While some believe the work of the art conservator is mysterious and veiled in secrecy, increasingly, museum conservators are working in front of the public’s eye. While working under the inquisitive eye of Museum visitors involves answering questions and engaging in conversation, often at the expense of progress on the project at hand, educating visitors about the work of conservators offers them valuable insight into the role museums play in stewardship and conservation of collections.
Since the late 1980s, conservators at Shelburne Museum have worked on public view. In the first years, summer interns from Master’s degree programs in art conservation undertook portions of their projects while working in gallery spaces or under tents on the museum grounds. These experiences yielded ample opportunities for interns to both practice talking about their work and learn about visitors’ interests. Most interns working on public view during those years treated examples of painted folk art, including carousel horses.
In 1991 when I was a summer intern at the Museum, I worked on two carriages under a tent on the lawn between the Stagecoach Inn and the Horseshoe Barn. This was following my second year at the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum program in art conservation.
I learned that the most important part of my job was to interact with visitors when they were present, and moving the project forward was often secondary during those times. With that experience in mind, when a team of four conservators were dispatched to work on a large Million & Guiet Berlin carriage under a tent on the same lawn, two Museum guides were part of the team. The project was funded by the Walter Cerf Foundation. The conservators worked for ten weeks to remove black overpaint and darkened varnishes that obscured the rich, deep green color on the body and the bright yellow striping. In addition to the two guides, the team consisted of me, a post-graduate conservation fellow funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and two graduate-level summer interns. We supplied the guides with images that we took daily to help illustrate our progress and discoveries. We discussed our work with the guides when visitors were not present to enhance their understanding of the work at hand, so that they could respond to visitors’ questions, allowing us to move the project forward faster. Even so, we were only able to complete treatment on three sides of the carriage. One side still retains the overpaint and preserves the unrestored appearance.
With the rise of social media in 2007, I shared my progress on several treatment projects and interacted with visitors on the Museum’s various online feeds, notably Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr. Recently I re-created some of these slide shows as videos available on Vimeo.
There are still times that you will find me working on pieces from Shelburne Museum’s collection in gallery spaces. In 2016, I repaired the large, ornate picture frame that surrounds Moses on the Mount by Charles Pratt in the lower level of the Webb Gallery. In September and October 2020, you may find me working on a large carved wooden eagle in the Murphy Gallery in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. For this project, I will be re-attaching lifting paint, stabilizing deteriorated wood, re-working poorly executed old repairs, and attaching pieces that have come detached. This work will allow Museum Collection staff to re-assemble the sculpture to be photographed. A key part of the treatment, to be undertaken in collaboration with the Museum’s preparator, Suzy Zaner, will be to design and create an assembly method that allows the eagle to be taken apart without further damage to the sculpture so that it can be moved from the Pizzagalli Center into storage, and eventually back on exhibition.