Art conservation internship examines cultural objects
Published: Monday, March 11, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 11, 2013 21:03
On the bottom floor of Old College, four art conservation students carefully examine every inch of masks and figures from different cultures while using fine paintbrushes and syringes to apply minute amounts of chemicals that conserve and protect these ethnographic objects as part of a semester-long internship at the university.
Junior Elizabeth Diker says she discovered that her object, which is an African figure, was probably made in the last 50 years. She researched all the elements, which included skin, teeth and bones, she says.
“I wouldn’t have really done that otherwise,” Diker says. “It was kind of gross but really cool.”
Students will learn how to keep the in top shape so they can be displayed in the collection owners’ home. The students will create a detailed account of the objects, using photographs and documentation, Diker says.
The class meets every Monday for four hours to work on the artifacts under the supervision of art conservator Linda Lennon. Lennon, who earned her master’s degree at the university in 1997, now owns her own art conservation practice in Delaware and was contracted by the university to help with this class.
Lennon says she works with general objects, which can include a variety of materials, including anything from leather to metals. The class will conserve a similar variety of pieces, starting with figures and masks and then moving on to metal knives, baskets and scrolls. Currently, the four students have their own projects and are working together on a mask that is about three feet long.
In addition to the hands-on work, the students also observed and researched each object, wrote drafts of treatment proposals and presented their findings and suggestions for stabilization to the collectors, Lennon says. The pieces are on loan from the private collection of a local couple, who have spent their lives traveling the world and are excited about seeing the students’ work. The work the students do, including before and after pictures, can be used as part of a portfolio for graduate school or any future job, Lennon says.
“It helps them develop their analytical skills and their ability to look critically at issues on objects and formulate treatments for proposals,” Lennon says.
Some of the work the students are doing includes consolidating, which is the process of applying an adhesive beneath flaking paint. They spend hours going along every inch of unstable paint, Lennon says.
For Diker’s treatment, she says she is cleaning the object with fine paintbrushes and a special vacuum with low suction to get rid of dust and grime. She is also plans to repair a part of the figure that has been falling off.
Anyone considering a career in art conservation needs to understand the consultation process, Diker says. This internship is preparing Diker for her dream job, she says, because she has to go through the process of evaluating the objects and pitching treatment proposals to the collectors.
“It was kind of terrifying at first, because you can’t really tell people things they don’t know about the thing they bought,” she says. “But they were sweet and fun and had great stories.”
Diker says the students started studying African masks, and after their current project, they will be moving on to knives. For her, this will be the highlight because it is the main reason she joined the class, she says. All art conservation majors are required to take two internships and although Diker was not planning on doing her internship this semester, professor Vicki Cassman told her about some of the medieval objects, and she immediately enrolled, Diker says.
Junior Megan Murphy says conservators view the objects they work on as manifestations of the culture they come from and take a minimalist approach to conserving them.
“We don’t fix things, we preserve them,” Murphy says. “We’re not car mechanics changing the oil and fixing them up.”
Their goal is to prevent any further damage and to keep each piece looking the same as it did when they received it, she says. She says she is working on an elephant mask and is consolidating paint, sweeping away cobwebs and preventing future flaking of the paint. She and the other students do not want to perform any more treatments than are necessary to stabilize the objects.
Junior Amaris Sturm is another student of the four participating in the internship. She says the small class is great because they all get hands-on time with Lennon and learn more about conservation than they would in a normal class.
She and senior Narae Kim are working on different turtle shell masks from Papua New Guinea. Sturm says her mask has feathers from indigenous birds, plant fiber and paint while Kim’s has hair, paint and decorative shells. Sturm says it is important to learn how to do thorough research because some objects may have special or religious value and their history can impact how the students will treat the objects.
“It’s vital to have an understanding of what era they’re from because it has a big effect on what we use on it,” Sturm says. “A lot of objects we’re working on have ceremonial or cultural significance so we have to keep that in mind when we’re working on it.”
The objects in the collection were surveyed in a previous class to determine which ones needed stabilization, Sturm says. Now, Sturm and her classmates fix them up while under the supervision of Lennon.
Another part of the research is observing and identifying all the elements of the objects in order to determine the best treatment plan. Part of this process involves seeing how the objects fluoresce under ultraviolet light, examining the objects under microscopes and proposing an analysis, which has to be approved by the collectors, Lennon says.