The Flat People

flatHBI’m currently in Washington, D.C. completing my 2nd summer work project in the photograph conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). I know from my last summer in New York that an 8-10 week internship is really no time at all! As I expected, the summer has flown by and I only have 1.5 weeks left to wrap up my research on platinum/palladium prints before I move on to my next adventure in Houston. Of all the places I could’ve been for the summer, I think I lucked out with D.C., partially because of all the amazing museums here, but also because of the number of amazing conservators that work in them.

I’ve been fortunate to share this experience with many other interns at the NGA and at other locations around D.C. After doing the math, we counted over 10 of us interested in paper, photo, or library/archives preservation and/or conservation! Thanks to a clever technician at the Lunder Center, our group organically received the name of THE FLAT PEOPLE due to our affinity for flat objects. Perfect right?! Naturally, the only thing for us to do was to organize tours of the local conservation labs in museums and libraries, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (through the WCG), the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of the American Indian Photo Archives, the Lunder Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and finally the NGA (scheduled for next week).

It’s been so great to meet the many conservators and allied professionals at all these D.C. institutions and to see the beautiful spaces they work in. One of the best parts of the tours, though, has been learning about what my student colleagues have been doing during their summer internships: treatment, surveys, re-housing, outreach, research, and more. I’m so thankful to my supervisors at the NGA for letting me participate in these extra activities; I feel like I’ve been able to take part in 6 separate internships in only 9 weeks!

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Field trip fun

There are so many conservation labs in New York City, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to visit them all! Thanks to my summer spent at MoMA and my student colleagues interning at the Met, I was able to make it to two–and two fascinating ones at that.

First, we took a trip to the Guggenheim labs, located not at the museum proper but across town, where there’s plenty of space and a lovely view of the river. We arranged the visit with Paper Conservator Jeffrey Warda, who kindly showed us his lab and screened part of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque. The piece was first given as a live presentation by Smithson in 1972 and is now a timed slideshow accompanied by a recording of his voice. From a conservation standpoint, this piece is challenging because the color and intensity of the slides are constantly changing due to the light exposure, especially since some slides are projected for 30 seconds at a time and others for 10 minutes. Jeffrey’s solution to this problem, for now, was to make multiple copies of the piece to replace the current ones when they’ve faded. Eventually, though, the materials will all be extinct, and the Guggenheim may have to compromise some aspect of Smithson’s original vision.

While at the Guggenheim, we also had the opportunity to meet Time-based Media Conservator Joanna Phillips. This is an area of conservation that makes my head spin because of its complexities, and I really have to hand it to these conservators who are basically starting from scratch in creating this specialty. You can read more about the Guggenheim’s efforts on this wonderful new section of their website: Time-based Media Conservation.

The week following our Guggenheim visit, we rented a car and escaped the city. Destination: the quaint town of Milford, NJ. In the middle of the town, inside a beautiful old opera house is the private photographic conservation practice The Better Image (TBI). TBI was founded in 1991 by Peter Mustardo and Nora Kennedy (also the Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs at the Met), and has two locations, one of them in Manhattan. The Milford location has much more space, so that is where much of the large-scale treatment work is completed. Personally, having always worked in a museum, I have never seen this much treatment done on photographs, so this really opened up my eyes (in a good way) to what private practice could be like.

Recent WUDPAC grad Amanda Maloney showed us many of their in-progress treatments, and chatted with us for awhile about the current state of photograph preservation. Peter gave us the tour of their extensive and beautiful library housed on the stage, then treated us to a delicious lunch at Ma De’s Chat House. We also met Richard Stenman, another WUDPAC grad, but we had to leave in time to beat traffic back to the city. Needless to say, we were all sad to leave.

All in all, these visits, along with the many photo exhibitions I saw this summer, make me very excited to begin studying photograph conservation in depth…starting this week!!

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Not my photograph, but I can't help but share this from the SFMoMA Facebook page: "Try the latest art-inspired creation at our Blue Bottle Coffee Co. on the Rooftop!
This chocolate-y treat is based on Rineke Dijkstra's series of photographs at the beach. Caitlin and Leah (the ladies behind Blue Bottle's art-inspired edibles) use a lovely coaster printed with photographs of Ocean Beach, Baker Beach & Chrissie Field as the backdrop for their version of a bathing beauty: a cake tower made of a dark chocolate cake layered with whipped cream and topped with a ganache glaze. Mmmmm!"

I can’t believe it’s almost April! Although the spring season is still going strong, I can end my anxiety with plenty of good news: I will be attending the Delaware Public Humanities Institute for two weeks in June, followed by a summer internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York! And, to top that off, I just declared my major; the new background image should give you a hint–it’s photographs!! I’ve always had a strong interest in fine art photography, both creating it and studying it. Now I have the opportunity to delve even deeper into historic and contemporary processes, and focus my time on the conservation of photographic materials.

I was so excited to share my new decision with my conservator friends at the Legion of Honor and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during my spring break. Debra Evans and crew in the paper lab at the Legion kindly showed me their current projects, as well as storage, where the shelves were recently updated with earthquake-proof straps. The idea was really clever, and reminded me just how real the threat of earthquakes is on the west coast; I tend to forget, living in Philadelphia. Before leaving the museum, I stopped in to see The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, which included some lovely photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Next stop: SFMOMA. I was able to say hi to a few of the people that I worked with in 2009 (I can’t believe it’s been almost three years!), then chat with Photograph Conservator Theresa Andrews about her day-to-day duties in the museum. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the artworks that she gets to handle, but also a bit relieved that I don’t have the monstrous task of re-designing a new lab space as part of the museum’s remodel.

There are currently three amazing photograph exhibitions on view at SFMoMA: Picturing Modernity, photographs from the permanent collection, with some beautiful albumen prints in pristine condition; Photography in Mexico, exploring the photographic traditions of Mexican artists, and other photographers working in Mexico. This was crazy because I wrote a research paper in college titled something like El Ojo de Mexico: Edward Weston, and this exhibition included every single image that I discussed in my paper! Finally, the Rineke Dijkstra Retrospective will be coming to MoMA this summer, but I think it will be interesting to see the show at two separate venues. Plus, Dijkstra’s images are very moving, and I love large scale color photography.

I’m so lucky that I get to visit photograph exhibitions as part of my job! Next on the list: Cindy Sherman Retrospective at MoMA and Francesca Woodman at Guggenheim.

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A Visit to Hopkins

I’ve been working near Baltimore for almost 6 months, and have yet to take advantage of all the city has to offer. It’s terrible, I know, but that two hour commute back to Philly is usually enough to deter me from any extra stops…until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally made it to Johns Hopkins to visit my friend Emily Derse, the current Kress Fellow in conservation.

Emily and I met while she was doing a summer internship at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I was working as a technician there at the time, and loved having Emily’s company at lunch and in the lab. Of course, she had to return to England at the end of the summer to finish her degree at Northumbria University, but I was happy to see that she was coming home (to the U.S.) last fall.

Emily specialized in paper in the U.K., but as the Kress Fellow at Hopkins she has the opportunity to learn about book binding and book conservation, as well as completing projects in paper. I arrived at Hopkins late on a Friday afternoon, so I was fortunate to meet Book Conservator Lena Warren, along with the rest of the conservation staff, and the conservation scientists. The two labs are separate, but on the same floor in the library building. The paper conservation lab is fairly small, but filled with all of the necessary tools and equipment–and more–plus, enough working room for Emily and Paper Conservator Crystal Maitland. The book conservation area, by contrast, has many more desks and benches, but also more employees to fulfill the needs of the Sheridan Libraries.

The Hopkins Homewood campus looked beautiful from what I could see walking hurriedly through the brisk air; and once construction finishes on the new library building, conservators will also have a brand new space to enjoy. I can’t wait to see it!

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Straus and MFA

There is so much to do in Boston, especially on the weekend of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The purpose of my visit was really to watch my husband, Matthew, row in the double…but I was able to sneak in some lab visits while I was there. I arranged tours with Penley Knipe at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard, and also with Katrina Newbury at the Museum of Fine Arts.


The Straus Center is currently in a temporary home in Somerville while the Fogg Museum goes through a Renzo Piano-designed transformation. The temporary facility was actually quite nice, segregated in a sort of industrial area with plenty of parking…and the conservation section seemed to have lots of space and a good amount of natural light. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to see their previous lab, which was also lovely (in the photos, at least).

Previous Straus Conservation Center by Sam Anderson Architects, in 1996.

The Straus has an impressive inventory of materials, including an array of modern pigments and the core of the Forbes collection. Conservation Scientist Jens Stenger showed me all of the analytical equipment, including some of the historic pieces that are no longer in use. I didn’t know this during my tour, but I read on the website that the Straus (then the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies) was “the first institution in the United States to use scientific methods to study artists’ materials and techniques.” The Advanced-level training program also has a grand history, offering fellowships in conservation since 1972.

On the other side of the floor, current fellows Sara Bisi and Ariel O’Connor described to me their current projects in paper and objects, respectively, and talked a little about their educational and professional backgrounds; it’s always good to hear that there isn’t ONE requisite path to becoming a conservator! I know it sounds silly, but I always have to ask: where did you go to school? This was mostly a Buffalo crowd, with the exception of Paper Conservator Penley Knipe, who is a Winterthur grad.


The paper conservation lab at the MFA was founded in the same year as the Straus Center–1928–to provide a service for the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department “so that treatments and exhibition preparations could be done within the Museum rather than by outside contractors.” The current version of the lab is beautiful, with views out the south (?) entrance of the museum.

This conservation department is the first I’ve visited with separate studios for Western and Eastern paper. The atmosphere of the Asian Conservation Studio is much different than that of it’s counterpart, in spirit and in appearance; tatami mats cover about half of the room and tables are low enough for routine lining of objects. Philip Meredith and Tina Tan, along with their conservation fellows, speak mostly in Japanese; I assume that’s easiest since, A. visiting fellows may not speak much English and, B. many of the terms for materials and techniques have no English equivalent.

It seems that the two paper labs rarely have a need to collaborate on a treatment, except where a contemporary Asian artist is using a mix of modern and traditional materials. As a paper conservator, and even more, as an art enthusiast, I would want a hand in every collection, the prints in Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints AND the pieces in New Works: Prints, Drawings, Collages…and maybe even the Nicholas Nixon photographs, too! It probably is best to specialize for the sake of the collection; luckily working in a museum you can still see it all!

In case you were wondering, I did ask, and Katrina and her colleagues are mostly Winterthur alums. Katrina’s background, specifically, confirmed for me that building a relationship with an institution may have an impact on your future there; Katrina, for example, starting working at the MFA as an intern and returned later in a permanent position. It also seems like many museum employees, in all departments, got their start in the summer internship program. What does that mean for conservators, though, when there are so few jobs on the market? Does it mean more volunteering? A question for another blog post…

The new Art of the America's Wing, view from Forsyth Way

Thanks to my hosts for taking the time to show me around! I’ll leave you with a photo of the new Art of the America’s Wing at the MFA, to open Nov. 20.

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Library of Congress

During Leila’s second to last week at the PMA she wanted to take a trip to DC to visit some conservators at the Library of Congress and National Gallery. Even though I had just been to the NGA in May, everyone there was so great that I couldn’t resist tagging along with Leila on her tour. It was also helpful that I could drive us because Amtrak is too expensive and Megabus only has a handful of trips each day.

We started our day early, leaving at 6 am, in order to beat traffic and make it to the Library of Congress at 10 am. Sylvia Albro was a wonderful tour guide, taking us through the conservation department and introducing us to everyone along the way. I was surprised how large the department is, and what a huge collection the library maintains–and it’s all available to the public! We were able to see the breadth of the collection just in the conservation labs, everything from books and manuscripts to maps, photographs, and prints. Heather Wanser was working on a series of Yokohama prints just like the ones we have been preparing for exhibition at the PMA. I also met Eliza Spaulding, who was busy reducing stains in a photograph; Eliza will be the Mellon Fellow in paper conservation at the PMA beginning this fall, which means that I will have lots of time to get to know her. I can’t wait!

Unfortunately, our tour ended abruptly as I remembered our nearly expired parking meter, but we did make it back to the library’s cafeteria for lunch and then on to the Jefferson building to enjoy the amazing architecture and peek into the current exhibitions. Thanks to Sylvia for her warm welcome!

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MoMA and Morgan

On July 1st, I took a trip to NYC with Leila to tour a couple conservation labs, at the MoMA and Morgan to be exact. We didn’t plan it this way, but it was like a paper conservation reunion from the NYU class of 19…well, they all graduated from the same class (you can figure it out if you really want to); Karl Buchberg at MoMA, Peggy Ellis at the Morgan and Nancy Ash at PMA were 3 of 5 students to graduate that year and all went into paper. It’s such a small world this profession!

Anyway, it was great to see the paper lab at MoMA for the first time and take a look at some things they’re working on, like a paper guitar sculpture by Picasso and large cut-outs by Matisse, both a part of upcoming exhibitions. I love that each conservator has their own workspace looking out toward the sculpture garden; the light is beautiful! It was also fun to visit the objects/paintings lab where Oldenburg’s floor cake is in treatment (read the blog at Inside/Out). As a contemporary art enthusiast, MoMA is one of my favorite museums and I was thrilled to be there after the opening of Contemporary Art from the Collection. I highly recommend going to see it!

From the conservation labs at MoMA to the Thaw Conservation Center, we witnessed a large contrast in architecture, strange considering that both spaces were designed by Sam Anderson Architects. What I love about both labs is that they really do fit with the surrounding architecture and function well for their intended purposes; MoMA is modern and artistic, glass and steel, the Thaw is much more like a library, wood and brick. They both feature every possible luxury for the paper conservator: large sinks, moveable tables, plenty of storage. And neither one of them is in the basement!

After a quick tour through the Thaw, Peggy Ellis was kind enough to bring us into the museum to talk a little about the Renzo Piano architecture. I love learning little behind-the-scenes facts, like how Piano wanted the entire museum encased in glass and visible to the public, even the storage areas! Even though he had to make some concessions, Piano’s bright space beautifully showcases the di Suvero sculptures currently in the atrium. As much as I appreciated the Durer exhibition, I cannot wait to see Lichtenstein at the Morgan in September!

Thanks to Karl Buchberg and Peggy Ellis for begin such gracious hosts. Hopefully I’ll be back soon!

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American Philosophical Society

After living in Philadelphia for almost 6 months, I finally made it to the American Philosophical Society for a visit. Leila and I scheduled an appointment with head conservator Anne Downey to tour her lab located at the institution’s library on Chestnut Street.

The history associated with Philadelphia is one of the things I like best about the city. (Yes, I’m staying positive, even in this hot and humid weather :)). The Philosophical Society was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 as a place of leisure, to “cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.” Besides attending regular meetings, and publishing journals, the society was able to amass a large collection of books and other artifacts. Today, the collection continues to grow, and is open to scholars interested in items such as Ben Franklin’s manuscripts or Audobon’s Birds of America. There’s also a museum on S. 5th Street, near Independence Hall, where the public can go to see exhibitions like Dialogues with Darwin.

The Conservation Department is made up largely of book conservators as there is a great need for repairs on the books requested by readers. Denise Carbone and her associates do a fabulous job of making materials more user-friendly, including housing them in beautiful custom-made boxes with illustrations on the cover. I was surprised to see how much book conservators use Tyvek in their work, probably because of it’s strength, flexibility and highly waterproof surface. Elena Bouvier also makes her Tyvek covers fun with a little color dyeing; I can’t wait to try that sometime.

Thank you to Anne for wearing one of her many hats–tour guide–to show us around the lab!

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M. Louise Baker at the CCAHA

Technically I’m only four days behind on this post, but I have a queue of other topics forming, so unfortunately, this will have to be brief.

I first visited the CCAHA in October and was given a tour by Mellon Fellow Jessica Silverman. Thankfully, Jessica was available again to show us around the center before Leila heads back to Paris in July. It looked just as I remembered, but it was exciting to see all of the new projects in-progress, including a large collection of drawings from the Penn Museum done by M. Louise Baker (shown working below).

I guess I chose the perfect day for a visit because a guest speaker, Elin Danien, was there to talk about the artist that so many of the conservators were coming into contact with. Elin Danien is a scholar who recently finished her PhD on the collection of Chama pottery at the Penn Museum. Through her research, she came across the drawings by M. Louise Baker and immediately felt a connection with this ‘fiesty broad’ (Danien’s words). I believe Elin is now writing a book on Baker, but also curated an exhibition of Mayan pottery called Painted Metaphors.

The work done by Baker, and the amazing life that she lead, is really inspiring. I look forward to reading more about her on the FAMSI site and in the future illustrated catalogue!

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Changes at the Barnes Foundation

I scheduled a visit with Margaret Little, senior project manager at the Barnes Foundation, to see how the conservation department works on a day-to-day basis…but I was also interested to see how they are managing the monstrous task of moving the entire collection to downtown Philadelphia.

Leila, a graduate intern from the Sorbonne, and I drove out to Merion on Tuesday, forgetting that the museum is only open to the public Wed-Sun. We didn’t get much time to peruse the galleries, but Margaret was kind to walk us through and talk a little about how things will be changing. Fortunately I already took a trip to the Barnes in October, so I was able to see the entire place in tact before the transformation. Leila wasn’t so lucky, but at least she did get to see the closed off spaces and will be able to go back for a “real” visit before returning to Paris.

The fact that I live a few blocks from the Parkway means that I see the progress of the new Barnes site almost every day. It’s definitely coming along. All of the growth at the new site is also reflected in the old building, in the pace at which art is coming down. Only one half of the top floor is closed at the moment, but the rest of the second floor will be closing in early 2011, so make sure you get there fast! The artwork is actually still on the walls in the closed off section, it’s just behind a safety barrier as conservators work to treat frames, silver and any other objects in need of help. The extra space definitely comes in handy, and who can complain about working below a Modigliani all day!

Barnes created for himself a very thorough collection of amazing art. I just hope to learn more his motivation for collecting and what was going through his head as he set up the pieces for display. The summer program at the Barnes is a good place to start my research. And for those of you who would like to learn more about the controversial relocation of the museum, rent a copy of The Art of the Steal; it’s not exactly pro-move, but even the conservators are recommending it for it’s informational content!

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