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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2017: Part IV - Cleaning the Passage Room

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, most recently at the National Library of France.

Blog author Jennifer Mikes
Part III in this series was written by Jennifer Mikes and Stephanie Carrato. Jennifer Mikes is a pre-program art conservation intern.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology with a minor in studio art from Franklin & Marshall College.  She has acquired experience in textile, furniture, paintings, and objects conservation from the University of Delaware, Headley Conservation Services, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Blog author Stephanie Carrato

Stephanie Carrato is from Monroe Township, New Jersey. She has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2009). She has worked in conservation for The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Andrea Pitsch Conservation, and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Stephanie is currently a conservation technician at the Penn Museum.

AIC's Preventive Conservation Workshop focuses on training early-career conservation professionals in a wide range of techniques and approaches to historic housekeeping and maintenance.  Part of the workshop including selecting one room in the house for a deep cleaning exercise. The Passage Room, historically a guest bedroom for single female guests, at Staatsburgh State Historic Site contains a variety of materials, such as large furniture, decorative objects, carpets, textiles, and more. This room made a great “case-study” for the kinds of materials and their associated needs that a conservator is likely to encounter in a historic house setting. Our approach was directed by a number of conservators, each with different areas of expertise and specialization. Together, we prepared and cleaned the room and then replaced the objects after the room was clean.

A view of the bed and dressing table in the Passage Room.

Prior to beginning work in the Passage Room, we completed survey exercises on other rooms in the house. Additionally, we consulted a collection of relevant texts curated by the supervising team of conservators. These resources allowed us to begin to think strategically about the individual needs of each room, and the elements within them that inform our approach. Through this kind of “close looking,” conservators are able to analyze a complex object or room as a sum of its components. This way of understanding objects and spaces directly informs decision-making to ensure best care.

We began by asking broad questions: What are we going to move and where are we moving it to? From there, we asked questions with more complicated answers: What should be moved first? How should we move it, and how should it be stored? Furthermore, we had to consider the needs of each object individually to understand how it would be handled and cleaned. Finally, we asked: How will we move the objects back?

The group planned out each step of the process before beginning.

The passage room contains a number of elements that needed to be removed before the room could be cleaned. If a housekeeper needs to clean the perimeter of a room including mantles, mounted elements, and floor coverings, all transportable objects must be moved out of the way. This is a much more arduous process than you might think. Before you can move an object, you need to document it, pack it securely, and find a suitable location for its temporary storage.

To make sure that each object was replaced in its exact original location and orientation, after the cleaning process is over, we took countless photos and notes and drew diagrams with precise measurements. The first objects to leave the room were textiles an portable non-furniture objects, such as the tortoiseshell portfolio and accompanying stationary materials on the desk by the front entrance. These were each packaged individually with tissue paper and bubble wrap to make sure that they did not wobble or break in transit.

Objects from the mantle are carefully wrapped in tissue paper before they are moved.

Afterwards, we removed larger furniture objects from the room, with at least two people responsible for carrying the piece of furniture and a third to clear a pathway and to guide the carriers. Moving the bed in the passage room was feat that required approximately seven people to accomplish. We disassembled each element of the bed - the mattress, the box spring, the two side rails, the footboard, and the headboard - and hauled them away to temporary storage.

The mattress and box springs were lifted from the bed frame before they were carried out of the room.  

At this point in the process, the room looked quite bare, retaining only the objects that were too difficult to move or those that could be cleaned around. This included a heavy armoire, two wall-mounted mirrors, a set of window curtains, and a series of framed prints. We chose to dust and vacuum these objects in place. To deep clean the area carpet, we vacuumed the top pile side, rolled it face-in, and vacuumed its bottom weave. Finally, we dusted the horizontal elements of the wall moldings and we vacuumed the floor space under and around the carpet.

Chair from the room were also vacuumed using a screen over the fabric.

Workshop participants vacuum the carpet in the Passage Room before re-installing the furniture.

After treating the passage room, the space looked and felt noticeably cleaner. Cleaning historic objects is a process with countless benefits. Dirt and dust contain all sorts of materials that promote both chemical and biological deterioration. Acidic degradation products that are produced during the breakdown of organic materials within the object encourage further chemical decay. Biological components of dust such as human skin cells act as potential food sources for hungry pests that may also be inclined to eat natural materials on historic objects, such as animal fibers in textiles, paper, animal-based glues, and wood furniture. By removing a significant portion of these substances from the objects in the passage room, we were able to improve their condition and promote a more stable environment in which the historical presence of the room may be maintained for future generations.

The Passage Room fully re-installed and cleaned!

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