Caring For Culture: Introducing Teens to Museum Conservation

By Lu Denegre

All photos by Emily Hirshorn

On June 4th, 2022, with the help of funding from the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia, the Conservation and Learning Programs departments hosted “Caring for Culture”, a hands-on introduction to conservation for teens. We had a great time and got some good feedback, and look forward to welcoming another group of teens this year on June 3rd 2023!

(If you’re a teen in the Philly area, you can register here for this year’s workshop)

Last year, 24 students arrived at the museum for a day of activities. The workshop began with introductions and a presentation by Senior Project Conservator Molly Gleeson about the basics of museum conservation. What kind of work does it involve? Why do we do it and what can damage cultural heritage collections?  

Molly Gleeson addresses Caring For Culture Participants in Widener Auditorium, and a diagram of the Agents of Deterioration (from A Guide to Risk Management of Cultural Heritage (p. 27), ICCROM, 2016).

Next, participants were led in smaller groups on a tour of the Museum’s conservation lab spaces by Head Conservator Lynn Grant. They got to see the X-Ray room, the photo studio, prep room, and main lab. Lynn and Graduate Intern Nylah Byrd spoke about the different treatments a large wall painting, a cartonnage mask, and a stone sculpture have undergone. These objects will be included in the upcoming reinstallation of the Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries and have collectively required different types of imaging, storage mounts, cleaning, and structural and aesthetic fills. 

Lynn Grant leads a tour of the conservation lab
Nylah Byrd talks about the treatment of a cartonnage mask

For rest of the morning, the groups were led into the galleries by a member of the conservation department to do some documentation of their own. Each participant chose an object in the galleries to condition report and diagram. Condition reporting is one of the first things you learn as a conservator and is the first important step in assessing an object’s needs before starting treatment. This activity offered opportunities to look for real life examples of condition issues, agents of deterioration, preventative conservation steps, and mountmaking.

Participants observing a strategy for a large fill on an object in the Middle East Gallery
Completing condition report worksheets for an object chosen in the galleries

After a sunny lunch in the Warden Garden, participants came back in for some hands-on activities. Groups rotated between three stations: cleaning, close looking, and ceramic reassembly. These stations introduced some of the beginning skills needed by a conservator in training. 

At the cleaning station, teens learned to roll their own cotton swabs to gently remove grime from the surface of a dirty tile. They also applied warm agar gel to learn how we loosen up and remove grime without using too much water on more sensitive objects or more stubborn dirt. 

A participant swab cleans a dirty tile

At the close looking station, teens used a Dino-lite digital microscope to get up close and personal with some study objects. A UV light setup showed that the way materials fluoresce differently under Ultra-Violet light can help identify unknown substances. 

Conservator Julia Commander guides participants through using a Dino-lite microscope

At the ceramic reassembly station, teams worked to puzzle out the correct location of sherds and reconstruct a ceramic object. Small sandboxes, blue tape, and clamps to hold everything in place are essential tools for gluing a ceramic back together. 

If students tried their hand at each table and still had time to spare, there were also individual activities on color matching and inpainting prepared for some down time. 

We were happy to see such enthusiastic attendance of this program last year and hope we get to meet some more future conservators at the workshop next month! If you or someone you know would like to participate, you can find more info and register here for this year’s workshop!

The Desalination Station II: The Salty Pot Field Diaries

by Tessa de Alarcon

So I have written before about desalination to stabilize ceramics with soluble salts, but this time I’m going out into the world, and setting up a desalination station for the Naxcivan Archaeological Project in Azerbaijan.

I had been given a heads up from colleagues Brittany Dolph Dinneen (the previous conservator on site) and Jennifer Swerida (project registrar), that soluble salts may be an issue with the ceramics from the project’s excavations. Salts can be tricky to identify with freshly excavated material, as the ceramic vessels won’t have visible issues until a while after their excavation; once the salts from the burial environment have had time to go through a few cycles of crystallization and deliquescence.

Before treatment image of QQ.15.155: the white haze is from soluble salts

Here at on the Naxcivan Archaeological project, the salts are mostly manifesting as a white haze over the surface of ceramics.

Detail of QQ-15-193 showing small salt crystals, rather than just hazing, on the surface.

A few are also showing clear crystallization, but the hazing has been the more frequent symptom of the salt problem, especially as this hazing was not observed when they were first excavated.

Detail of QQ-15-155: the poultice in place.

To confirm that what we were seeing was in fact soluble salts, I poultice the surface.

Detail of QQ-15-155: after the poultice was removed

Once the cotton poultice was dry, I removed it from the surface, re-wet and checked the conductivity, and tested it for nitrates and chlorides with test strips (there are lots of other types of soluble salts, but these are two common ones that are easy to test for). The results were positive, and as you can see the poultice also removed the white haze clearly showing how soluble these salts are.

Here Calypso Owen and I are filtering water from the sink with a deionizing column to get salt free water.

The next step is getting the water, and while we used to use a similar system at the museum to make deionized water, the scenery is pretty different.

Salty ceramics soaking in deionized water: the tags outside the buckets are being used to help track the objects during treatment.

The pot then soaked for a day, while I checked the conductivity until it reached the end point of the desalination process.

Desalinated ceramics after they are removed from the water and are now drying: again the tags are moving with the objects so we can track them.

Once it was removed from the water I rinsed it with fresh clean water, blotted it dry, then left it to air dry.

QQ.15.155 after treatment: white haze free!

Finally, here is the bowl after desalination. As you can see it is now white haze free. Most importantly, it can now be handed over to the Naxcivan Museum with no risk of damage from ongoing salt cycles.

View from the current excavation: Azerbaijan is beautiful

As a final note, it has not been all work, I did get to hike up to the current excavation and I wanted to end on this photo taken from the site, as Azerbaijan is stunning, and I can’t resist the opportunity to share.