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Midwest Regional Conservation Guild 2015 Annual Symposium

I found myself travelling to the beautiful University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor the weekend of October 2-4 for the annual symposium of the Midwest Regional Conservation Guild. Our own preservation lab and other conservation professionals on the IU Bloomington campus hosted this group in 2012; it was now Michigan’s turn. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, also known as Newberry Hall was to be our base for the weekend.


The event got off to an excellent start Friday afternoon with tours of the various conservation labs: both Papyrology and Special collections on the Michigan campus, and the Detroit Institute of Arts and The Henry Ford Museum within the region. I toured the campus labs, and was impressed by the Special Collections lab within the Buhr Building.  Though this building was originally a ball-bearing factory, now repurposed as an off-site library facility, I found parallels between it and our own ALF building here on campus.  The Buhr facility holds 2.5 million volumes and houses a very well-equipped, pleasantly lit conservation lab much like our own. After a special curator-led tour of the current exhibit at the Kelsey, the evening ended with a pleasant opening reception giving all participants a chance to catch up with colleagues old and new.

Saturday presented itself with a full day of session talks. From the perspective of a paper conservator at a university library, I found several to be of interest though many more were given than I can cover in this post:

Christopher Foster, Conservator of Art on Paper and Photographs at the Detroit Institute of the Arts gave a very informative talk about the analytical work that went into studying eight of Diego Rivera’s cartoons for the Detroit Industry frescoes at the museum. These preparatory drawings which at first glance seemed simple renderings in black and red media on paper revealed themselves to be complexly constructed. The skill of Rivera’s hand and eye became more apparent to conservators and curators alike after studying the composite materials by traditional microscopy as well as Raman and FTIR spectroscopy.

Though not concerning a work on paper, Cybele Tom (Assistant Conservator of Objects and the Art Institute, Chicago) gave an insightful talk about the thought process which went into the conservation of a soon-to-be-exhibited early 16th century polychrome wood sculpture. A thorough technical study brought to light several previous restoration campaigns which left an ‘aesthetically disparate surface’  for the conservator to contend with. Her task was to ‘arrive at a coherent form that still honors its 500 year history’. Concepts that we as conservators ruminate over daily, such as old vs. new, varying theory of originality, preservation of evidence, and culturally-biased interpretation were discussed.

Janelle Batkin-Hall, Conservation Intern, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, gave an informative, if sometimes skin-crawling, talk about Victorian-era hairwork. From time to time, examples of this craft reveal themselves within collections here at IU so I was thankful for her background study, analysis and treatment examples.

Tom Edmondson, Heugh-Edmondson Conservation Services LLC, Kansas City, gave an excellent case study of the treatment of a convex crayon enlargement portrait. We have a number of these early photographic processes within our collections- I enjoy working on them for the challenges they often present the conservator. Tom relayed some approaches and techniques to working with them that I hadn’t considered, but will experiment with in the future.

Jodie Utter, a paper conservator at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, gave an excellent presentation showing how the skills and work of a conservator can shed light on curatorial questions and aid art historical research. She studied several examples of Charles Russell’s iconic Bronc Twister, aiding in the understanding of this image’s development by the artist as well as its commercial use by a pharmaceutical company as its logo for a laxative awkwardly named Heptol Splits!

After an ambitious schedule of talks, the day ended with a very generous reception at a local restaurant and cocktail bar- the warmth of the professional company overcame the blustery weather outside.

Sunday morning brought us another three presentations, including one that I delivered concerning the recent collaboration of 3-D scanning and modeling technology with automated enclosure manufacture. I hope that our experiment will be of some use to other institutions who may have the necessary technology on hand.

Finally Heather Galloway, a private conservator from Oberlin Ohio, presented a talk about her work bringing conservation into the undergraduate and graduate classroom. This topic, and her approach to creating a curriculum, resonated with me and the teaching I do within IU. Even though the conservator in an academic setting generally does not educate students in remedial conservation practice, our profession has much to share beyond the typical lab tour. Heather works with both art history and physical science students, presenting university art collections in a new light to supplement their core educational instruction.

I left the symposium mid-day on Sunday to return to Bloomington with a renewed enthusiasm about the work we do as conservators. Over the span of my career I’ve seen a number of changes to the profession- both good and bad. One of the more positive changes illustrated this weekend was that conservators are increasingly working in concert with other museum and academic professionals. Our skills and insight provide valuable information which can supplement other fields of enquiry. In turn, we’re reminded that our work has an effect outside of our traditional environment of the lab and storage area.

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