The primary function of the Anthropology Division’s
Objects Conservation Laboratory is to ensure the preservation of the
collection for the future. The conservators’ main activities include
examination, documentation, treatment and preventive care, supported by
research and education.
Objects Conservator: Ms. Judith Levinson,
levinson*amnh.org found at: anthro.amnh.org/
Conservation Treatment Treatment
Case Study General Care Recommendations
A relatively small number (200 to 450) of Anthropology Division objects are
selected yearly to receive full conservation treatment (or what we sometimes
call active conservation). These are generally objects chosen for loan to other
institutions for exhibits, or for use in temporary or permanent exhibits
generated by the American Museum of Natural History. Routine maintenance of the
permanent exhibits takes place on an irregular basis, in coordination with the
|Conservation treatment involves thorough
examination and written and photographic documentation of the condition of
the artifact before and during treatment, as well as a record of its
condition as a result of the treatment. In order to carry out responsible
conservation treatment an understanding of the chemical nature and the
deterioration of the materials of manufacture is required, as well as of the
repair materials and processes themselves. Also important to the treatment
process is research of the use of the object in its original cultural
context. Changes that may have taken place to the object due to damage or
repair during use and changes that occurred to the object later while in
private collections or in the museum must be distinguished.
New treatment materials and procedures are continually being sought and
evaluated. Facsimiles of possible methods or materials are frequently made
and tested in order to support treatment choices. Accelerated aging tests are
regularly carried out as another method to try to evaluate materials for
treatment and storage use. The field of Conservation Science further supports
and informs conservation treatment, as part of its function is to perform
more advanced analytical assessments than can be routinely carried out in
most conservation laboratories.
In the area of preventive conservation, Anthropology Division conservators
work with collections managers, exhibition staff and curators to formulate and
help implement standards for safe exhibit, travel, and storage environments; for
pest control; for handling and maintenance procedures; and for emergency
preparedness and response – all of which will help mitigate against
deterioration and damage of the collections.
The Anthropology Division objects conservation staff currently consists of
four permanent conservators who have received graduate level training. For large
projects additional staff members are added as required. The laboratory
regularly provides internship training to individuals registered in or who have
completed formal graduate training in conservation.
TREATMENT CASE STUDY
Seven Conservators in the Anthropology Conservation Lab spent nearly one year
preparing over 300 artifacts for the exhibition "Body Art: Marks of
Identity". The archaeological and ethnographic objects included in the
exhibit cover a wide range of materials. Conservation treatment involved
cleaning, stabilization, and restoration, as well as identification of materials
and technologies to supplement background information in exhibit labels. Upon
completion of treatment, the conservation staff worked closely with exhibit
designers and preparators to create safe and stable exhibit environments. This
step involved setting environmental standards for light levels, relative
humidity and temperature as well as collaboration with exhibit staff in
designing cases and mounts.
• Shield [70.2/405]
Kayan and Kenyan, Borneo Late 19th early 20th century
The shield is carved from wood and decorated with paint and hair bundles. Using
polarized light microscopy, the hair was identified as human by comparing its
scale patterns and structure to known samples of human hair.
The surface of the shield was covered with a layer of dirt. The conservation
treatment began with an overall cleaning to reduce surface dust and dirt.
Cleaning involved a light brush vacuum and was followed by removal of more
firmly adhered dirt using a non-vulcanized rubber eraser. This step requires
great care, especially when cleaning more fragile painted surfaces.
Structural instabilities were limited to the hair bundles that were matted and
brittle causing excessive hair breakage and loss. This condition was exacerbated
by poor storage environments, i.e. high light levels and/or fluctuating
temperature and relative humidity as well as insect activity which left the hair
matted, tangled and fragmented. Storage beneath heavy plastic sheeting has
flattened the originally curved bundles, detracting even more from their
Insect carcasses and frass were picked out of hair bundles with tweezers and the
bundles were untangled with a bamboo pick. Then the bundles were reshaped. To
accomplish the hair needed to be humidified using very controlled methods and
dried slowly in the new, desired position.
• Chokwe Costume [90.0/1143]
Early 20th century
This costume is made from plant fiber string that is dyed different colors and
looped (a type of knitting) into a fabric to form a shirt and leggings. The
breasts are carved wood and the skirt is made from cane beads threaded onto
plant fiber string.
The shirt and leggings had many tears that probably occurred during use in
ceremonial dancing. A particularly bad tear along the front neckline of the
shirt had been repaired, possibly by the wearer. The repair involved rough,
irregular stitching with cord that was pulling the surrounding fabric. The
repair distorted the shape of the shirt. This damage area was humidified to make
the shirt more flexible and the old repair carefully removed. Large areas of the
neckline were reconstructed (re-looped) using the existing plant fiber string
from the tear edges; the holes were reduced and the neckline reshaped to match
the other undamaged area of neckline. A very fine gauze polyester lining was
stitched to the ripped area to provide it with additional support.
The black dye used on the plant material, possibly an iron based dye, is
becoming acidic with age and is gradually attacking the plant material, making
these portions of the fabric very fragile. All holes were stabilized
mechanically by using colored cotton thread to secure the broken loop elements
to nearby strong elements.
To safely display the costume a multiple component mannequin was designed and
constructed with the combined efforts of a sculptor, museum preparator and
conservator. Due to the fragility and inflexibility of the fabric the costume
could not be pulled over a form - like a mannequin. Instead an internal support
made of five separate carved forms for the torso and four pieces for the legs
was constructed. A brass armature consolidated the mannequin components.
The skirt was mounted differently due to its weight and lack of form. The
waistband was sewn to a padded brass hoop and the skirt body rested on a sloped
Shirt: Before treatment
Detail of repair
GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CARE OF ARTIFACTS
The environment in which objects are stored and exhibited can substantially
effect their stability. • High temperatures and light levels accelerate
chemical reactions and can increase the speed of degradation.
• Fluctuating relative humidity can cause damage to organic materials by
causing dimensional change and to inorganic materials by causing efflorescence
of soluble salts.
• High relative humidity will corrode metals and can cause molds to flourish
and low relative humidity will cause organic materials to become dessicated and
weak, leading to cracking and other structural damage.
• Pollution from industrial sources and from paints, wood and other
construction materials can effect the chemical stability of objects. While
ambient temperature and relative humidity can be safe for many objects, more
tightly controlled environments may be needed for others. Exhibit and storage
conditions may be achieved by relatively simple measures such as introducing the
use of air conditioning, humidifiers and de-humidifiers, and silica gel in
enclosed containers. A range of 68 to 74 degrees Farenheit and 40 to 55%
relative humidity is generally considered acceptable for the majority of
ethnographic and archaeological objects, though a conservator should be
consulted about environmental requirements for unstable objects.
The following general recommendations for care of your collections will help
prevent unnecessary damage. • Make an assessment of the condition and
vulnerability of your object before you handle it. Use both hands to lift object
and support it as near to its center of gravity as possible. Do not pick objects
up by projecting parts such as handles, spouts or other appendages that may be
insecure. Inspect the surface for powdering or flaking areas and avoid them when
handling. Wear plastic or cotton gloves when handling metals in order to avoid
causing fingerprint tarnishing.
• Keep artifacts away from direct light and sources of heat and away from
direct sources of air-conditioning or ventilation.
• Do not apply waxes, oils or other products to the surface of objects in an
attempt to stop cracking of wood or other organic materials. Contact a
conservator if cracking appears active after a fairly stable ambient environment
has been provided.
• Whenever possible, keep your objects in closed frames, vitrines or cabinets.
• When necessary, dust objects very carefully. A clean feather duster is the
most gentle tool. When dusting, be extremely careful over splintery or cracked
surfaces, as well as those with pigment. Do not use sprays, water or other
products to help remove dust or dirt.
• If you notice a persistent accumulation of "dust" underneath or
around a wood object it could be evidence of insect infestation. Vacuum away the
accumulated dust or frass and isolate the object by enclosing it in a plastic
bag. Do not disturb the object for several weeks and monitor it to see if more
frass accumulates. If so, contact a conservator for advice on the best means of
insect eradication for the object.
• Do not clean metals with ammonia-containing substances.
• Do not attempt to repair broken objects yourself. Improper use of materials
can cause damage that cannot be reversed in the future. Contact a conservator
for treatment referra
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