Conservators need specialized hardware: An average day working at the intersection of art and science means wielding tiny paintbrushes and even tinier surgical instruments, looking through microscopes and infrared cameras, mixing paints and solvents, switching on vacuum tables or 3D scanners, or sometimes, even lasers. When what's available on the market doesn't quite do the trick, however, conservators have to craft their own innovative solutions, modifying, assembling, or repurposing existing tools.
Creative problem solving is at the heart of modern conservation practice—and like any scientific field, that was especially true in its early days. Rutherford John Gettens, the first scientist at Harvard's Fogg Museum, developed a microsampler, or "microsectioner," in the 1930s by combining a microscope and a hollow, hypodermic needle (instead of a common needle, "which might crumble and mix the sample's layers," reads Index Magazine).
With the microscope lens providing a clear view of the area to be sampled, the operator could extract a minute section of paint from the work, eject it with a wire fit inside the needle, then observe it under the microscope. Cross-sectional analysis is now common practice, and is used to glean
all kinds of information
about an artwork's inner layers.
While few custom tools developed in today's conservation labs are likely to carry as much historical weight as Gettens' microsampler, they are nevertheless made in that same DIY spirit.
Book conservator Mindell Dubansky, the Museum Librarian for Preservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed a vacuum attachment (above) to safely clean dust from the outsides of books. "Because the coarse bristles on commercial vacuum heads can easily cause damage, I crafted this out of extra soft, bamboo-handled brushes glued to a styrofoam cube, which is easily slid over the end of a vacuum hose end," she explains.
Tony Sigel, Conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, seems to have an affinity for repurposing objects: He once recreated the spout of an ancient Greek vase by using a turntable as a pottery wheel. While working on Gian Lorenzo Bernini's terracotta model for the Fountain of the Moor, he had to replicate a large, rocky outcropping missing from the base. In order to reproduce the artist's markings in the clay, he made casts of the different textures, then carved his own set of wood tools—out of brush handles—to match Bernini's own.
Conservators at the Met's
have also been known to get crafty. In order to reproduce the trim from an
1882 Worth gown
, Glenn Petersen built a tool out of metal corset boning, Plexiglas plates used as weights, and binder clips. "There were only tiny fragments of the original remaining, but by studying them, along with other garments by Worth from the same period, we were able to figure out the original configuration. The tool was needed to make the very small and regular 1/4" box pleats in silk tulle—a difficult thing to do."
Toba Khedoori, Untitled (Table and Chair), 1999, Oil, pencil, and wax on paper, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1999. Photography by Lee Stalsworth.
At the Hirshhorn Museum, conservators recently had to figure out how to hang an enormous drawing by Toba Khedoori without indenting the paper or scratching the tacky, hand-applied wax that covers the entire surface of the work. That doesn't sound so daunting at first—until you learn that the artist prefers that it be mounted onto the wall with staples. Through painstaking trial and error, they figured out the right combination of barrier materials to protect the work from the pressure of the staple gun: padding underneath the stapler, silicone release mylar over the wax surface, and a mylar strip positioned where the staple releases, so it doesn't cause indentation.
A few weeks ago during our visit to the Mütter Museum, we learned all about how conservator George Grigonis has found a way to rehydrate fetuses, stomachs, and other wet specimens that have gone dry. Above is the instrument that makes the magic happen: his so-called "low tech rehydration bath," assembled from houseware and hardware store products. "This custom apparatus allows us to rehydrate large specimens occupying a volume about the size of a human hand, or slightly larger," he writes.
And who knows? Maybe in a century or so, medical museums will remember this contraption as an early ancestor of the fancy, professionally manufactured rehydrators sitting in their laboratories.