JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 185 to 202)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 185 to 202)





The earliest records describing artifact care are detailed in John Varden's diary of 1857 to 1864, written while he worked as preparator, collections manager, and exhibit staff. Although the individual entries are about specific activities, in summary they relate a sense of particular collections care concerns and position duties. The diary indicates that Varden and his staff were responsible for multiple aspects of collections care, ranging from collections management to exhibit preparation. There are frequent references to “cleaning” and “repairing” collections, but the diaries lack detail regarding methods. For example, on May 22, 1862, Varden was “at work assorting cleaning, mending and marking specimens” (SIA, RU 7063, diary entry). Almost all entries addressing treatment specify only the type of material and general provenience, e.g., “on July 28th 1860…Mr. Schaffart has…repaired and cleaned the ‘skelletons’ and returned them to their cases” (SIA, RU 7063, diary entry).

After Varden's death in 1864, archival evidence for collections care is scant until the curatorial annual reports begin in 1881. Records from the next three decades are replete with references to care of collections and exhibition including annual reports with summaries of daily activities, diaries, letters, and other documents. Collections were moved frequently and noted activities included labeling, pest control, cleaning and restoration, in-house exhibition, storage, loans/expositions, and model making/casting. Staff spent large amounts of time creating groupings of life-size mannequins to represent different cultures for exhibition.

The primary activities of collections care and exhibition during this period were driven by the concerns of and directives from the curatorial staff, who worked very closely with the divisional aides as custodians of their collections. Curators such as E. Foreman, Otis T. Mason and Walter Hough performed much of this work themselves, and their work straddled the line between what today would be considered the separate responsibilities of curators and collections management staff. The records indicate that curators did many of the tasks associated with labeling, pest management (poisoning), and cleaning, with the help of divisional aides and preparators, including sculptors, painters, and workmen.

Curatorial concern for collections care was clearly expressed in order to generate support for these activities. Foreman, in his report on the operations of the Section of Ethnology of the National Museum in 1881, lamented the state of the George Catlin collection of paintings and artifacts, noting insect infestations and previous exposure to “the sooty atmosphere of London” and including recommendations for cleaning, restoration of lost portions, poisoning, and for the services of an expert to “treat the leather with an ‘oleaginous or saponaceous application’ and to repair the beadwork and quill embroidery” (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 1). Concern for insect damage was also frequently noted, with recommendations that cleaning and restoration precede poisoning for eradication (SIA, RU 158). Acknowledging the difficulty of caring well for the collection, Mason wrote in 1908, “Anthropological materials demand extraordinary care in storage. In addition to the traditional enemies of moth, rust, and thieves…there will be general decay, damage and breakage—and inspection, protection, and repair must go on perpetually” (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 26, folder 15).

Halting damage through treatment concerned both curators and preparators, as evidenced by details from annual reports and published accounts. These curatorial reports are not specific about the treatment of particular items or collections, although there are rare references to specific objects, without catalog numbers, such as the observation that the deterioration of ancient Pueblo pottery with surface exfoliation could be arrested with the application of an impervious dressing that “promises to be effective” (Rathbun 1907, 32). These reports sometimes describe efforts to treat the deterioration of specific materials, such as curator C. Rau's 1884 suggestion 187 that crumbling surfaces could be reinforced by brushing with a thin solution of glue and bichromate of potash (SIA RU 158, series 1, box 4, folder 15). Cleaning techniques described include the removal of dust and accretions, followed by the application of a preservative coating. For example, “The dust may be blown from the specimens with bellows. Those containing remnants of vegetable matter, berries, food, etc., should be carefully scrubbed with soap and water, and rubbed down with a very small portion of oil and dryer. Above all they should be poisoned with a weak solution of corrosive sublimate or arsenic dissolved in alcohol” (Mason 1904, 540).

Problems relating to the control of insect pests were continual. Mason sounded almost desperate when he wrote in 1884 that collections were destroyed even before they reached the museum (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 4). He suggested that vulnerable collections be soaked in benzine, with the discretionary use of arsenic and alcohol as required by material type (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 4). Staff reports of this period include notations about poisoning collections, often in conjunction with entering collections into the departmental records, but without an indication as to the method or chemical of choice (SIA, RU 158). While not stating so directly, Mason's comments in 1886 concerning the inspection and treatment of new accessions indicate that “poisoning” of vulnerable collections as they entered the museum became a standard prophylactic procedure (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 6).

Choice of chemicals for pest control included consideration of the changes to the specimen that might result from their use and of their effect on the health of those who applied them. Mason wrote, “The goal of the staff is to find the best method of destroying the eggs and larvae while preserving the color, softness and texture of the specimens” (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 6). Mason also suggested that naphthalene might be harmful to museum staff, in spite of its usefulness as a preventive poison (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 6). The records are replete with recommendations for appropriate choices of chemical mixtures in various forms for use on objects made of particular materials, including mercuric chloride, powdered arsenic, arsenic mixed with alcohol or naphtha, or made even more potent though the addition of strychnine (Goldberg 1996).

Proper permanent labeling of objects was of high priority, especially as noted in the early curatorial annual reports. Labeling was identified as a timeconsuming, experimental activity in Foreman's report of August, 1881, as he noted that for half the month, the staff was occupied in labeling the 1, 600 Pueblo objects collected by J. Stevenson in the 1880 season (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 1). Initially, rubber-faced types and stamps were used, but the individual characteristics of object surfaces and application variability led to the consideration of other solutions, the point being, as described by Foreman, that “in applying these labels to the ever changing character of surface from rough to smooth, every shade of color and absorbing capacity, it is important to use an ink capable of leaving a legible impression.” He experimented with bronze powder and glycerin to improve ink durability, and with whiting, zinc powder, and plaster to change the color and consistency of the ink. Foreman also complained that the numbers applied to objects were sometimes damaged by subsequent treatment, resulting in labels needing to be renewed.

Concern for adequate collections storage began with Varden's records relating to the move of collections, using readily available materials such as paper and cotton (SIA, RU 7063). In the next few decades, the need for adequate space for collections storage became a larger issue. For example, curator Richard Rathbun described the state of collections in the 1870s as “continuously in a state of congestion, and with ever increasing accessions, it early became necessary to resort to outside storage, in which the amount of material is now extremely large” (Rathbun 1905, 181). Comments about curatorial concerns for appropriate space continued to resonate after two museum moves. Mason complained in 1902 that “crowding of the halls has become more embarrassing. Even the offices of the curators are being used as receptacles of valued material for which there is no present place of storage” (SIA, RU 158, box 26, folder 15). Assistant Secretary Rathbun noted in 1905 that “for a very large proportion of the national collections there is no room in the main buildings, and they have to be packed away in several insecure rented structures, which are already filled to the roof timbers and so compactly that no particular object could be found or removed” (Rathbun 1906a, 30). There was little commentary about the collections move to the new USNM (the current NMNH), other than reports that the collections were generally cleaned, and later complaints about overcrowding.

In the early years of the Smithsonian Institution, collections care was carried out in workshops that were situated at various locations. By the late nineteenth century, records indicate that the Institution included an in-house laboratory dedicated to caring for and preserving collections. Concerns for object care, pest control, and appropriate treatment, including proper labeling, exhibition preparation, and storage space, were expressed by collections staff; related tasks seem to have been carried out by curators and preparators alike. In response to late nineteenthcentury curatorial requests, preparators such as Sweeney concentrated on “the best methods for mounting ethnological specimens so as to enable the curator at any time…to introduce new specimens” (SIA RU 158, box 3, folder 5). Curators were involved in the daily care of objects, as evidenced by their reports and records, which specifically indicated their contributions to treatment, cataloging, mounting, and pest management activities. From the earliest period, collections care and exhibition staff included a wide variety of professionals, including curators, preparators, restorers, artists, modelers, and taxidermists.


After the move to the new USNM, the focus of collections work became exhibition, fabrication, and maintenance. As this period progressed, responsibility for the details of collections care shifted from the curatorial staff to the preparators, who worked under curatorial supervision. The preparators were assisted by skilled craftsmen who provided specialized services, such as the construction of mannequins and exhibition supports. By 1909, the annual reports included an additional segment which recognized the duties performed by preparators (Rathbun 1909, 36).

Fig. 1. William Egberts working in Anthropological Laboratory: USNM/NMNH Staff Files (1911–1980), National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

These records indicate that by 1910, an anthropological laboratory (the precursor to the ACL) was distinguished from other units, under the direction of H. W. Hendley, assisted by Joseph Palmer and Thomas Sweeney. Hendley, Palmer, and others were often requested for work in other departments throughout the museum. Under the direction of William Egberts, Head Preparator for the now officially named Anthropological Laboratory from 1913 to 1939 (pictured in Figure 1), staff efforts were concentrated on the production of fullsize mannequin figures in diorama settings.

Much of the work involved manufacture of mannequins, which served as exhibition mounts. As early as 1870, life-size costumed figures were made from wax (Ewers 1959, 519). Skilled sculptors, craftsmen, and preparators soon developed techniques for constructing figure groupings which were molded in clay, cast in plaster, and then painted. There is at least one reference to the production of “upholstered mannekins,” suggesting a sense of appropriate, padded support (SIA, RU 158, series 1, box 3, folder 12). Early mannequins recently removed from exhibition were found with precisely wrapped burlap, suggesting that this was the “upholstery” material of choice. This work was often described in general terms, with the specific projects attributed to the work of individual sculptors, craftsmen, and preparators. For example, “The principal work by preparators was in continuation of the preparation of exhibits for the public halls and especially the modeling, casting, painting, and installation of lay figures for the ethnological and historical costume collections, in connection with which the services of H. W. Hendley were mainly utilized. Numerous figures, modeled in clay and cast in plaster were also made by U. S. J. Dunbar, sculptor, partly for the Museum, but chiefly for the Panama-California Exposition along with Frank Micka, sculptor” (Rathbun 1914, 52). Some of the life-size mannequins or figure groupings constructed for these early exhibits were reused in a 1957 exhibit hall and were identified when the hall was dismantled in 2004 (Ewers 1959, 523).

Much of the exhibition work included the preparation of plaster figures used for museum display of such notable collections as the First Ladies' gowns and for life-size groupings for traveling expositions to such cities as New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, and Madrid. In addition to mannequin production, preparators created replicas. This process was considered of such importance that experiments with plaster to make castings that would tolerate the rigors of travel were conducted in 1891 (SIA, RU 158 series 1, box 3, folder 11). These replicas included a wide range of materials and media, such as casts of antiquities, as well as models and busts of Native Americans for the Panama-California Exposition (Rathbun 1913). The skill and reputation of these sculptors and craftsmen gained national attention during this period, as reported in newspapers, and by visiting scholars (Washington Post 1910).

Preparators' duties were consistently split between work dedicated to exhibition preparation with related casting, and time spent working with the collections. This dual theme was summarized by Rathbun, who wrote in 1906, “In the preparatory laboratories of the Department of Anthropology there was no cessation of activity at any time during the year. It is there that all the casting, modeling, and coloring of specimens are done, that the lay figures [mannequins] are prepared for the exhibition cases, and that the poisoning and cleaning of objects are conducted” (Rathbun 1906b, 29).

During this period reports indicate concern for environmental conditions in relation to collections care and exhibition. Comments about pest evaluation were accompanied by concern for light exposure, moisture, and the presence of fine particulate dust. For example, in 1913, muslin curtains were hung over some windows in an effort to block sunlight from southern exposures (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 27, folder 6). And, in 1917, the annual report stated, “Care has been taken to exterminate dangerous insects of all classes and to preserve the specimens from the deleterious effects of moisture and strong light” (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 27, folder 6). By 1923, the annual report recommended that the museum use artificial lighting to slow deterioration of collections from strong light. The same report described the presence of a pervasive black sooty material which had been brought into the museum from the city, presumably from coal and wood burning fuels (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 29, folder 3). Even today, objects in the collection that have remained folded because of their fragile and brittle condition still have the sooty material on exposed but unreachable areas.

Along with concern for dust and debris, there were increasing comments about lack of adequate space for collections storage and maintenance. The annual report of 1919 points to “pressing needs” for additional storage space and increased scientific and technical staff (Holmes 1920, 51). A shortage of closed storage for collections is indicated in a 1923 report which state that objects which were “more imperishable” would be placed outside of storage containers and would then be subject to dust contamination (Hough 1923, 36). In 1929, an urgent request for increased storage areas for collections compared current storage conditions to obsolete modes of transportation (Hough 1929).

Statements in the annual reports convey a sense of satisfaction in having conquered the pest problems of the past (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 27, folder 5). Additionally, comments in the annual reports suggest that collections staff had begun to recognize that closed containers could eliminate pest infiltration and provide a means of delivering gaseous fumigants. For example, the 1917 annual report notes the construction of “vermin proof storage cases” as an “effective safeguard for collections in the process of cataloging and previous to treating them with toxic substances” (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 28, folder 3). By 1926, staff had conducted studies of specimens attacked by insects and recommended storage of specimens in airtight containers to protect against insects, as well as light and sooty dust (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 28, folder 4).

The curatorial staff continued to research and experiment with methods to ensure the preservation of individual specimens. For example, the1920 annual report described curatorial investigation of the use of adhesives for broken pottery and skeletal material, including an unspecified technique for halting damage to recently excavated ceramics (SIA, RU 158, series 2, box 28, folder 7). Curatorial and laboratory approaches to the treatment of individual items were summed up in a period publication which divided museum materials into four main classes for preservation purposes, including those subject to moths, borers, decay, and rust (Krieger 1931). Anthropology curator, H. W. Krieger, documented the use of arabol or lithol, a penetrating oily (lanolin) preparation for impregnation of decayed wood, stone, and pottery. In another suggestion for the treatment of fragile surfaces, he recommended the use of ambroid (cellulose nitrate), followed by a spray with warm paraffin wax. Celluloid or cellulose acetate in acetone was applied to textiles in an effort to improve strength. For rusted objects, Krieger recommended metalol for post-cleaning treatment, in contrast to Hough who had previously endorsed Vaseline as a protective coating. Krieger recommended the use of castor oil, Vaseline and lanolin for the preservation of leather items. Krieger addressed the issue of cleaning baskets (by water bath) and tanned skins (by abrasive use of pipe clay, gum erasers, corn meal, and solvents such as carbon tetrachloride and benzine). His paper also included a review of commonly applied coatings for paintings, significant in light of the treatment of paintings by departmental staff. However, with the exception of such noteworthy items as the StarSpangled Banner, treatment of items from the collection was conducted without notation of individual catalog number or written reports.

During this period, the range of treatment options increased along with the variety of collections. Although curators seemed to have pursued research into the efficacy of particular treatment options, collections staff such as preparators, sculptors, divisional aides, and the like, were primarily responsible for carrying out collections care duties. The late nineteenth-century success of the traveling expositions also led to an increased focus on the work involved in exhibition, including the manufacture of replicas, casts, mannequins, and dioramas.


The mid-twentieth century brought organizational, institutional, and philosophical changes which led to a shift in work priorities under Andreas Joseph Andrews, who was Chief Preparator for the Anthropological Laboratory from 1939 to 1973 following the retirement of Egberts. At the beginning of Andrews' tenure, the annual reports continued to note a similar mixture of projects relating to exhibition, casting, and repair of collection items. But over the years the reports gradually included increasing detail about conservation and restoration projects. In 1944 Andrews began providing instruction and training to other colleagues, an activity he continued throughout his career. In 1955 a central Office of Exhibits was created to meet the exhibit needs for the museum, which relieved laboratory staff of exhibition-related casting and construction. As Andrews continued to bear responsibility for the treatment and care of individual collection objects and more complex restoration projects, there was evidence of growing departmental concern for the larger issues surrounding the deterioration of specific types of materials.

During the 1940s and '50s, divisional collections were the responsibility of Head Scientists (curators) who organized, prioritized, and implemented collections preservation activities. Their duties included supervision of divisional aides and participation in marking newly accessioned objects, cleaning, fumigating, repairing, sorting, rearranging (storing), systematizing and consolidating the study collections, and exhibition development and implementation. Staff from the Anthropological Laboratory carried out more difficult repair and restoration jobs, assisted with fumigation, and made piece molds and plaster casts of specimens. Andrews' annual reports support this with lists of the totals and types of objects, casts, and dioramas made, repaired, or restored. Curatorial recognition of the special skills required to perform these duties on a wide range of materials was described as follows: “The Anthropological Laboratory must be prepared to complete satisfactorily a wide variety of tasks for the [Department of Anthropology] and other departments in the National Museum and National Collection of Fine Arts. This work requires an equal ability to accomplish both technical and artistic work…including modeling, casting, making endocranial casts from human skulls, repair and restoration of statuary throughout the Museum buildings, cleaning, repair, and preservation treatment of a very wide variety of ethnological specimens, consisting of original painting on canvas requiring backing and retouching and specimens made from feathers, hide, fur, wood, bronze, silver, gold, china, cloth, baleen, antler, bone, buckskin, hair, horn, ivory, shell, sinew, wool, glass, birchbark, textiles, iron, and stone. Each of these materials requires special handling, from the chemical point of view, in treatment for preservation or repair” (Setzler 1946).

Departmental annual reports documented extensive treatment campaigns undertaken within various divisions during this time period. Although there were no records to indicate which objects were treated, nor with what methods and materials, some materials, such as Vaseline and wax, the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons, naphthalene, and paradichlorobenzene continued in popularity, as indicated by a worn copy of the National Park Service Field Manual by Ned Burns which was found in the current conservation laboratory. The chapter on technical methods described a conservative collections care approach, specific treatment options and choice of materials for the treatment of a wide range of collections, including archival, ethnological, historical and natural science (Burns 1941). Information incorporated into this chapter was diverse, including instructions for washing a wide variety of stains from textiles, recipes for leather preparations, and procedures for the preparation of study skins and herbaria collections. Within the department, specific comments about treatments suggested the development of additional options for the solution of long-term problems. For example, the 1943 Division of Archeology annual report stated, “Several Bronze Age vessels from Mediterranean countries were bathed in diluted hydrochloric acid as a means of checking bronze disease. This treatment, the only one within our power, destroys the exhibit value of a specimen, but preserves it for study purposes” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1942–1943). In 1948, the Ethnology Division sought advice from the Leatherwork Division of the Bureau of Standards in attempting to perfect a method “for use in the softening and preservation of ethnological specimens of skin” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1947–1948). The 1957 records specified “the implementation of a contract for the washing of [departmental] aboriginal textiles from Peru and Chile” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1956–1957), possibly a re-treatment of objects treated earlier by Egberts. Also, during that year, “in the rapidly expanding segment of the Division concerned with American cultural history…scores of specimens were refurbished, polished and cleaned. Hydrochloric acid was applied to blackened pewter; old furniture was restored to its original paint and finish, without loss of patina; archeological materials were restored by chemical and manual processes” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1956–1957).

Andrews also developed an interest in more scientific approaches to collections treatment, as evidenced by his collaboration with Rutherford Gettens of the Freer Gallery of Art in 1956 in the study of Egyptian varnish, alvar (polyvinyl acetal) lacquer and an acryloid (ethyl methacrylate copolymer) coating as potential protection from silver corrosion (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1955–1956). Later reports also described innovative procedures developed by Andrews for rust removal from iron objects, including a method for preserving the surface of these objects after they have been cleaned, as well as research concerning the preservation of thousands of embrittled baskets in the collections (Setzler 1958). Because none of these treatments were recorded per individual object, current conservation assessments of condition must take into consideration these historic treatment choices.

Although the Burns manual is replete with recipes for chemical treatments and procedures for specific materials and problems, the general tone of the manual suggests abstinence from treatment in favor of such preventive options as closed cases with poisoned gaskets and caution in engaging in treatment that might alter the object itself (Burns 1941). Within the Anthropology Department, concerns for environmental conditions of anthropological collections were expressed as follows: “A tremendous responsibility must be assumed by this department in providing the necessary safeguards to prevent deterioration or destruction of such irreplaceable specimens from insects, sunlight, temperature, and humidity…Many new chemical compounds have recently been perfected, especially with regard to insect repellents, which have lessened the destructive elements. Nevertheless, we feel improvements can be made to eliminate the danger of excess sunlight in the exhibition halls as well as maintaining constant humidity and temperature controls for the vast majority of sensitive specimens in our study collection” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1945–1946). In an effort to meet the environmental needs of the departmental paintings collection, the 1956 annual report included comments concerning progress towards the installation of a climate-controlled storage area, dedicated to the “safe preservation” of this collection (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1955–1956).

During this time there was an explicit understanding of the need to be vigilant about pest control. Most departments within the museum carried out their own pest control measures, but there were indications that individuals responsible for treatment must have collaborated, as evidenced by similarities in chemical choices and later, by institutional annual pest control reports (Goldberg 1996). In the Anthropology Department, all incoming accessions were fumigated and weekly inspections of specimens on exhibition were conducted “to forestall any serious infestation” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Reports, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1949). Some materials such as “all perishable materials from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands” were treated annually as a precaution against insect infestation (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report, 1947–1948). Annual prophylactic treatments were not mentioned in reports from the Anthropological Laboratory, perhaps suggesting that these procedures were carried out by divisional aides or technicians.

Divisional aides, technicians, and staff from the Anthropological Laboratory prepared objects and carried out all aspects of exhibition installation. Staffing levels for 1953 may be deduced from the statement that “nineteen exhibit cases were completely revised by our limited staff of two preparators, in cooperation with the scientists [curators]” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1952–1953). The creation of a separate exhibitions department in 1955 left much of the conservation work “in abeyance due to the lack of an assistant in the Anthropological Laboratory. Our Chief Preparator, A. Joseph Andrews, is regarded as one of the most versatile employees in the museum and yet, without an assistant, it is impossible for him to keep up with the normal rate of disintegration” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1958–1959). Into the early 1960s, there was a continuing and almost plaintive plea about the lack of facilities and personnel to keep up with the rate of deterioration of collections.

Gradually, institutional changes within this period shifted the focus of collections work from exhibitiondriven artistic expression to the detailed and more complex restoration and care of specific objects or types of materials. As conservation became an established field, staff such as Andrews participated in available courses and collaborated with early conservation scientists. This shift was aided by the creation of a separate exhibition department, which left Andrews free to pursue solutions for specific preservation problems and to continue to refine the exquisite restoration skills required for such projects.


A fundamental shift in collections care occurred within the Anthropology Department in the early 1960s as curatorial responsibilities moved towards increased research. These changes also signaled a major reorganization of collections activities in an effort to streamline activities, including the creation of the Processing Laboratory to catalog, process, and monitor all departmental collections. At this time there was also a growing interest in analysis of collections and a scientific approach to conservation on the part of Smithsonian staff. This interest led to the development of the centralized Smithsonian Conservation Research Laboratory (later to be renamed the Conservation Analytical Laboratory) in the Museum of History and Technology (now the NMAH). Hired to direct this new laboratory in 1963, Charles Olin began his career with a temporary work assignment in the Archeology Division of the Department of Anthropology.

Under his direction, a new, temporary objects conservation laboratory (called the attic conservation laboratory) was established for the treatment of objects needed for exhibition, especially the new permanent African and Asian Ethnology halls (Olin 2004). Laboratory practices changed dramatically with the introduction of the concepts of reversible treatment and careful analysis before treatment. Documentation also changed with the adoption of a two-part, carbon-copy form for recording individual treatments. This form was used by laboratory staff within the Anthropology Department for the next 20 years. Staffing for the new laboratory was increased by the introduction of graduate students enrolled at George Washington University (GWU) who performed routine conservation treatments under the supervision of conservators, in a relationship that continues to this day.

The work of the attic conservation laboratory suggested to others in the department a new course for conservation priorities within the department. Curatorial comment included: “The success of this operation indicates that future large scale conservation work on the collections should be successful and is highly desirable” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1963–1964). These changes were accompanied by the formal expansion of the laboratory to the Anthropology Conservation and Restoration Laboratory (ACRL) and the hiring of Bethune Gibson in 1965 as laboratory technician. By 1967, duties in the laboratory had been divided into restoration projects under Andrews, and conservation concerns under Gibson. With the retirement of Andrews in 1973, Gibson became head of the laboratory and its name was formally changed to the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory (ACL).

Conservation efforts were focused on treating as much of the deteriorated collection as possible. Staff, along with numerous volunteers and students, treated nearly 18,000 objects during this period as documented in Gibson's annual reports. Similar objects were removed from storage at the same time for treatment, but individual treatment records were made for each item, following the format developed by Olin.

Curators were closely monitoring work in the laboratory, as evidenced by comments in a 1970 memorandum from curator Clifford Evans to Paul Knierim (USNM Assistant Director) in which he complained that “lack of personnel in the ACRL does not permit us to clean and preserve rapidly enough some delicate specimens that for 75–100 years have been in storage. Deterioration of leather, basketry and matting is occurring. Also, some objects improperly stored years ago, must have the museum dust and grime removed because the acids in this coal smoke dust effects [sic] the surfaces of the specimens. The problem is especially acute in American Indian collections, but also serious in Pacific Island and Indonesian specimens” (Evans 1970).

Conservation response to curatorial concerns about the deterioration of the collections was to develop treatments that could improve the appearance and stability of objects made of specific material types. Considered innovative at the time, these treatments have, in some cases, resulted in long-term changes in object condition. Treatment methods included the use of an air abrasive unit to remove surface corrosion or soil from artifacts, using fine particulate powders which were discharged at high pressure (Gibson 1969). This method was used on buckskin garments, beadwork, basketry, and metal surfaces, potentially resulting in loss of surface layers that may have had research value. Following recommendations from museum scientists, conservation staff consolidated friable surfaces with soluble nylon (ACL treatment records), a treatment that has left portions of the collections embrittled and darkened. Procedures using chelating agents for removal of obscuring deposits from ceramic collections were developed, and subsequently used on significant portions of the archaeological Mediterranean and ethnographic Pueblo collections (Gibson 1971). Although the use of these chemicals has received widespread acceptance in the field, the effects of chelating agents are suspected to be a potential source for current efflorescence on various collection items.

During this period, the role of curators in collections care also changed. By 1962 there was an unmistakable growing frustration on the part of the curators who were “forced” to do exhibitionand collections-related activities. Promotions were denied to some curators because they were not producing enough publications during the year (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1961–1962). The report stated, “Care of the collections seems to be looked upon by the administration as simply a job of supervision…Yet, since the moves will take time, and will interfere

Fig. 2. Hansen, Firnhaber and Austin (right foreground) working in Anthropology Conservation Laboratory: ACL Staff Files, Anthropology Conservation Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution.
further with research and publication, the staff will feel penalized for giving the collections all of the time and attention they should receive. A well-done job of caring for the collections deserves rewarding just as much as a well-done job of exhibition or publication” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1961–1962).

In 1965, the aides and technicians formerly supervised by divisional heads of Anthropology were consolidated into a single collections unit called the Processing Laboratory, which handled all collections care concerns regardless of their classification as ethnological, archaeological or physical (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1965). This change was based upon the understanding that handling issues such as initial unpacking, cleaning, sorting, identification, accessioning, and cataloging were basically similar for all objects. The reorganization included the provision that this new collections laboratory would be administered by a single curator on a rotating basis, greatly relieving curators of collections-based responsibilities and freeing them to direct their efforts towards research. Along with this change, according to the 1965 department annual report, there was also “the gradual renovation of its office space, work areas, and storage sections in the Museum of Nat. Hist. This now nearing completion, provides excellent space for SOA's activities, and offices for the newly merged professional and subprofessional staffs” (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1964–1965). This reorganization changed the character of curatorial involvement with collections activities in such a way that by the 1980s and '90s, there was only limited interaction between the curatorial staff and the collections staff.

Staff during this time introduced the concept of teaching volunteers, interns, and students through extended work experiences in the laboratory. This practice helped to alleviate a chronic shortage in work force, expanded the activities of the laboratory and simultaneously served to train new conservators. As early as 1968, curators recognized the importance of student training and volunteers, noting that Gibson had “significantly expanded her activities by training more volunteer workers, showing her conservation methods to visitors from all over the world, and corresponding with other people desiring information” (Cowan 1968). In the years that followed, a collaborative conservation training program with GWU was developed through formalized laboratory practicums and this changed the course of anthropological conservation training.


During the last thirty-five years, the laboratory continued to focus on the stability of groups of objects or material type in a way that mirrored changes in the field of conservation. Permanent staff began to take responsibility for policies regarding exhibition, traveling exhibit, and collections storage. The move of collections to a new facility increased concern and collaboration for collections care among conservators and collections care staff. The role of conservation students, part-time employees, contract conservators, interns, and volunteers continued to expand as a larger group of individuals were included in collections care activities.

The Special Studies Master's degree program in ethnographic and archaeological conservation, developed by Carolyn Rose (and known as the GWU conservation program), had a direct impact on laboratory activities because Gibson and Rose taught courses and practicums in the conservation laboratory. Rose, who began work as a laboratory technician, received her degree in 1976, and gradually transformed the program into a nationally recognized training opportunity for ethnographic and archaeological conservators, based on the evaluation and treatment of items from the collection.

When Gibson retired in 1977, Rose was promoted to head of the ACL, a position she held until 1988. The laboratory was already staffed by recent GWU graduates and was filled with interns from the GWU conservation training program. As other new conservators worked in the department, conservation concerns began to shift from a treatment-oriented approach to a more passively protective approach to collections care. This approach was accompanied by increased interest in the history and function of individual object use to help determine appropriate treatments. As this more conservative approach developed, various standard conservation procedures were instituted for the Department of Anthropology (NAA, Series 14: Annual Reports 1979–1983).

Within the department, there was growing concern for the overcrowded collection conditions. Although the notion of an off-site storage facility was first conceptualized in the 1960s, discussions and planning for such a facility continued into the 1980s (NAA, Series 14: Annual Reports 1979–1983). Rose envisioned laboratory space at the Museum Support Center (MSC) as the heart of a national conservation training center which would provide educational training for conservators and conservation technicians as well as continuing education for practicing conservators, students and other SI staff (Rose 1978). Although the training program never came to fruition, the planning and foresight of staff conservators successfully provided the department with a flexible, well-designed space that has become the center of anthropology collections care activities in recent years.

Discussions about plans for the physical process of the move continued throughout this period, and efforts to secure funding for staffing and supplies began in earnest in 1982. The NMNH established an interdepartmental Move Office to centralize the provision of staff, supplies, and other resources to departments engaged in the move of their collections. Supervisory responsibilities for these conservators and museum technicians were first assigned to the Move Office, but this organizational structure created a cumbersome relationship between the staff hired to move the collections and the staff responsible for their ultimate care. Additionally, as funding fluctuations created staff gaps, and as time projections became more realistic, the responsibilities for moverelated activities affecting anthropology collections were shifted to the ACL and the Processing Laboratory.

The initial preconception was that each object should receive conservation treatment as part of the move process. Greta Hansen, hired in 1983 as the first move conservator, advanced a more realistic approach that allowed primary preventive care for the entire collection. Hansen and varying numbers of museum technicians and move conservators developed methods to assure that objects were handled, cleaned, and appropriately packed for transport and optimal storage (fig. 2) (Hansen and Sawdey 1999). Objects were rarely treated, but were stabilized through the fabrication of supports that would arrest damage or assist in reconfiguration of shape. Over time, processes were modified and streamlined with the ultimate goal being to provide researchers with access to the collections. Conservators and technicians worked together to find solutions to problems related to the preparation of specific objects, such as specialized boxes for Japanese armor, simple mounts for arrows, and soft internal supports for textiles and flexible objects. Solutions for more complex storage problems were evaluated and resolved by conservation staff, including appropriate racks for oversized spears, and aluminum pallet supports for large and heavy items such as stone sculptures and totem poles.

The MSC, designed for multiple functions such as laboratories, work space, and collection storage, as well as research, was completed in 1983, and the designated storage space was ready for occupancy in 1991. The facility was designed to maintain a stable and clean environment, with filtered and dust-free air, controlled temperature and relative humidity, an active pest management policy, and special security and controlled access for people (Hansen and Sawdey 1999). Initially, rough volumetric calculations, based upon data from the congressionally mandated inventory project of 1970–1989, were used to determine storage plans and space requirements for incoming collections. Eventually, computer-assisted drawings were used for mapping storage space areas for cultural groupings of objects. In later years, the addition of bar coding equipment increased the efficiency of identification and relocation of objects, and provided each object with a new label on acid-free card stock.

Computerization of general conservation information began in 1979, with a key punch system (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1979). By 1985, a simple database for complete treatment and condition reports was in use. Separate databases were later created to track sampling and fumigation activities. During the late 1990s, recognition of the fragile nature of the carbon-copy paper records led to the transfer of 18,000 treatment reports into the ACL's treatment database by interns and volunteers, creating an inclusive database of 40 years of recorded treatments.

In the continuing efforts to prevent object damage, collaborations between the processing and conservation laboratories were initiated, using object damage prevention as a starting point for discussions. During this period, the laboratory utilized its first formalized policies for loans and exhibits work, which included a condition monitoring program, as well as conservation oversight for mounting, bracketing, and packaging. These procedures were developed between 1973 and 1985, when laboratory projects included a number of very large temporary or traveling exhibitions involving multiple institutions and interagency exhibitions (Norman 2004).

Staff also served as liaisons between contract conservators who were working on in-house special exhibits, and departmental staff, in an increasingly complex situation that involved members of the processing laboratory, curatorial staff, the exhibitions department, and individuals from lending or borrowing institutions (Norman 2004). Recognition of environmental conditions for objects on display began to grow in importance, and by 1981, written exhibition guidelines for Department of Anthropology collections were in place (NAA, Series 14: Annual Report 1981). Conservators also expressed growing concerns for properly designed brackets and mounts, and conservation oversight was gradually incorporated into their preparation.

By 1985 concerns for the condition of the permanent exhibit halls of anthropology collections at the Museum were growing and staff efforts led to improved interdepartmental communication to include conservation input in the early stages of exhibits design and planning. As a result, in-house dismantling of older exhibitions has been carried out by conservation staff, from the mid-1980s to the present, and much has been learned about past exhibition and conservation techniques.

Chronic staff shortages during this period were somewhat mitigated by the efforts of volunteers who worked on long-term projects under the supervision of staff conservators. The 1970s volunteer projects for Pueblo pottery conservation and Roman mosaic restoration led to the conservation treatment of large groups of very similar objects (Norman 2004; Valentour 2004). The rehousing of old world archaeology collections during the late 1980s employed a regular group of volunteers on a weekly schedule. During this program, objects with significant problems, such as soluble salts, were set aside and treated in the ACL. This volunteer staff was trained to assist with remedial object cleaning, rehousing, and support/mount fabrication. As the move of the ethnology collections became most active, these volunteers also assisted in the conservation treatment of extremely misshapen and fragile materials, such as repair of the tapa collection and humidification of objects made from leather and textiles. This program continues, and volunteers regularly work with collections, clean and help to conduct basic treatments, write condition reports, and participate in photo documentation.

As Hansen, named head of ACL in 1988, and other staff continued an aggressive approach to preventive collections care, Rose took on administrative duties that helped to give conservation concerns a distinctive voice within the department. She was appointed deputy chair in 1993, and became chair in 1999, a position that she held until March 31, 2002, when she stepped down because of illness. Her commitment to change in collections care policies was summarized as follows: “To be effective, preventive conservation must begin at the top with an institutional commitment to collections care” (Rose and Hawks 1995, 1). The permanent staff of two conservators continues to expand the role of preventive conservation within the Department of Anthropology by performing primary treatments, participating in loan and exhibition work, supervising interns, volunteers and contractors, collaborating with researchers, and participating in general collections maintenance.

This period was characterized by the development and implementation of a preventive conservation approach in response to observed collection conditions and past conservation practices. As responsibilities for collections activities were shifted to various operational units, conservators spoke for the need to be less reactive in treatment choices and more proactive in preventive care and handling decisions. The codification of guidelines and policies, along with the large-picture approach characterized by a conservator in an administrative role resulted in a departmental shift in collections care attitudes, and the inclusion of conservation concerns in storage, exhibition and loan planning as well as implementation. As a result, many collections care issues are now handled collaboratively, with appropriate input from specialists with differing interests in the collection, including conservators, staff from the Collections Management Unit, the Repatriation Office, and curatorial staff from physical, ethnological, and archaeological specialties.

Copyright � 2005 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works