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

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2019: Part II - Moving Collections in the Drawing Room

During June 2019, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the fourth year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The  Foundation for the Advancement of 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.

Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with the NYS Bureau of Historic Sites and Parks.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including Furniture Conservator David Bayne, textile conservator Kirsten Schoonmaker from Syracuse University, objects conservator Valentine Talland formerly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, paper conservator Lyudmyla Bua of the Center for Jewish History in New York, and furniture conservator Paige Schmidt from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA.

Blog Authors, Patti Maxwell and Paige Hilman
This blog post was written by workshop participants Paige Hilman and Patti Maxwell. Paige is a junior at the University of Arizona, studying art history and chemistry with the goal of becoming an art conservator. She currently works for the National Park Service as a Museum Technician at the Western Archeological and Conservation Center and interns at the Center for Creative Photography.  Patti has served for the past two years in the newly-created Head of Housekeeping position at Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” in Southwestern Pennsylvania. She worked many years as a hospitality Housekeeping Manager which has equipped her with a thorough knowledge of the workings of a housekeeping department. This program has furthered her ability to teach her team the importance of proper object handling and preventive conservation and to impart a deep appreciation for the need to maintain national treasures.


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What’s the difference between packing up a modern house versus a historic one? It is mostly in the planning. The most important difference we observed while preparing to pack up the drawing room at Staatsburgh was the need to take more time to methodically consider every detail and refrain from rushing.  It can be a very slow process compared with packing up a modern house.

One of the projects completed by the group during the Preventive Conservation Workshop was the re-installation of a newly conserved carpet and the installation of a pad under another carpet in the Drawing Room at Staatsburgh. To do this work, all of the furniture and decorative arts objects had to be removed from the room to allow access to the carpets. As we learned, this process requires the thoughtful consideration of many details and much planning.

Here is a sample of the thought processes and questions that the conservators and students working in the drawing room had to answer before moving anything:
  • How will we document each object’s original location so it ends up back in the right place?
  • What is the object made of? What is the object’s condition? Is it safe to move? How heavy is it?
  • How will we carry the object; with bare hands or in a box? How many people will be needed?
  • Are gloves required to handle the object? If so, what kind - cotton or nitrile? If not, do we need to leave time for hand washing?
  • Where is the object going to be stored while the Drawing Room is disassembled? Does the new location interrupt any activity at the site, i.e. tour groups, site staff, etc.?
  • Do we prepare a temporary storage box and use it to transport the object? Or do we carry the object to the prepared temporary storage location and then store it in a box?
  • Is there a clear path to move between locations with the object? What places along the path could be a hazard, i.e. the threshold of a doorway, the edge of a rug, a projecting wall sconce etc.? How can we minimize the hazards?

Two of the jardinières on stands, the Chinese porcelain figures and vase in the center

With these questions in mind, the group split into 4 teams and covered separate sections of the Drawing Room. Our team covered the East wall, furthest from the tour path. In this section of the room there are eight ceramic objects, including three Chinese jardinières (large ceramic flower pots), two large Chinese porcelain figures, one Chinese porcelain vase, an ancient Greek skyphos (a two-handled wine cup), and an ancient Greek bell krater (another type of cup).

We started by checking off the items on the inventory list and taking detailed photos of the location of each object, including the furniture on which each object rested. The photos showed details such as how far in from the cabinet edge the foot of one of the figures rested and which part of the jardinière faced into the room. These photos allowed us to reset the room exactly as we found it when it was time to reinstall a few days later.

Patti looks at the placement of the ancient Greek vases

In consultation with the instructors, we discussed and identified the different materials and processes used to make the objects in the Mills’ collection. We tried to answer the following questions: Are there any weaknesses in the structure to be aware of? Are there any areas of damage or old repairs visible? And, how do we protect the vulnerable areas? These discussions allowed us to determine which items should be handled with gloves use and how to go about the moving.

For example, we used cotton gloves for one of the Chinese jardinières to protect the metal base from oils on our skin which might tarnish it. For the other jardinières without a metal base, we did not wear gloves. Clean bare hands provided a better grip on the ceramic and minimized the possibility that the heavy jardinière might slip or that the gloves might even abrade a delicate surface. In both cases, we made sure to lift from near the base of the jardinière to support the weight from the bottom.

Chinese porcelain figures packed for temporary storage

In addition to discussing the actual object, we also had to determine where it was going and how it was being stored temporarily. We addressed questions like, are we loading the object into the temporary storage box in the drawing room and then moving box and object to its storage location? Or are we moving the object to a prepared storage container in the other room? Before moving anything, can the person doing the lifting comfortably reach the bottom of the box in a squat position? Will they need an additional person to brace the bottom of the object and help raise and lower it from the box? In the case of the Chinese porcelain figures it was decided it was safer to carry each figure to a prepared box. After determining that we could comfortably reach the bottom, we also realized that to prevent the figures from rocking forward in the box as they were placed inside, we needed a spotter who could also reach down and help stabilize the base while the other person got their hands out from under the object. We prepared a large cardboard box with a clean muslin cloth and a divider. As pictured above, once we moved the figures from the drawing room we placed them in the box and gently wrapped the muslin cloth around the base of each figure for stability.

Packing a Greek vessel
In the case of the Greek vessels, it was safer to prepare a storage box in the drawing room and then move the entire box with the object to its temporary location in the next room. In the photo above, we have loaded one of the Greek cups into a foam lined crate and wrapped it in muslin cloth. To stabilize the corners, we are filling in the empty space surrounding the vase with thin sheets of foam.

Some of the decorative arts objects from the Drawing Room in their temporary storage location

We learned that walking along the path the objects would be following from one room to the other was an opportunity to look for any obstructions to avoid or be aware of and to identify where spotters could help. A spotter walking in front of the person carrying the object was able to alert others working in the area that an object was coming through. They could also direct the handler when a threshold or edge of a carpet needed to be stepped over so the person carrying the weight could focus just on the object.

After moving all of the decorative arts objects from the drawing room, we were then free to go through the same process of documentation and planning in order to move the furniture. The importance of all the documentation truly showed when we returned the objects to the drawing room after the carpet and furniture had been reinstalled three days later. From our photos, we were able to place all of the objects back into their proper positions down to matching the details of the furniture to the exact location and angle of the object.

3 comments:

  1. Wow! So cool! Is this why conservators are so buff?

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  2. This is really amazing. Having visited Staatsburgh on a trip to the U.S. during a visit in 2014, I am still following the Staatsburgh newsletter and this blog. Keep up the good work! :)

    ReplyDelete