Lovina Streight: Portrait Conserved, Story Preserved

 by Meredith McGovern, Arts and Culture Collection Manager

It took a village — or so it seemed — to conserve and display Lovina Streight, an 1880 painting of an Indianapolis woman who fearlessly marched with her husband, Colonel Abel Streight, and his troops during the Civil War, nursed wounded soldiers on battlefields, and whipped a pistol from beneath her skirt to escape the Confederate enemy. After 130 years and multiple transfers from Mrs. Streight’s parlor to the Statehouse to the Indiana State Museum, the brittle canvas had torn in six places. Patches applied to hold the torn edges together bulged and puckered from misalignment; previous efforts to replace flaked paint resulted in pools on the surface. The portrait was not suitable for display.

Thanks to a grant through the Lockerbie Square Chapter of The Questers, an organization dedicated to heritage preservation, the painting was conserved in the fall of 2012 by Michael Ruzga. The patches were replaced, the pools of paint reduced, and layers of dirt removed from the canvas surface. Details that were previously undetectable now popped: the delicate diamonds glittering in Mrs. Streight’s earrings; her cameo ring; the swirling scrollwork in the rug; and the artist’s signature. The portrait was again ready to tell the story of the bold and spirited Lovina Streight.

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In a stroke of serendipity, just a couple weeks after I picked up Lovina Streight from the conservator, the tour coordinator at the Indiana Statehouse asked to borrow the portrait for programming. It took a lot of synchronization, but we were able to display it on the fourth floor of the Capitol with the help of staff from the museum’s exhibition, collections, conservation and new media departments; a driver from the Indiana Commission on Public Records who transported the painting; and a crew from the Indiana Department of Administration Facilities Management who helped hoist the 8-foot, 80-pound portrait high into the air and secure it to the wall. Many thanks to all involved, particularly The Questers for helping make this project possible! Watch this video to learn more about Lovina Streight and the conservation project.

Visit the Indiana Statehouse to see the newly-conserved portrait on display until August 2013.


Polishing silver at the museum

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

In period dramas like Downton Abbey, footmen or maids get the dreadful task of polishing the silver. Culbertson Mansion doesn’t have staff hidden in the basement ready to polish the silver; instead, that work is done in the Conservation Lab at the Indiana State Museum. Here in the Conservation Lab, we don’t think of polishing silver objects as drudgery, because we don’t have to polish the same object more than once every 10 years. How do we get away with it? We have a secret ingredient.

Tarnished silver: a punishment for footmen since time began.

Tarnished silver: a punishment for footmen since time began.

Removing the layers of corrosion on silver objects is entirely done by hand with just de-ionized water, precipitated chalk and small pieces of cotton wadding. Once the corrosion layers are removed, the object is carefully rinsed and dried. All of that is pretty much in keeping with Downton-style polishing. The trick up our sleeve is to apply a lacquer coating onto the freshly polished silver. The lacquer prevents a new layer of corrosion from forming on the silver, sealing the shiny silver from things in the environment that might cause corrosion to form again. Unfortunately, the coating isn’t

With all those stubborn nooks and crannies, we’re lucky it won’t need our attention again for a decade.

With all those stubborn nooks and crannies, we’re lucky it won’t need our attention again for a decade.

strong enough to withstand normal household use; it’s meant for objects that get the “white glove” treatment at museums and historic sites. Our most recent polishing project was this lovely silver coffee urn, which took three pairs of hands and many hours to complete.

So, bring out your silver, try on your British accent, and keep regularly polishing at home. Look for the coffee urn to make its appearance at Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site.

An unconventional cleaning

by Meghan Smith, Conservation Specialist

In the Indiana State Museum conservation lab, we employ a lot of cleaning methods that would probably surprise you. Historic clothing, for example, almost never gets washed in the traditional sense; instead, we use vacuum cleaners to remove dust and dirt from the fabric. Paper artifacts get cleaned with something fairly normal – an eraser – but the eraser is ground into bits first, which are then gently massaged on the surface.

It’s been a long time since she had a bath.

It’s been a long time since she had a bath.

But sometimes, even we think our methods are unusual. A recent example of this was a marble statue, which was brought into the lab for a checkup before going down to the historic Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany. It’s a small-scale copy of a statue called Venus Italica, sculpted by the Italian artist Antonio Canova around 1812. Numerous copies can be found in museums and private collections throughout the world, while the original is in the collection of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy. According to our records, this particular copy was purchased by Mrs. Francis Heberly during a trip to Florence in 1887. After living through more than a hundred years of coal dust and grit, the Venus was looking pretty gray. We cleaned off larger patches of grime using an adhesive putty called groomstick, and then attempted spot cleaning using cotton swabs and a very mild detergent solution. Unfortunately, this cleaning method created an uneven, patchy effect on the statue’s surface.

This is where the unusual method comes in. In order to achieve an even appearance on the surface, we decided to mix up a poultice. If you’ve heard of poultices before, it’s probably in the context of pioneer medical remedies, where a poultice meant a kind of mash made up of medicinal plants that would be plastered to a wound. In this case, it means a thick, gelatinous mixture spread over the surface of a marble or granite statue to remove stains.

Mixing up the poultice was a little bit like taking chemistry all over again, although (with apologies to my excellent high school chemistry teacher) the practical applications were easier to grasp. Most of the poultice is water, which is the actual solvent that does the cleaning. But to get it to stay in place, it has to be a lot thicker than plain water. Accordingly, the water is mixed with methyl cellulose, which is a thickener that can be found in some shampoos, paint and even ice cream. Movie fans will be

I’m mellllltiiiiing!

I’m mellllltiiiiing!

interested to note that methyl cellulose mixtures have been used in many films, including Ghostbusters (ectoplasm!) and Aliens (acidic alien drool!). But these two ingredients don’t get the job done on their own. Ammonium hydroxide is added to keep the poultice’s pH basic, so as not to etch the surface of the marble. Finally, fumed silica powder and propylene glycol are added to make the poultice even more viscous and elastic.

Once applied, the poultice made the Venus look like a melting candle. We had to babysit the drying process, pushing the gel back into place when it threatened to ooze off her limbs.

After about two days, the last of the poultice had hardened into a thin, crackly skin. We peeled it back, and voila! The dirt came with it.

Peeling off the poultice was extremely satisfying.

Peeling off the poultice was extremely satisfying.

Because the layer of grime was so thick in places, we ended up doing multiple applications of the poultice. The most stubborn area proved to be the backs of her legs, due to the gravity-defying angle of the surface. In order to get the poultice to stay put long enough for the water to do its work, we wrapped the gelled area with cling film and left it for a few days before allowing it to dry.

Post-cleaning. What a difference, huh?

Post-cleaning. What a difference, huh?

After some additional mechanical cleaning to even out the last few patchy areas, the Venus was ready for her debut!

To see the Venus and other beautiful 19th century decorative and household items, visit the Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany! It is a truly stunning example of Victorian glamour.

The Venus Italica in her new home at the Culbertson Mansion.

The Venus Italica in her new home at the Culbertson Mansion.

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.

A conservator’s passion for his work …

by Mark Ruschman, Indiana State Museum Fine Arts Curator

During a recent visit to Fine Art Conservator Barry Bauman’s Chicago studio to retrieve two recently restored paintings, we (Leslie Lorance, Indiana State Museum new media manager; Shaun Dingwerth, director of the Richmond Museum of Art; and myself) were treated to much more than the typical drop off and pickup experience. Being new to the museum and having never met Mr. Baumann, I was excited and a bit anxious about meeting him for the first time. Mr. Bauman has 40 years experience in the business and is an Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. He was also formerly the Associate Conservator of Paintings for the Art Institute of Chicago. Now that he’s retired, he generously provides conservation services for the Indiana State Museum and numerous other cultural institutions, basically free of charge – just the cost of materials. As I’ve learned, this is a big thing for many organizations that struggle with budgets and the desire display their collections – some badly in need of repair.

The Indiana State Museum’s Leslie Lorance videos conservator Barry Bauman.

So visiting his studio is another one of the great perks that come with this job. Our host greeted us warmly, more as old friends, than business associates. He gave us a tour of the house and wonderful works of art on display; we were then treated to a spectacular lunch – prepared by him. After lunch, Leslie prepared to video him for a monthly segment we call “In the Spotlight” – a short segment highlighting something new and interesting at the museum. Certainly, the discovery of the new T.C. Steele would qualify, and who better to talk to about this discovery, but the person responsible. As we peppered Barry with questions about the discovery, what struck me most were not only the details of the discovery, which are remarkable enough, but his obvious passion for his work. He talked intently about his role as a conservator and how success is measured not in his notoriety as the conservator, but his ability to make the artist’s original intention crystal clear, unobstructed by the repair just completed. We talked at length about all aspects of his role as a conservator and what goes into a proper restoration. It was a fascinating conversation, with a great number of technical points covered, pointing out the expertise required to accomplish a successful restoration. But beyond the chemistry, you become acutely aware that behind it all is the heart of an artist; the skill to do the work and the knowledge to know what to do, and what not to do. The video interview will be short by necessity, but the conversation could have gone on for hours.

As we collected our restored works and prepared to leave, we talked of his upcoming visit to Bloomington, Indiana, for his talk on the “Steele Concealed” project. I’m looking forward to his presentation; I’m guessing the audience is coming to hear about conservation, I’m confident they’ll leave with a great deal more.

Witch’s Brew

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Conservators have all the trappings of a magical enterprise — a stock of arcane ingredients, “potions” that we mix up ourselves, tongue twisting phrases that we use and transformative powers on objects. Don’t believe me? Well, I might not have eye of newt or puppy dog tails, but I sometimes clean an object with my own spit; I’ve used things like fish skin glue and lamb intestine for repairs; and I regularly use an ethyl methacrylate methyl acrylate copolymer.

A cast iron tea pot before (above) and after (below) Gaby works her magic.

In order for the “magic” (a.k.a. work) to happen, a conservation lab needs lots and lots of ingredients and tools. There is such a huge variety of objects that come through the lab with such a range of problems, that a certain treatment might be performed only occasionally and thus only a small amount of a certain supply is needed. Sourcing just a little of these supplies can be a challenge. Imagine my dismay when I was missing a few milliliters of one crucial ingredient for the solution needed to treat a collection of cast iron cookware and fire dogs from Corydon Capitol State Historic Site that had been damaged by water leaking from a chimney. My magic wand was broken!

The ingredient I needed — phosphoric acid — is so common that I couldn’t imagine not finding it sold locally. It’s what gives some colas the “bright” taste, it’s a homeopathic medicine, brewers and hydroponic gardeners use it to lower the pH of their mash and water respectively, it can be used as a flux for soldering metals, and it’s used as a rust and hard water scale remover. Everyone I called either didn’t have it or didn’t have it in the pure form that I needed. It was hard to fathom that I would need to have it shipped from elsewhere, like a rare and precious commodity.

Fire dogs before (above) and after (below) conservation.

Just as I was about to give up, Tuxedo Park Brewers Supply came to the rescue with what I needed. I’m used to buying supplies from some interesting places, but theirs is at the top of my list. Their shop exterior is a brightly painted scene of orange and yellow wheat fields with a bright blue sky that you can only find by going down an otherwise drab, nondescript alley in Fountain Square. Yes, that’s right, their storefront is the alley.

This was a simple potion that I mixed for the treatment of the corroded cast iron, just some tannic acid and phosphoric acid. Tannic acid is a product that has been used since ancient times for making inks, in fabric dyeing and leather processing; it occurs naturally in tree galls, the bark of some trees and in tea leaves. It sounds scary, but it comes in the form of a fluffy, tan colored powder. Luckily, I had a whole bottle of tannic acid powder and once I mixed that with some de-ionized water, added a few drops of the phosphoric acid and heated it up, it was ready to be applied onto the surface with hog hair brushes. Through the magic of chemistry, the rust is converted to a stable, black colored corrosion layer. You can see for yourself what a few ingredients can do to change the appearance of some frightening looking objects. If you want to see them in person, you’ll have to visit Corydon Capitol State Historic Site.

Eau de old stuff

 by Gaby Kienitz, Conservator

I have a secret to tell — historic artifacts smell. They often smell bad. When you get close and personal with historic artifacts like I do in the Conservation Lab, you realize they have odor issues. It’s not their fault. Dust, mold, bird droppings, mouse pee and, shall we delicately say, various “debris” from human use contribute to a potent olfactory cocktail. If I could bottle it to sell at the perfume counter it would be called “eau de old stuff.” But, I don’t mind, I’m used to the smell.

I’ve been lucky; I hear stories from friends at other museums about a collection of artifacts that smell of old cigarette smoke and even worse, a contemporary art object that smells of rotten flesh. I’ve never had to deal with objects that smell so bad they make you feel sick. This year, I hit the jackpot with artifact smells. Not because it was terrible, but because it was so very good. Enter the bee skep …

What is a bee skep exactly? Well, other than a hollow in a tree trunk (à la Winnie the Pooh), this is the traditional home of the honeybee. Those efficiently square bee boxes we’re familiar with today weren’t invented until the middle of the 19th century. For hundreds of years before, humans provided the humble, hardworking honeybee with a home that’s basically an upside-down coiled basket made of straw, held together with strips of tree saplings. After the bees move in, they create their own honeycomb, by building directly onto the inner walls of the skep.

Our bee skep is an exile from the Odd Indiana exhibit. It was intended to be part of the display of torturous farm tools, but was cut from the show several months before installation. It didn’t look like anything special when it was brought to the Conservation Lab. Heck, I didn’t even know what it was. But, when I leaned in to take a closer look at the interior, that’s when it hit me – the smell, that fabulous smell. The inside is glossy from a thin coating of wax and high on the inner dome of the skep are small hexagonal remnants of honeycomb. There is still a faint, warm smell of beeswax mingled with the sweet earthy smell of straw.

For the first time ever, I found myself wanting the smell from an object to linger. I’d love to spend my days with my nose up against the inside of the skep, making myself giddy with the smell, but then who would do the work? Although the skep was rejected from exhibition, I wanted to give it another chance. I’m hoping to have it placed on exhibit in the second floor main gallery in the summer of 2011. But, before it’s ready for exhibition it needs to be treated in the Conservation Lab; part of the lower coil on the skep has detached and there’s some straw missing.

Look for an update in the coming months on the treatment and installation of the bee skep. Until then, I’ll be keeping my nose to the skep … er …grindstone.

All photos by Anna Yu.