Nancie Ravenel, object conservator at Shelburne Museum discusses some of the history and restoration for the exhibition Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America, on view July 9, 2016 – January 22, 2017 in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. The exhibition features historic circus posters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in all variations of scale, color, and imagery.
Q: What is the story behind the Vermont Colchester circus posters and your connection?
N: As I understand it, the Degrees were getting aluminum siding put on their house. As the siding contractors were removing the wood from the sheathing on the house, they discovered the circus posters! They contacted the Museum to see if we would be interested in the posters, with the deal that the Museum had to remove them fairly quickly so the work on the house could continue. At the time I was about to start an internship in the conservation department; I was coming to do a condition survey of the horse drawn vehicle collection as well as treat a few carriages under the supervision of Valerie Hunt, Shelburne Museum’s object conservator at the time. I happened to be in Vermont a little early, enjoying some down time when I received a call from Hunt, asking me to help.
I’m not a paper conservator at all, but as part of my overall training I worked with a few paper conservators. I’m an objects conservator, which means I work on three dimensional works of art and artifacts made from a wide range of materials. I sometimes use or adapt techniques typically employed by conservators in other specializations for my own work. Helping stabilize the posters so that they could be removed from the house was something new for me. It was interesting and fun and different.
Valerie was able to pull together a team of Museum staff and volunteers from as many departments as she could. It was a race to get the posters off the house and back to the Museum. As I mentioned, Valerie asked me to stabilize the posters before they were removed from the house. This involved securing bits of the posters that were in danger of being lost by applying dampened linen tape on them as “band-aids”. While Valerie initially used steam and metal spatulas to separate the posters from the wall, eventually, for the sake of time and with the Degree’s permission, the team removed the posters on the sheathing and then replaced the sheathing on the house.
The posters that were on the sheathing were separated and re-assembled by paper conservators in 2010, thanks to funding from an anonymous donor. The gorilla poster was the only one that had been fully removed from the sheathing. It is the last one to be finished.
Q: Which of the posters did you spend the most time with for the Papering the Town exhibition?
N: I did some work on the Issac Van Amburgh Menagerie and Golden Chariot poster. However it is notone of the Colchester circus posters; it came to us from a different donor. The poster measures about 6 ½ ft. x 7 ft., but when I first saw this poster it was folded up to about a foot by a foot and was really cockled. It had been lined with a fabric to help support the poster. I’m not a paper conservator and I recognize the limits of my knowledge and abilities when working with works of art on paper, but there are some tasks I have enough experience to undertake.
Because the lining was in reasonably good condition, I felt that it could be hung for this show safely. I contacted the paper conservator who is working on the Gorilla poster, M.J. Davis, before I began treatment to get her thoughts on the work and the treatment I was proposing. I humidified the poster over three weeks through Gore-Tex- the material that helps waterproof your shoes- to safely unfold and flatten the poster. I also set down torn paper that had broken and creased at the folds. It’s not as perfect as those who have been conserved by professional paper conservators, but the poster is flatter than it was before I started and the breaks at the folds are secure. To fully treat this poster like the ones from Colchester is a big process and a lot can go wrong. Eventually, I’d love to see it treated like the other posters in this exhibition.