by Lynn Grant
Not that long ago, a museum colleague was heard to say “I suppose cleaning counts as conservation” in a doubtful voice. We conservators found this both appalling and amusing as cleaning is a huge part of what we do. And knowing when and how to clean is a big part of our education. Using the wrong methods can permanently damage an artifact. Those of us who finished our conservation training more than ten years ago mostly relied on the rule of thumb ‘try gentlest methods first’. But there have been rumblings in the field about better ways to do things, with terms like Modular Cleaning Systems and Gel Cleaning drifting by. Clearly this was something we needed to know more about.
Fortunately for us, one of the ‘rock stars’ of gel cleaning research, teaches nearby at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Richard Wolbers, who describes himself as a ‘Cultural Materials Engineer’ to reflect his interest in applying new ways of thinking about conservation issues, is Associate Professor at WUDPAC and has graciously lent us his expertise on specific projects previously (one example here). But now that we have so many conservators and interns working on different projects and with a major campaign to reinstall our Egyptian Galleries after 90 years about to start, we asked Richard to give us a two-day workshop on the basics of gel cleaning. This was an abbreviated version of week-long workshops he gives around the world but we certainly squeezed a lot of learning into two jam-packed days.
Richard has basically turned much traditional conservation ‘wisdom’ on its head: looking deeply into the complex interactions among surfaces, dirt, and cleaning materials and using his observations to develop new approaches to cleaning. Even gels aren’t the new frontier anymore; custom made emulsions may allow conservators to use water and solvents in combination when the surface is easily damaged by them when used in liquid applications. Many of the techniques and materials that Richard uses come from the cosmetics and food industries. In fact, as we listened to his explanations, I kept thinking of the Molecular Gastronomy movement. Some of our new cleaning tools have as much relation to our old way of doing things as this does to your grandma’s chicken soup:
It’s a brave new world for conservation cleaning….