Talks

A Gathering of the Platinistas

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With the FAIC Platinum and Palladium Photography Symposium in Washington, D.C. now a couple months behind me, I can look back and reflect upon how much I have applied my newfound knowledge into my daily work.

To summarize, the program included a full day workshop, a day-long tour, and two days of symposium presentations. The tours to see collections at the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American History, and the Library of Congress offered an opportunity to see examples of a variety of prints close up. Not only did the collections include a breadth of subject matter, they also showed the many conditions, tones, and techniques that we would hear about later in the week. The workshop happened concurrently to the tours in the photograph conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art, where Mike Ware, Pradip Malde, Chris Maines, and Adrienne Lundgren demonstrated three versions of printing in platinum and palladium (see images) and gave the participants time to try their hand at each.

Finally, the symposium talks presented the thorough research that the many conservators, scientists, curators, historians, and artists had been conducting over the course of years. The wealth of recently-discovered information cannot be conveyed except through the much-needed publication, fortunately expected in print in a few years’ time.

Ultimately, in only a few short days, the Symposium showed me that platinum and palladium photographs are not always what we previously expected; they can be in excellent condition, faded, or stained, neutral or warm in tone, contact printed, enlarged, or even selectively printed with the use of glycerin…and the list goes on. Although I do not work with photographs on a daily basis, I have already found use for my improved identification skills and look forward to attempting some of the proposed treatment techniques, like iron chelation, in the future.

 

*Many thanks to the John Krill-Betty Fiske Scholarship Award for funding this experience, and to Michelle Sullivan for sharing her images of the workshop.

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Philadelphia Area Conservation Association

A small glimpse into the paintings conservation lab, including part of the wall covered in burlap to mimick the gallery.

After almost a year and a half of fabulous events [that I sadly missed], I finally made it to a PACA meeting at the Barnes Foundation last week. It was great to see so many Philadelphia-area conservators that I already knew, and meet others that I didn’t know, all while enjoying some delicious snacks and drinks.

Having lived near the new site of the Barnes for almost three years, I feel like I’ve been very connected to the building and the collection’s move from Lower Merion, checking in on their progress every time I walked to Whole Foods or drove to school. Now I can finally say that I was able to tour the new paintings conservation lab! Even better than the tour was the panel of conservators (Barbara Buckley and Margaret Little), director and chief curator (Judith Dolkart), and registrar (Andrea Cakars), who discussed the logistics behind the collection’s move. It helps to have an involved board of trustees and a strong network of colleagues in other institutions. It was amazing to hear just how many people were involved in the work, and how smoothly the whole process happened despite all of the controversy surrounding the move!

In the end, everyone wanted the collection to be in a safe and accessible new home; not only is that true, but the space is also beautiful and Green, achieving the highest rating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system by the U.S. Green Building Council.  I still have to go back sometime to view the collection in the new building, but until then, I will happily enjoy the space from the outside.

Thanks, PACA, for organizing the event!

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A Golden Inspiration

On October 15, I met Jane Golden, founder and director of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia. In a 20 minute talk, she managed to inspire me enough to think about changing my major from paper to paintings conservation! Though I will probably stick with paper, I’ve become an advocate for the preservation of murals, and if you continue reading her story, you probably will, too.

Jane graduated with a fine arts degree from Stanford. From there, she worked in Los Angeles painting murals until 1984, when she took a job with Philadelphia’s Anti-grafitti Network. Armed with a little bit of money, some paper and markers, Jane ventured onto the streets of Philadelphia to become acquainted with the city’s most sought after graffiti artists. Fortuitously, she hired one of the big names in graffiti as her assistant; he was looking to turn his life around, and provided just the connection Jane needed to infiltrate the graffiti community.

One night, after dark, Jane heard a knock at her door, only to find the entire group of Philadelphia’s most-wanted graffiti artists standing on her porch. She didn’t know whether to call the police or invite them in. Hesitantly, she invited them in, and this event became a major turning point in her career. As an adult female, speaking to a group underprivileged high school drop-outs, Jane’s main goal was to avoid making them feel misunderstood. She described what she was trying to do with the Anti-Graffiti Network, and offered all of the young men paid jobs to create art in the place of graffiti. They didn’t say yes right away, but they did share their treasured sketchbooks with her, and asked her questions about contemporary artists that they admired. Jane was blown away by their knowledge of art, and decided to invite these men to art class as part of the deal.

The following morning, on her way to work, Jane turned onto Broad Street to find every corner covered with graffiti tags. They included all of the names of the men that she had met the night before, plus one more: Cool Jane. Jane was flabbergasted, and a little bit annoyed, especially when her boss wanted to know, “who’s Jane?” The good news is that the graffiti writers both liked and respected her…she just had to let them know who was in charge. Using their paychecks as leverage, Jane managed to get the young men to clean up their tags, sign an agreement that they would no longer tag illegally, and, finally, attend Jane’s art history class at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Begrudgingly, the young men attended Jane’s class at the Museum, and ended up having a great time. During a break, while Jane was organizing some supplies, a panicked security guard rushed into the classroom to fetch Jane. She, in turn, panicked, thinking that the graffiti artists had either stolen something or tried to tag the walls of the gallery! Nope, much better: they were in the museum cafe trying to sell their artwork to the affluent patrons. She just laughed.

From that point on, Jane and her newfound friends moved around the city painting murals and bringing communities closer together. The work that the group completed was truly amazing–the art and the outreach. Somehow, the murals were able to resolve conflict, while also beautifying the most run-down neighborhoods of the city.

Common Threads by Meg Saligman, Broad St. and Spring Garden. This mural is the current focus of Heritage Preservation.

In 1996, the funding for the Anti-Graffiti Network was pulled, so Jane moved her group to the department of recreation, and raised enough money to create the Mural Arts Program. Today, there are over 3,000 murals in Philadelphia, only six of which have ever been vandalized. The crew of original graffiti writers now work as a teacher, poet, professional artist, etc. At one point, their life expectancy was age 25, or a long-term prison sentence. Through the inspirational work of Jane Golden, art transformed them into thriving adults, able to contribute back to the city they once defaced.

What this means for the field of conservation: the preservation of the murals is vital in keeping this almost thirty year history alive in Philadelphia. The Mural Arts Program has happily upgraded their materials to include more stable paints, but the weathering of the murals is still an issue, so many of them have to be re-painted before they are lost completely. Amanda Norbutus, PhD candidate in Preservation Studies at WUDPAC, has been researching protective mural coatings as part of her dissertation. You can read more about her work on her blog, then follow these tips to become involved with rescuing public murals. The first step, though, is to see the murals by taking one of the many wonderful tours offered by the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.

October is Mural Arts Month!

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Notes from Gwynne

Is it a coincidence that I’ve heard Gwynne Ryan speak three times in the last six months? I think not–Gwynne is a terrific resource for the conservation of contemporary art, and she makes a genuine effort to share information and her experiences. Gwynne is currently Sculpture Conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C., but worked previously in the Conservation Department at SFMoMA, which is why I got a little nostalgic every time she used an example from their collection. Gwynne has spoken on a range of topics that culminate in the main idea that the role of the conservator is ever-changing, and we need to be flexible in order to respond to the challenges of contemporary art.

As a future conservator interested in works on paper, I know my role with contemporary art will be slightly different than Gwynne’s. Nonetheless, she makes some great, general points that I think apply to all of us, even those that work with traditional materials.

On November 3, Gwynne spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art  in Philadelphia, in an event titled Conversation on Conservation. Although Gwynne is a conservator of objects, such as sculpture, many other types of materials can fall under that category, including mixed-media installations, and time-based media. Gwynne gave many interesting examples of artworks that posed complications for the conservators, like Paul Sharits’s Shutter Interface (1975; below).
There were two main factors to consider with this video piece: the physical object and the intent of the artist. The projecting equipment itself is becoming aged technology, so if it were ever damaged, it may be difficult to find replacement parts. This is a situation where the conservator must step back from the materials and try to understand what the purpose of the piece is. It’s possible that the physical projector is an integral component to the video, but maybe the real importance lies in the quality of light, sound and motion that the current equipment provides. Even if the aging of the technology were not an issue, Gwynne still has to be sure that the artwork consistently represents the artist’s intentions (e.g. the volume level or speed of projection) every time the video is played.

At the Eastern Analytical Symposium on November 16, Gwynne again touched on “Trends in the Conservation of Time-Based Media.” The forum there was composed of, mainly, scientists looking at the material nature and preservation of digital technology. There were so many interesting talks at EAS, I could write another blog post, but I just want to list the resources that Gwynne suggested on the topic of Media Art: Independent Media Arts Preservation, Electronic Arts Intermix, the Electronic Media Group of AIC, and the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art. There are also many more links on the Digital Art Conservation site.

Finally, on April 20, Gwynne gave the Annual Joanna Rowntree Memorial Lecture at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She presented, what I feel, are two tasks that the contemporary art conservator must take on in response to the challenges I mentioned above: 1. Document everything, and 2. Interview living artists. Documentation is already a job of the conservator, but in a museum setting, where conservation work is largely exhibition driven, it seems there is never enough time to be as thorough as one would like to be. In a circumstance where there are many steps to an installation, notes are extremely important, and will likely reduce work hours in the future because they’ll serve as instructions the next time the piece goes on view.

Another thing to document: all communications with the artist. Here’s another topic worthy of an entire blog! At the time of acquisition is a perfect opportunity to arrange an interview with an artist, but also when there are conservation issues that relate to the nature of the piece. All of Gwynne’s suggestions for staging an interview were insightful, and show that her research time and experience has gotten her very far. You can read another discussion of artist interviews between Glenn Wharton and Richard McCoy on the art:21 blog. I used to think that interviewing artists was just a matter of the contemporary art conservator asking questions about treatment, but I’m beginning to learn just how multi-disciplinary conservation can, and should, be. In preparing for interviews, Gwynne has read a lot about sociology and communications. And it’s not only the job of the contemporary art conservator to conduct interviews; in a symposium I attended last week at Winterthur, called Ethical Issues in Ethnographic Collections, speakers advocated for improved dialogue between conservators and living descendants or tribes connected with the artifacts…again a subject worthy of an entire blog.

Clearly I have a lot say about the conservation of contemporary art, so I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic in the near future. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn a little more about what Gwynne does, watch this video by the Hirshhorn Conservation Department:

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Sendak in Spring

Photo credit: The Chertoff Mural, prior to conservation. © 1961 by Maurice Sendak, all rights reserved

Once upon a time, there were two children who lived in a bedroom enchanted by a magical mural–the only mural ever painted by illustrator Maurice Sendak! Who wouldn’t be jealous of Nina and Larry Chertoff for having the opportunity to grow up in a place that surely fostered their imaginations in unspeakable ways. I’ve been meaning to write about this mural ever since The Rosenbach Museum and Library began advertising it’s conservation, in January, and I was reminded of it this morning both on NPR, and in the NYT. The whole project has been really exciting to experience as a Philadelphia resident, especially since the museum has organized so many outreach events to get the public interested in the mural’s conservation.

I’ll let you read a little more on the history of the mural, if you haven’t already, in the articles above. I’d like to elaborate on the conservation planning and treatment as discussed in a talk that I attended at the Rosenbach on February 23rd:

Milner and Carr is a firm that specializes in the documentation, analysis, condition assessment, testing, monitoring and treatment of historic buildings, monuments and sites. They were likely an obvious choice for the conservation of the Chertoff mural because not only are they highly respected in the field of architectural conservation, but they’re also located in Philadelphia, and they were able to carry out all aspects of the process–removal from the wall, stabilization, re-mounting and treatment.

Conservator Andrew Fearon was involved with the removal of the mural from the Chertoffs’ apartment in New York, subsequent transport to the Milner and Carr facility in Philadelphia, and, finally, to the Rosenbach exhibition space. Andrew did some research on the type of wall, and found that it was a non-load-bearing wall made of gypsteel that could easily be removed in two sections without causing structural problems to the rest of the apartment. Great news. There were a few obstacles, however, including the insecurity of the mural pigments, a gas pipe running through the wall, a service elevator barely big enough to fit each part of the object, and only 10 hrs to complete the entire removal and restoration of the original wall. Whew! Somehow, the folks at Milner and Carr managed to do it and arrive in Philadelphia with the mural intact, encased in a package of: polyethylene barrier, plaster, volara, honeycomb, and an aluminum frame.

Conservators at Milner and Carr immediately began building a new structure to house the mural, while conservator Mary McGinn consolidated the flaking paint. Once stable, and set up at its final location in the Rosenbach, the mural underwent its final stage of treatment by Cassie Myers. One problem she noticed, probably caused by the removal and handling, was a convex warp in the left-hand panel. Cassie was able to re-align both pieces using a reference photograph, then build up the gaps to create an even, unified surface. From there, Cassie could face the multiple forms of damage the mural had incurred throughout the years: melted paint from the radiator, water damage, housepainters’ layers covering parts of the mural, and a black magic marker repair performed by one of the children, among others. “Getting the panel right” was very important to Cassie, just as ethical issues are always at play in a conservation treatment; she was fortunate, though, to have the full support of the artist. Word has it that Maurice Sendak even made it to Philadelphia to complete the final touches of the mural himself.

The conservators’ specific techniques and the time it took to complete them are all documented in a video that accompanies the exhibition–now open!

Listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak on NPR’s All Things Considered, from February 1st.

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Are we losing our memory?

David S. Ferriero, 10th Archivist of the United States

I would say I’m definitely losing my memory as I can’t remember the date David S. Ferriero came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to deliver the Annual Library Lecture. Luckily, as Archivist of the United States, Mr. Ferriero does a wonderful job of managing our nation’s records. In his talk, titled Are We Losing Our Memory? Cultural Institutions in the Digital Age, Mr. Ferriero described his experiences in the role of “Collector in Chief,” as appointed by President Obama in 2009.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first Archivist, R.D.W. Connor, to the position in 1934. At that time, the job of the Archivist was to organize the piles of paper records that had accumulated in an unofficial “closet,” which, surprisingly, also housed rats and other pests. Although the system is probably much more organized today, the Archivist is responsible for hard files as well as digital files: emails, audio recordings, scanned documents, etc. There are currently over 10 billion papers and 40 million photographs alone, and those numbers are increasing every day!

Mr. Ferriero touched on the issue of conservation at the Archives by saying more than once that, “much is saved, little is preserved.” Of course, with that large of a collection, I imagine that a very small percentage of objects undergo preventive measures and/or treatment by the Preservation Department. I have yet to visit the conservators at the Archives, but hopefully I will be able to make it there while Mr. Ferriero is still in office.

To read some interesting anecdotes about the Archives and to learn more about David Ferriero, please visit his blog. Thanks to the folks at the museum library for organizing the event, and thanks to Mr. Ferriero for coming!

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Cultural Anchors

Last Monday, the Penn Institute for Urban Research sponsored a panel discussion at the PMA titled Cultural Anchors: Art Museums and the City. The event took place as part of the institute’s Arts and the City Seminar Series. Besides being at the museum already, I wanted to take advantage of this discussion as a former museum history and theory student at the Courtauld; this is exactly the type of talk that would’ve been required in my course, but it really was so much more enjoyable attending out of my own free will. Funny how that is.

Let me present the very distinguished panel: James Cuno, President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute of Chicago (and former director of the Courtauld), Bonnie Pitman, Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Timothy Rub, (our very own) George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Michael E. Shapiro, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director of the High Museum of Art. From here on out I’ll just refer to them by city; those endowment titles really do get lengthy.

Eugenie Birch, the Co-director of the Penn IUR served as the moderator and had some great questions to get the directors talking. She asked about the role of education in the museum, how each museum is affected by it’s location in the respective city, what the architecture does for the collection, and on and on. I just want to highlight some tidbits of information that stood out to me during the discussion.

Atlanta: One of the missions of the High Museum is to achieve a level of cultural diversity that was not evident in the early years of the museum. Up through the 1950s, I believe, African Americans were only allowed in the museum after hours, with a university professor as escort. Now, the museum celebrates its broad collection of African and African American Art with a curator devoted entirely to the subject.

The High Museum has also taken on a marketing campaign to attract a younger audience to the museum. Their first effort with this was organizing the Dali exhibition; research has shown that Dali’s art generally appeals to a younger audience. The museum also mounted various billboard ads in what Michael Shapiro called the “hipster neighborhood” that feature a photograph of Dali but no mention of the museum at all. Even the website advertised is not the normal url for the museum, but http://www.fantasticmustache.org, a link to a duplicate of the High Museum’s Dali exhibition page. These unbranded posters are meant to create intrigue and target those who generally don’t visit the museum. Clever, eh?

Chicago: The Art Institute has a great history in the city of Chicago, and as an institution of the city, it is required to incorporate 52 days of free admission annually. James Cuno decided, with the input of the board, of course, that it would benefit the museum to open the entire month of February for free, plus Thursdays throughout the year. I’m sure this seemed like a smart move considering that Chicago is usually covered in snow at this point, and many people don’t want to leave their homes, but Mr Cuno was impressed by the turnout. Not only were Chicagoans making their way to the museum, but tourists were flocking in as well.

Historically, even though admission was free during February, about half of museum patrons still paid their entry, either out of guilt or generosity. However, in 2009, 69% of February visitors were non-paying–creating a hugh gap in projected versus actual income. To me, it seems almost expected that 69% of visitors would not pay if they didn’t have to. As a student, I would definitely take advantage of that. It is surprising, though, that the numbers changed so dramatically in one year’s time, even with the economic downturn.

Dallas: All I can say is WOW for the amount of research Bonnie Pitman has done on museum education and outreach. She really does want to attract more people to the museum, and help those people already visiting the museum have the best possible experience. Ms Pitman has given her staff free reign to try anything once, and, perhaps through that, programs such as Late Nights and Jazz in the Atrium have been implemented.

My favorite part about Bonnie Pitman’s research, other than the increasing numbers of visitors, is how her team categorizes visitors in order to design events. There are four clusters: the independent visitors who walk through the museum with a purpose and dislike interference, the observers who take in the atmosphere but remain distanced, the participants who become involved with either a tour or a lecture from time to time, and, finally, the enthusiasts who cannot get enough of everything the museum has to offer. Which one of these groups describes you as a museum visitor? Personally, I have embodied all of these descriptions at one time or another. It all depends on my mood and how comfortable I feel in a particular museum.

Back to the Dallas Museum…I also want to mention the Young Collectors: this group of patrons, all under the age of 50, got together on their own accord to raise money to buy art for the museum. I don’t know what spurred them to do this, again, guilt or generosity…or maybe it was the tax write-off laws in Texas (I can’t speak with any experience about this). Luckily, they are purchasing works with the museum’s collection in mind and are willing to accept some advice from the director. The museum has so far received 1,500 works of art from this organization–an amazing success for the museum, and just a little extra work for Bonnie Pitman.

Finally, Philadelphia: Timothy Rub mentioned that membership at the PMA actually increased in the midst of the recession. Loyal visitors to the museum wanted their full money’s worth, and decided to pay one lump sum rather than an admission fee each visit. The PMA is not required to offer free admission days, like in Chicago, but Pay What you Wish days still exist on the first Sunday of each month.

The next step for Timothy Rub is to find a way to bring in people from the suburbs of Philadelphia, possibly by building relationships with schools and community groups. I think he should try some unbranded billboards. Just an idea.

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Priceless

You may have read the New York Times article on Robert Wittman and his book entitled Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. The book was released at the end of May and skyrocketed to number one on the best-selling charts. Though I have yet to read the book, I did have the opportunity to hear Mr Wittman discuss a little about its contents–his experience recovering stolen art for the FBI–during an evening talk at the Barnes Foundation.

Mr Wittman always had an interest in art, once a student of the Barnes, so it was only logical that he would gravitate in the direction of art theft while working for the FBI. His training had given him an eye for master paintings and he could easily spot a valuable painting out of a group of fakes. This talent is so impressive to me because, even after 8 years of studying art, and with the general ability to name an artist to an object, I honestly don’t think I could decide on the spot whether or not a painting is authentic…especially when there are foreign mobsters breathing down my neck.

According to Robert Wittman, 90% of art thefts are ‘inside’ jobs, accomplished by staff members, researchers, connoisseurs, etc. of the museum or private collection! I can’t even imagine the people I work with taking something from the museum because that, in turn, is like taking from the public. But even if someone successfully steals a work of art, what do they do with it? Mr Wittman talked on this topic for a while, mentioning that without a clear provenance, museums and collectors will not (should not) purchase a valuable piece of art. However, there are still black market dealers who buy up stolen goods at a fraction of their value…assuming the thief(s) are not caught. But with talented FBI agents on the prowl, the only reward criminals can expect is 5-10 years.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team was actually started by Mr Wittman, in 2004, and increased the number of art theft investigators from 3 to 13. The job requires a lot from these men and women: working a minimum of 5 years for the FBI, studying art, traveling around the world, dealing with dangerous criminals, and sometimes even getting arrested in other countries! It does sound exciting, though, especially the part about seeing and handling priceless works of art. Oh wait, I get to do that too. 😉 Robert Wittman’s story probably makes for a better book, though, and will definitely be a thriller when it comes out on film!

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Hispanic Society

On June 20th, the Courtauld Alumni Association gathered in NYC to take a tour of the Hispanic Society of America with Bill Ambler (curator-on-leave). This was my first trip to the museum and, I have to admit, the first time I’d actually heard of the museum. The fact that it’s located at Broadway and 156th doesn’t help the situation, but it was originally intended to be on the edge of the city, in a park-like setting. Today the environment isn’t exactly the same, with Yankee stadium still further north, but the location does still feel somewhat secluded with a cemetery on one side and the river on another.

The institution was created by Archer Huntington, cousin to Henry, the founder of the Pasadena library and the one that we generally think of. Archer collected Spanish art and books long before Henry, and presented the collection as a museum beginning in 1908. Though the library was closed on this particular day, I was able to see the incredible collection of paintings, sculpture, and textiles inside the galleries.

The first artwork visible upon walking in, and probably my favorite single object in the collection, is The Duchess of Alba painted by Goya 1797. But just past the main court to the right is the Bancaja Gallery, housing my favorite group of objects–a series of paintings by Sorolla called Vision of Spain. These are likely some of the prized possessions of the museum as the group of Spanish scenes was commissioned of the artist specifically for this site. There are many more Sorollas hung on the second floor, along with other paintings by Rivera, Goya, El Greco, and others.

The only drawbacks to the museum are in the architecture: limited space to view the paintings upstairs–you’d have to stand on the opposite side of the balcony to see a work from a distance–and minimal climate control–oscillating fans attempted to keep the visitors cool, but probably did nothing for the paintings. Still, the institution is doing everything it can to present to the United States many Spanish treasures, and I highly recommend visiting this gem of a museum!

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Mt Pleasant

Mt Pleasant Historic Mansion is located along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, and, interestingly enough, belongs in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For this reason–and because a curator’s husband is currently the on-site conservator–the staff organized a brown bag lunch tour of the house.

Over a picnic lunch, Chris Storb, project conservator of furniture and woodwork, told us all we needed to know aboutthe history of the mansion; it was built in the 1760s by Thomas Nevell on a site purchased by wealthy ship captain John Macpherson. A few years ago, the museum had the buildings restored, which is where Chris comes in. He is currently working on carved wooden architectural decorations in the upstairs bedroom, including a frieze to be mounted above the fireplace. His work is beautiful, and amazing considering that the design is taken from various references and no exact original.

The mansion is open 5 days a week for tours, but the park is open every day for bike rides, strolls, or picnics! Whether or not you are able to visit Mt Pleasant in person, take a look at all of the work that went into it’s restoration.

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