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Here's how conservators clean Anchorage Museum pieces so fragile they can be damaged by a breeze

  • Author: Tamara Ikenberg
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 29, 2017

With a pair of tweezers and unflinching focus, art conservator Nicole Peters picks cotton fibers from the sticky, frayed cord of Anchorage's most iconic clock.

During the 1964 earthquake, the timepiece broke when it dropped from the Anchorage Post Office wall. The hands are still at 5:36.

"The clock is really well-beloved in this city," said Anchorage Museum director of collections and chief conservator Monica Shah on a recent Friday at the museum. "It's really important that it never gets plugged in again."

Even though getting the clock tick-tocking is forbidden, Shah said an intact cord is still vital to the whole object's survival.

"It's degrading so badly that if we don't do something, it's going to start losing pieces," Shah said. "Nicole is trying to stabilize it before it goes on exhibition."

The clock, which is being prepared for the remodeled Alaska Exhibition, is one of hundreds of objects being evaluated, documented and repaired for both that exhibition and the $24 million museum expansion. The new Alaska Exhibition is replacing the old Alaska Gallery, and is a separate project from the expansion. Both will open in September.

As Peters, a Skagway-based private conservator on contract, performed the meticulous work in the Anchorage Museum's temporary first-floor conservation lab, she was also on display.

Since last August, museum guests have been able to observe conservators at work through the window for an hour each Friday. The lab will close this August to make room for another new exhibit.

"People don't realize how much work happens. This is part of the process for the new wing, because whenever you take an exhibition down you have to take care of it," Shah said. "It's all part of the picture. Once (the objects) go back into storage, they won't get a chance to be documented and cleaned again until they're on exhibit again." 

Some items are headed to storage, others will be placed in the new wing, and the rest will find a home in the redone Alaska Exhibition.

The exhaustive project is overseen by Shah and Anchorage Museum conservator Sarah Owens. It's far too much work for them to handle themselves, so they summoned about eight private contract conservators to help.

Through the conservation lab windows, observers can also see the wealth of objects stored inside. It's a mini-museum with northern treasures of all shapes and sizes, including a giant iron blubber-melting pot; a small, intricate ivory net gauge; squirrel fur blankets; and the most delicate and vulnerable of feathered robes.

Shah said many of the objects are so sensitive that a rogue swoosh of air or a speck of dust could damage them.

The conservator has the complicated job of sprucing up the items without disturbing them or compromising their authenticity.

"Our background as conservators is chemistry and art. We're material scientists," Shah said. "When we approach a treatment, we think of how the material is degrading and how can we stop it or slow it down. We really think hard about how much we're presenting our work versus the artist's original work or the user's work."

A little ditty

Most often, pieces don't require major intervention, Shah said. There are a few objects, like a torn sea lion gut cape and a kayak with holes, that need special attention.

Otherwise, the hands-on conservation work involves a lot of surface cleaning with soft animal hair brushes, mixing chemical solutions and making minuscule yet essential repairs.

Peters said one of the objects most in need of extra care is a little baleen ditty box with a wooden lid from the 1800s that will be featured in the new Alaska Exhibition.

Ditty boxes were used by whalers, sailors and fishermen to store food and other miscellaneous items.

Peters said the lid was putting too much strain on the rest of the box and had been poorly repaired by a previous conservator. To stabilize the container, Peters made a small insert piece that holds the lid just a little above the box "so for the next 20 years, it's not putting pressure on it," she said.

"Some whaler made it and it had its life, probably on the East Coast, and it ended up here," Peters said. "It was in really poor condition. The lid was all damaged. A lot of it is insect damage. Wool is exactly the same material as baleen and insects that like to eat wool would eat baleen. It could have also been a rodent gnawing at the edge because there'd been food in there."

In living color

Rodents, insects, obsolete preservation methods, incompetent conservators, dust, time and tobacco …

All are nemeses of the museum artifact.

Traces of the most pungent of these enemies is detectable on a hand-rolled swab that Philadelphia-based private conservator Gwen Manthey used to clean a Eustace Ziegler painting.

"You'll smell tobacco smoke," Manthey said, presenting the swab. "I've already surface cleaned to remove dust and tobacco smoke by creating a solution that pulls the grime. None of this will dissolve the actual painting."

The painting conservators work their restorative magic in a room apart from the conservation lab. The painting Manthey is repairing was previously in storage and is headed to the new wing.

"We have a bunch of Ziegler's work going into the new wing," Shah said. "The painting conservators are the best chemists. They mix up solvents to take off a varnish that doesn't disturb the paint underneath. They make a solution specific to each painting. They just do amazing things."

The painting Manthey is repairing depicts Alaska Native women in brilliantly colored parkas by the seashore.

"It looks like they're collecting fish. It's a portrait of these women at work," she said. "We tend to be a little more intensive with treatment, because it's meant to be beautiful, and as the painting gets older, as the varnish degrades and discolors, that shifts the entire tonality of the composition and you're not appreciating the depth of field or how bright these blues are."

Right across the table from Manthey, Denver-based private conservator Camilla Van Vooren turned yellowing clouds white again as she removed varnish from a Sydney Laurence painting of sky, beach and a boat frame.

"This is what the artist intended," Van Vooren said.

Change of a headdress 

An ornate Haida headdress combining painted carved wood, inlaid abalone shells, down feathers, a baleen frame and ermine skins has left conservator Sarah Owens all giddy.

"I've seen a few of these now and they're all slightly different," she said. "I always get excited about these."

The headdress, which will be placed in the Alaska Exhibition, is in surprisingly good condition, according to Owens.

"It's all secure," she said while checking to see if anything was about to detach. "It's really well-bound to the wood."

But it still needs tending to.

"I have to almost deconstruct it," Owens said. "The different materials will all have their own condition issues … ermine have very thin skins that tend to dry and tear easily."

It's not only time, insects and the usual suspects that may have caused damage. The headdress's use in ceremonial dances could have also contributed to wear and tear.

"The motion of the dance is quite aggressive," Owens said.

She added that dancers often place down feathers inside the headdress to toss out after the performance. There are marks and particles inside the headdress's crown that could be mold or remnants of those feathers. Owens won't know until she runs some tests.

If they turn out to be fragments of feathers, she will most likely leave them be.

"Sometimes," Owens said, "there are deposits on objects we want to keep, because they're part of their story."