks for all the wonderful American history!

  2. Thank you so much for your comment! It is great to hear that our blog posts are being read and enjoyed. We hope that you are able to visit us in the future.