Volume 12, Number 2, May 1990, pp.22-25

Conferences in Review

Mary Hough, column editor

Six conferences were reviewed in this column:

  1. "Earthquake-proofing Large and Top-heavy Objects."
  2. "Study Group on Threads and Stitches of the Textile Conservation Group Meeting," review by Teresa Knutson.
  3. "Caring for Your Family's Treasures," by Catherine C. McLean.
  4. "New Directions for Carpet Conservation," review by Catherine C. McLean.
  5. "Upholstery Conservation Symposium," review by Catherine C. McLean.
  6. "Earthquake Preparedness Lecture," review by Robin Chamberlin.

"Earthquake-Proofing" Large and Top-Heavy Objects

The Bay Area Art Conservation Guild held a panel discussion on the "earthquake-proofing" of large and top-heavy objects on December 19, 1989. The panel was moderated by Elisabeth Cornu, and included conservators John Burke, Oakland Museum, Will Shank, S.F. Museum of Modern Art; structural engineer Robert Bruce from the University of California at Berkeley; Harald Berndt from the Forest Products Laboratory, UC California, Richmond; and Kittu Gates, Chief Registrar of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Detailed notes from the panel discussion will be published in the Bay Area Art Conservation Guild Newsletter. In summary, however, it should be noted that the first thing the panelists and audience learned was that there is no such thing as "earthquake- proofing". Perhaps "earthquake-mitigation" or "damage-prevention" as a result of earthquakes would be an appropriate term, since no object can be shielded one-hundred percent against destruction resulting from earthquakes.

The structural engineer was able to offer some extremely helpful suggestions to conservators who would like to investigate the use of base isolation systems for sculptures and heavy objects. He cautioned against conservators attempting to put scientific principles into effect without detailed structural engineering input--in essence, much more damage can be caused by placing objects on base isolation systems without knowing the object's frequency response to quakes, and not being familiar with the building construction and building response. He termed the make- shift fastening systems utilizing surgical wax a technique which relies on "luck" rather than experience, and recommended that old-fashioned solid mounts be used to hold objects and pedestals in place, until proper structural engineering can determine the right base isolation systems.

In addition, Kittu Gates gave some useful information on the type of damage documentation required by insurance companies to compensate museums and private collectors for art damage sustained during earthquakes. It was a lively and informative session, and is part of an ongoing information exchange by Bay Area conservators on earthquake-mitigation measures.

Study Group on Threads and Stitches of the Textile Conservation Group Meeting

A study group on threads and stitching techniques used by textile conservators was formed from members of the Textile Conservation Group in 1988. Identifying desirable criteria for the threads and stitches used in textile conservation was their goal. From this study group, seven smaller sub-groups were formed to research various aspects of threads and stitching. At the January 20, 1990 meeting of the Textile Conservation Group, study group members under the leadership of Chairperson Julia Swetzoff reported on their research. This day-long meeting at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City consisted of presentations from each of the seven sub-groups and a videotape of Fiona Leek's graduate research testing conservation threads, fabrics, and stitches. In addition, two industry representatives contributed information on, and samples of, their threads.

The first sub-group presented the results from a Thread Questionnaire which Julia Swetzoff sent out last summer. Comments on the compilation of an annotated bibliography of articles on threads which could be related to their use in conservation were presented by the second sub-group. Threads used by the respondents to the thread questionnaire were researched by the third sub-group, and from their research, a source list of thread manufacturers and distributors of threads used by conservators was made.

Tracking the production of threads, and defining the qualities of good thread, was the subject of the fourth sub-group presentation. They also compiled a bibliography of information on the engineering of threads. The fifth sub-group assembled charts of fiber characteristics of natural and synthetic threads. Stitches used historically in textiles and clothing, and some of the stitches presently used in conservation were the subjects of the sixth and seventh groups. Each group compiled a comprehensive folio of stitching diagrams.

All of the bibliographies and/or research materials compiled by the sub-groups were collected in a research packet available to each participant at the meeting.

The day ended with a discussion of ideas which had been presented, in addition to a discussion of future directions for continuing the research on threads and stitches. It was decided that research would continue on threads used by conservators, and on the manufacture of threads. Moreover, research will begin on developing standards for threads and stitches, and on the effects of stress and strain on the stitches and threads used by conservators.

Teresa Knutson, the Mellon Fellow in Textile Conservation at LACMA, was elected new chairperson of the study group. Please contact her if you are interested in participating in the next phase of the research on threads and stitches. And for a $10.00 fee (check payable to Teresa Knutson), she will send you a copy of the research packet from the January 20, 1990 meeting. Send to Teresa Knutson, Conservation Center, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036, (213)857-6169.

Teresa Knutson, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Caring For Your Family's Treasures

The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, in Los Angeles, sponsored a six-part lecture series open to the public from 24 March through 28 April entitled, "Caring for Your Family's Treasures". Five of the six invited speakers were WAAC members, Elizabeth Court spoke on "Care and Conservation of Paintings," Marc Harnly's lecture covered "Caring for Your Historical Family Photographs," Rosa Lowinger addressed "Caring for Native American and Ethnographic Artifacts," Robert McGiffin discussed "Preserving Your Furniture in a Living Environment," and Catherine McLean covered "Preserving Your Textiles." The sixth speaker, Vincent Moses, is the Curator of History at the Riverside Municipal Museum. He began the series with a lecture entitled "Preserving Your Links with the Past: A Layman's Guide."

Catherine C. McLean, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

New Directions for Carpet Conservation

The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., sponsored a two day symposium on carpet conservation on 30-31 January 1990. Organized by Sara Wolf Green, eleven presentations were made by seventeen speakers to an audience of over 80 participants. Although carpets have been prized by collectors for centuries, they are relative newcomers to the world of conservation as it is known today. Until recently, museum quality rugs and carpets were almost always stabilized using traditional mending techniques. Because specialized skills were required, the work was often left to private rug and carpet restorers. This conference attempted to take a closer look at current practices. The audience was composed of a mix of professionals that included restorers and conservators in fairly even numbers.

Presentations were made primarily by conservators, which, in retrospect, may have caused the restorers to feel a bit uneasy. Presentations ranged from subjects that were broad in scope to those that were very specific. Broad topics included drawing parallels between tapestry and carpet conservation and a survey of current carpet conservation practices in Europe. More specific talks covered detergents, color matching, mending holes, edges and ends. Two WAAC members, Sarah Gates and Catherine McLean each spoke on specific treatments. Sarah discussed, "One Hundred Flatweaves: Conservation for Exhibition, Travel and Storage," while Catherine described, "A Recent Examination of the Ardabil Carpet at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

All of the presentations sparked lively discussion and brought to light many of the current concerns that restorers and conservators have. Conservators looked to restorers for techniques that could be borrowed, adapted or modified. They also explored conventional textile conservation techniques, trying to figure out whether or not they were suited for the needs of carpets. Restorers were interested in learning more about conservation treatment documentation and ethics.

It is important to put this conference into perspective. Bringing people together is the first step in determining basic guidelines or principles for carpet conservation. Sara Wolf Green is working to publish many of the presentations in an upcoming issue of the Textile Museum Journal. One point that was overlooked, or perhaps underemphasized, is the fact that carpet restoration is a valid profession in itself and it is composed of many individuals who care very much about the quality of their work. The Carpet Conservation Symposium was the first of its kind in many years and hopefully not the last. There is much more work to be done on this subject.

Catherine C. McLean, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Upholstery Conservation Symposium

The past year has been indeed a time for textile conservators, and in this case furniture conservators, to embrace some of the neglected subjects within their realms. First it was tapestries, then carpets and now upholstery.

Sponsored by the American Conservation Consortium of East Kingston, NH, and led by Marc A. Williams, an Upholstery Conservation Symposium was held in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, on 2-4 February 1990. Over the course of three days, thirty-two presentations were made to an audience of over 195 participants. To summarize the symposium, it was well organized, jam-packed with information and the $20.00 pre-prints (now $30.00 and available through AIC/FAIC, order form on page 19 of the May 1990 AIC Newsletter), containing everyone's complete presentation, was a best buy. This reviewer was skeptical of the steep ($225.00) registration fee, but concluded in the end that the symposium was worth every penny.

The presentations were divided into seven groups, proceeding logically from one to the next. The categories included Upholstery Conservation Overview, Analysis and Documentation, Upholstery Materials, Upholstery Styles and Techniques, General Conservation Treatment, Treatment Case Histories, and finally a Panel Discussion and Questions. Bringing together conservators, restorers, and curators with interests ranging from flat textiles to upholstery to wooden furniture, the symposium demonstrated that everyone has something to offer and that upholstery conservation is a collaborative effort.

One explanation for the success of this symposium lies in the fact that it served to update the participants on activities since the first national conference on upholstery was held in Boston in 1979. Over the past decade, conservators and restorers have worked together to revolutionize the conservation of museum- quality upholstered furniture. New techniques include re- upholstery with the limited use of or complete avoidance of tacks, nails or staples; treatments that would allow for restricted practical use of furniture; as well as treatments for display-only artifacts. Many treatments involved the complete removal of all existing upholstery. At first, this may appear quite radical, but, to put it into perspective, it must be realized that much of the upholstery that we see today is neither original nor of the appropriate style. A much more conservative approach is taken for pieces with original upholstery intact. The momentum within the upholstery conservation field is increasing. What this reviewer sees is a growing need for conservators specializing in the conservation of upholstery.

Future symposia promise to help to move the field ahead in leaps and bounds.

Catherine C. McLean, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Earthquake Preparedness Lecture

On April 6th, 1990, Tom Seligmann, Deputy Director for Operations, and Leslie Bone, Associate Objects Conservator, from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco visited the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA to share their experiences during the October 17, 1989 earthquake. In the morning, they walked through the newly constructed Fowler Museum of Cultural History with the staff to discuss earthquake preparedness and potential buildings problems. In the afternoon, they gave a lecture and slide presentation to museum staff and local registrars and conservators on the DeYoung Museum's disaster preparedness plan and the aftermath of the 7.1 quake. They were able to survive the quake with relatively minor damage due to comprehensive advance preparation.

Tom stressed the necessity of a written disaster plan, pre- disaster staff drills, and availability of emergency supplies. A staff telephone tree, where each staff member had a set number of people to call, and walkie-talkies aided in the location of responsible persons and effective communication after the quake. Thorough documentation of damage in the early period after the disaster, including photographs, was found indispensable in order to obtain relief funds from government and other agencies. Leslie showed examples of inexpensive, safe storage techniques and mounts which effectively prevented damage. Objects on display proved more problematic. Important in disaster response was securing unstable objects such as large sculptures to prevent further damage. The afternoon ended with a reception on the terrace of the Fowler building. Although the Museum of Cultural History has not yet moved into the new building, the lecture provided us with an opportunity to try out and show off our new space in advance. Thanks go to Tom and Leslie for a very informative and enjoyable day. We can never be reminded too often that surviving a disaster requires careful advance planning and preparation, and the time to start is now.

Robin Chamberlin, Conservator,
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA

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