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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2017 Part II: Exploring the Library

During June 2017, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the second year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop 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.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including  Kirsten Schoonmaker from the Shelburne MuseumValentine Talland formerly from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michelle Smith who is currently spending the summer at the National Library of France.

Part II of the series was written by NYU graduate Natasha Kung.  Natasha was born and raised in New York and graduated from New York University in 2016 with degrees in Art History and Chemistry. She has gained pre-program conservation experience at the Museum of Modern Art, with Central Park Conservancy, and with several private conservators. She is currently interning in the Department of Photograph Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the Conservation Department at the Brooklyn Museum. She expresses interest in specializing in objects, but is also fascinated by photo chemistry and materials science.

AIC Workshop participant and blog author Natasha Kung

When I first entered into the doors of Staatsburgh, I couldn’t help myself from looking every which way.  I was amazed at the enormity of the house, the ornately decorated furniture, and the wealth of objects that populated the space. Every surface was decorated with intention, from the marbled walls to the gilded decorative arts to the elaborate textiles, and it was evident that the Mills family had an idea of how they wanted to be portrayed to the outside world. The diverse collection was a wonderful example of Gilded Age lifestyle and aided in our training on how to be housekeepers of a historic home.

The structure of the Preventive Conservation Workshop was set up with a focus on one or two conservation specialties per day, which included books, objects, furniture, and textiles.  We then applied knowledge we gained from our lectures to our assessment of the house. We looked at various forms of deterioration and learned about the environmental and external factors that affected the works in such specific ways. The goal of housekeepers in a historic home is to think critically about how to best preserve a collection by understanding the methods of preventing further damage from occurring.

The library at Staatsburgh houses thousands of books that range in time period and subject, making it quite an amazing collection and room. Photo credit: Carrie Miller Freeman

For me, the library at Staatsburgh was one of the most captivating rooms in the house. The sheer number of beautifully bound volumes was astounding and I could imagine myself spending the whole week looking through the shelves. This workshop encouraged us to think about books and the library from a new perspective and with different insight. We learned how traditional bound books were made and the proper vernacular to describe them. This would inform, rather than dictate, how we encountered books. We also discussed what we had to consider when dealing with a historic private library collection.

One of the most interesting considerations that I learned was that the library should be thought of as one collection, rather than individual books. Coming from a background of internships in fine art museums, I was used to thinking of each object as its own, warranting individual context, treatment, and care. So, one might think that each book in the library should be viewed as its own entity. However, it is important to think of the library as a whole because it has existed in that orientation and manner for well over a hundred years including the order of the books on the shelves.  A housekeeper does not approach his or her task with the mentality that they have to treat or restore everything, but instead the housekeeper needs to think of the best methods of maintaining the collection. This may, in most cases, mean not taking any course of action at all as a form of treatment, because if there is no active damage accruing, disturbing the collection by treating or moving it may be even more harmful than not doing anything.

Workshop participants examine the books in Staatsburgh's library.

It is also important to recognize that the bookcases are historic pieces in their own right, but to be conscious and critical of its potential effect on the books. One large aspect of conservation is having an extensive knowledge of materials and processes because it is crucial to understand how different materials interact with one another and when one may harm the other. For example, oak is a wood that tends to off gas, and so, if the bookcase were made of oak, this is important to know since the wood would be in contact with the books, and therefore some barrier should be put in place to protect the books from the historic furniture. At Staatsburgh, there are mylar sheets sitting underneath the books so that they are not in direct contact with the bookcase. This is a great solution because the mylar is transparent, and therefore, not obstructive for the readability of the bookshelves.

Another consideration as a housekeeper of a library collection is environmental control. Books are made of leather, paper, adhesive, along with other traditional binding materials. These materials are affected by changes in temperature and humidity, and can potentially grow mold or expand and contract due to high humidity. Low light levels are also something to be considered as overexposure to light leads to fading of materials and photo-chemical deterioration. A historic home may not have the equipment or funding necessary to monitor and control these environmental factors on such a subtle level, like a large institution or museum may, and this could present another issue when you have hundreds of hygroscopic and sensitive objects. However, it is important that the staff and housekeepers of the historic home be conscious of these considerations when they are taking care of the collection.

The bookcases at Staatsburgh are covered with glass to protect the books from theft as well as any potentially harmful environmental factors. Photo Credit: Aubrey Quasney 

Lastly, it is important to minimize risk of theft, as one does in any institution. The collection at Staatsburgh is vast from decorative arts and furniture, to paintings and sculptures. In the library, the bookcases that lined the path that the guests walk down had glass coverings secured with decorative metal fasteners. This also serves as a slight barrier between the books and the air outside of the case, as air is also an agent that causes deterioration. This ensured that the books were out of reach from visitors and that they were protected from environmental factors that could possibly cause damage.


During this year’s preventive conservation workshop, we learned about the forms of deterioration that can affect a historic, fine art, and private collection, and the measures that housekeepers can take to help prevent these changes from happening. I was really interested in the fact that because the collection is so large, there can be a combination of several forms of deterioration happening simultaneously, and a delicate and careful eye is required to look out for these signs. Our days analyzing the library and conjecturing about the fabrication and materials of what we were seeing was really insightful because it was one of the first experiences I had seeing an entire collection of books from the 19th century at such an intimate level, which was really memorable.

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