Coaxing artifacts into giving up their ghosts

by Meghan Smith, Conservation Specialist

In 200 years, what kinds of everyday objects will illustrate our lives for archaeologists and historians? Perhaps iPads or cell phones will be the most compelling emblems of 2012. But looking back two centuries, things were undoubtedly simpler.

This month, our state historic site at New Harmony unveils a new exhibition featuring objects from the daily lives of its early citizens. Most of the artifacts come from archaeological digs, and look a bit worse for wear after spending so many years in the dirt. Metal objects, in particular, tend to suffer; environmental factors like oxygen and water cause damage. When they come out of the ground, these metal artifacts are covered with a hard crust made up of corrosion and matrix (which is a fancy term for the dirt around the object). While the damage can never be completely reversed, some of the crust can be removed so that the object underneath is a lot more recognizable.

But getting the corrosion and matrix to give up the ghost isn’t easy. When the objects for this exhibition first came to our lab, some of them were barely recognizable. “Wait, that’s a fork?” I asked, pointing to a lumpy-looking thing. “Yup,” said Bill Wepler, our archaeological curator. “It’s in there somewhere.” That fork and the accompanying knife, pictured below, were the most challenging artifacts we worked on for the exhibition.

Image of the knife and fork prior to treatment.

Removing the matrix and reducing the warty corrosion layer while preserving  the underlying object is tricky, time-consuming work. The unsightly corroded metal surface often detaches along with stable surface layers below, so we have to get as close as possible without actually removing any of the desirable surface of the object. Most of the work is done with scalpels, pin vises and brushes. Magnification and powerful lights are necessary in order to see in as much detail as possible. Still, as careful as we might be, things happen. Minute cracks in the object will cause one area to weaken while a nearby spot is worked on. Wicking adhesive solution into the crack helps stabilize the object, but bits will inevitably fall off. When they do, we carefully re-adhere them to the object.

During treatment, the fork’s bone handle came apart. Not to worry, fork: there is an adhesive treatment in your future.

Once we’ve removed as much of the matrix and corrosion as possible, the last step is to apply a thin layer of consolidant to the whole surface of the object.  The consolidant used is a specially formulated acrylic coating that stops any more corrosion from building up because of exposure to moisture; it also helps prevent any more pieces coming loose.

So, after a lot of hours spent peering through a magnifier and picking away bits of dirt and rock, the knife and fork look a lot more recognizable! You’d never mistake them for something out of your own cutlery drawer, but that’s part of their history. They’ve been indelibly marked by many years spent in the Indiana soil.

The finished product, on display in Community House No. 2.

And now the knife and fork, along with dozens of other archaeological objects, are on display at the New Harmony State Historic Site! It’s a beautiful place to spend a day or two, so head on down to discover another chapter in Indiana’s story.

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Discovering T.C. Steele and other treasures

by Karen Lowe, guest blogger and Indiana State Museum member

NOTE: We are excited to share the following write-up from one of our museum members, Karen Lowe. Karen has attended many of our members-only trips and each time she shares her viewpoint of the trip. On Sept. 22, we headed to T.C. Steele State Historic Site and Indiana University Art Museum. Thank you Karen for sharing you trip review with the museum for others to enjoy! Karen’s son, Damon Lowe, is our Curator of Biology, Science and Technology Exhibit Developer!

What a perfect way to spend the first day of autumn! Forty Indiana State Museum members and guests visited the T.C. Steele State Historic Site near Bloomington, where we were treated to an interesting and informative tour of the Indiana artist’s home and studio. T.C. Steele is one of the state’s most famous artists, having produced literally thousands of works during his lifetime. The home where he spent his last years, and where he lived while painting many of his most famous landscapes has been preserved and is currently in the final stages of being restored to its original early 20th century condition. The house contains many of Mr. and Mrs. Steele’s personal furniture, books and other belongings, and the walls are filled with Steele’s art work. The interpreter encouraged us to imagine how the urban Selma Steele might have felt as she came as a bride to this wilderness home, even having to walk the last several hundred yards in her wedding gown, as the horse and buggy couldn’t make it up the muddy road to the house. While favorably impressed with the first room, which was Steele’s original studio, she was soon terribly disillusioned when she saw what passed for a kitchen which she called “a masterpiece of unattractiveness.” No provision had been made for a chimney for the wood-burning cookstove, there were no cupboards for her dishes. Eventually, modifications were made and one of the best features of the house was the screened porch which wrapped around three sides. The sound of the wind through the screens led to the name of the house: “The House of the Singing Winds.”

For the second stage of the tour, we visted Steele’s “dream studio,” built in 1916, nine years after the house was built. In this huge building with its towering north windows, we saw a large sampling of Steele’s work, from the early portraits to the German-influenced paintings and finally to the beautiful impressionistic landscapes. The centerpiece of the exhibit for our members’ tour was the mysterious “found” painting, dated 1890 and discovered in 2012 when a New England painting dated 1887 was being restored. The mystery may never be solved as to why the artist stretched one canvas over another, thus hiding it for over 100 years!

The beautiful wooded setting of T.C. Steele’s home, which is on 211 acres, invites you to stroll the grounds, hike the trails to the log cabin that Selma had restored, and to the little cemetery where the Steeles and some of Selma’s family rest.

The tour continued to Bloomington, to the campus of Indiana University, to which Steele had strong ties. He was the first artist-in-residence at the University, and many of his paintings are exhibited there as well. He painted the portrait of the University’s first president, which is on exhibit along with portraits of all the following presidents, painted by other artists. In addition to seeing more of his work, the guide led us through several halls of the student union to show us many other treasures, some by other Hoosier artists. The composer Hoagy Carmichael even tried his hand at painting, and his donated large painting of the Constitution Elm in Corydon dominates the end of one hall. Our guide said that she was glad Carmichael stuck with his musical career!

The final leg of our tour was to the I.U. Museum of Art. The president of the Friends of T.C. Steele spoke to the group about the American artists that were exhibited there, and then encouraged us to explore the museum before returning to Indianapolis.

Remembering the king of cool!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean was killed in a car accident. He was only 24 years old and, though he made only three feature films during his short career, Dean became a Hollywood icon. He has had a tremendous and lasting impact on every phase of American culture. Even now, 57 years later, we still reminisce about his brief yet impressive career and mourn the tragedy of lost potential. But why James Dean? What is it about this young Indiana farm boy that has so captured our imagination?

One of the reasons that James Dean has endured, I think, is not so much for what he has done as an actor, but more for what he represents. Because for many, James Dean marks the birth of “cool.” But what exactly does cool mean? Is it an attitude or a look? Can cool be manufactured as a persona, or is it something that has to be earned and bestowed by others?

You say James Dean’s name and immediately conjure Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause: blue jeans, red jacket and brooding teenager. That character set the blueprint for cool: the tough but tender hero that everyone wanted to be or befriend. And over the years there has been a lot of blurring the lines between the actor and the character. So that may be part of it, part of the legend-building. But for the true fans – Deaners as they like to call themselves – there is more to it. There is no superficiality with Deaners. This is not a vague worship of a film character. For them, the appeal is not just for Dean, the Hollywood icon, but for whom Dean was as a person. There is a fond appreciation for the way he chose to live his life.

Eternal James Dean is a new exhibit opening at the Indiana State Museum on Nov. 23, 2012. In it we will reconnect the iconic image of James Dean with its origin by looking at both the man and the icon, engaging visitors in the life and legend of the Hoosier star. Personal artifacts, family snapshots and professional photographs will shed light on who James Dean was, both the actor, the man and the epitome of cool.