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).
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.
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.
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.