Volume 7, Number 3, Sept. 1985, pp.1-3

Profile: Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center (RMRCC)

by James Swope

As recently as 1977, The Rocky Mountain and High Plain states had little access to conservation facilities attuned to their material needs with respect to the arid climate and environmental conditions which typify the Western states. Many museums were forced to seek conservation expertise out of the region and the need for a full service conservation center became increasingly apparent. The University of Denver and regional museums combined their interests by packaging a general survey which was conducted by Perry Huston. Establishment grants were then secured from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation and the Schwayder Foundation to found the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center.

The Center (RMRCC) is located in Denver and has been affiliated from its inception with the University of Denver. The University provides a number of services as well as the facility in which the Center is housed on 2420 South University Boulevard. Although this building was originally used as a post office, the space has been well adapted to suit the needs of a conservation laboratory. Most of the 5,000 square foot area is divided into three large work rooms. Although each department has its own general area, the departments are not in separate rooms. The space is flexible and accommodates the spatial requirements of any given project. The absence of walls between departments promotes interdepartmental cooperation and everyone keeps abreast of the Center's activities.

The Center is a self-supporting non-profit organization which derives its income from fees charged for treatment, surveys, lectures and other services. The RMRCC's primary clientele are the thirty-four non-profit institutions from the Rocky Mountain and High Plains states which form a Consortium. These institutions are situated in communities which spread over nearly one third of the United States! As one might expect the diversity of material sent to the Center is enormous. A public school district in Wyoming has a surprising collection of paintings which includes a Grandma Moses and a Norman Rockwell. An historic trading post on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona has holdings of basketry, kachinas, textiles and paintings. A Victorian house has had its three Egyptian mummies conserved. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming owns impressive collections of native American artifacts, weaponry and (American) Western art. The Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska possesses an outstanding collection of 20th century American archaeology specimens which are sent directly from excavation sites to the Center by the Bureau of Land Management. The National Park Service kept the paper lab busy with a project to mount several thousand historic herbarium specimens. The Denver Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Natural History are also Consortium members. In addition the Center serves private and corporate clients.

Conservation has been slow in coming to many underfunded and widely scattered museums and historical societies in this sparsely populated part of the country. The RMRCC assists these organizations in the development of their collection management programs by offering surveys, lectures and on-site visits. Aspects of object examination, storage, display and handling techniques, loan policies and guidelines for proper shipment are often stressed over proposed conservation treatment. The Center's quarterly newsletter, "Conservation News," is designed to provide basic, practical conservation information and it is part the RMRCC's effort to raise conservation consciousness. The Center presents a series of lectures and workshops on the care and handling of museum collections; bringing in experts in areas of specialization which are not covered by staff members. Recently, the RMRCC hosted two seminars presented by the Center for Occupational Hazards on health and safety concerns. Jose Orraca, a conservator of photographs, was recently invited to the area by the Center to conduct surveys and present lectures on the care of photographic collections which were offered in three states.

The RMRCC has been active in introducing promising young people into the conservation profession. Through its Student Aide Program, the Center has helped prepare numerous students for conservation training at the graduate level. Student Aides have gained admission into conservation training programs in the United States and in Great Britain.

The RMRCC has departments specializing in objects, painting, textiles and paper. From the beginning the Center has concentrated on the care of objects indigenous to the region and so ethnographic materials, Western paintings and Native American drawings on paper have become particular areas of specialization. The lab is also concerned about the character of objects which are exposed to excessively low levels of relative humidity.

The RMRCC's conservation staff have varied backgrounds. Charles (Carl) Patterson, Director, Chief Conservator and Objects Conservator, was trained in conservation at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He worked for ten years both in England and the Middle East before joining the Center in 1979. In 1980 Jeanne Brako studied under Carl as an intern from New York University, following an initial period of study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She subsequently studied in England and returned to found the Center's textile department in 1981. Nancy Iona assists Jeanne in that department. Jim Swope trained by apprenticing and through a program at the Fogg Art Museum. He started work in the Center's paintings department in 1982 and was joined a year later by STEVEN PRINS who came from NYU's program. In 1984 Alfred (Chip) Ackerman, a Cooperstown graduate who had worked five years for a private practice in the East, became the Center's third paintings conservator. During the same year Bob McCarroll joined the staff as paper conservator. Bob trained at the Royal Ontario Museum and worked for numerous Canadian museums privately and on staff, before coming to Denver. In addition to the staff conservators, Meredith Gilbert is the Center's business manager and Eva Kaczkowski and Wendy Fairchild are technicians.

The Center is outfitted with all of the basic conservation equipment one would expect and this equipment is made available to each department in the facility. For example, the suction table is used by the paper, textile and paintings departments. The Center has an 8 x 12' vacuum hot table which is used in the treatment of the many WPA murals found throughout the region. The textile department also frequently treats large items such as flags, quilts and Navajo rugs, and so makes good use of the Center's 6 x 10' sink. There are three separate exhaust systems in the lab and the humidification system is being upgraded through an NEA grant.

Through the University of Denver, the RMRCC has access to analytical equipment including a scanning electron microscope, x- ray diffraction and fluorescence equipment, and other tools which would otherwise be unavailable. Similarly the University's machine shop allows conservators to have customized mounts, crates or other items made to order. Having access to the University's entomologists, archaeologists, art historians and research specialists in many technical fields is also a great advantage.

In the eight years the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center has been in existence, it has worked to give regional collections the attention they deserve and has become a regional presence. The Center provides an alternative for those organizations which had previously sent their possessions to more humid parts of the country for treatment. The RMRCC has brought conservators to the area who are keenly aware of the particular problems and needs of objects located in this area, and the RMRCC's efforts to increase the region's awareness of conservation concerns are bearing fruit. Consortium membership is growing, but more importantly, the conservation profession is better understood and respected within both the museum and arts communities throughout the Rocky Mountain and High Plain states.

James Swope
Paintings Conservator
Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center

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