One of the main components of The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant is the treatment of electrical objects coming out of storage. This largely involves cleaning the objects to remove dust, dirt, and corrosion products. Even though this may sound mundane, we come across drastic visual changes as well as some really interesting types of corrosion and deterioration, both of which we find really exciting.
An electrical drafting board during treatment (2016.0.1.28)
Conservation specialist Mallory Bower had a great object recently which demonstrates how much dust we are seeing settled on some of the objects. We’re lucky that most of the dust is not terribly greasy, and thus comes off of things like paper with relative ease. That said, it’s still eye-opening how much can accumulate, and it definitely shows how much better off these objects will be in enclosed storage.
Before and after treatment images of a recording & alarm gauge (2016.0.1.46)
The recording and alarm gauge pictured above underwent a great visual transformation after cleaning, which you can see in its before-and-after-treatment photos. As a bonus, we also have an image of the material that likely caused the fogging of the glass in the first place! There are several hard rubber components within this object, which give off sulfurous corrosion products over time. We can see evidence of these in the reaction between the copper alloys nearby the rubber as well as in the fogging of the glass. The picture below shows where a copper screw was corroding within a rubber block – but that cylinder sticking up (see arrow) is all corrosion product, the metal was actually flush with the rubber surface. I saved this little cylinder of corrosion, in case we have the chance to do some testing in the future to determine its precise chemical composition.
Hard rubber in contact with copper alloys, causing corrosion which also fogged the glass (also 2016.0.1.46).
Hard rubber corrosion on part of an object – note the screw heads and the base of the post.
This is another example of an object with hard rubber corrosion. In the photo, you can see it ‘growing’ up from the metal of the screws and the post – look carefully for the screw heads on the inside edges of the circular indentation. We’re encountering quite a lot of this in our day to day work, and though it’s satisfying to remove, but definitely an interesting problem to think about as well.
There are absolutely more types of dirt and corrosion that we remove, these are just two of the most drastic in terms of appearance and the visual changes that happen to the object when it comes through conservation.
We will be back with further updates on the status of our project, so stay tuned.
Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
“Opening the Door” is an unusual and large ( 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide) painting that recently received some much-needed conservation here at The Henry Ford.
Painted in the 1840s by self-trained artist George W. Mark, it depicts a young girl holding a flower. She stands in an elaborately-painted open doorway. Behind the girl a bust and lamp are visible on the table in a very shadowy room. The intent is to present a life-size vision that fools the eye into thinking that we are looking into a real space.
If you have the opportunity to take part in a VIP or Special Access tour of our Benson Ford Research Center storage, you will see this painting. It is greatly admired and it is positioned in a prominent location in the state-of-the-art storage facility here at The Henry Ford.
The painting needed conservation attention because it was not in stable condition after years of storage and many moves. Some of the damages were due to the challenges of handling – the painting is not framed, so corners got crushed when it was set down with too much force. And past attempts to hang it resulted in old patched holes near the top.
Take a look behind the scenes to see some of our work conserving "Opening the Door." This project was made possible by the generous support of The American Folk Art Society and Susan and Henry Fradkin.
Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, Conservator Celina Contreras de Berenfeld, and Senior Conservator Clara Deck examine the work in progress.
This image shows the last old, yellowed varnish as it was removed from the paint surface.
This is a microscopic image of the thick varnish, before and during removal. The cracks (which are actually quite small!) are expected in a painting of this age and type.
Many paintings suffer over time due to the natural aging that darkens the once-clear protective varnish coat. As the varnish darkens, it shifts colors that were originally intense and bright; they become murky and brownish. Varnish removal restores the painting’s original colors. It is not unusual for old varnishes to require renewal, and this was done as part of an extensive conservation treatment completed last year.
Old patches were also redone so that they are invisible from the front and the whole painting was lined with stable backing material to support its large size. The restoration of damaged areas of the paint was done by “in-painting” only the small areas of lost paint. Finally a new, reversible varnish was applied overall.
The final result is a stronger, stable painting that can survive for at least another 171 years in the care of The Henry Ford.
Clara Deck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve ever walked by the conservation labs at the back of Henry Ford museum, you’ve probably seen the conservators at work on a variety of objects, of a variety of sizes. With a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we are primarily working on “bench-top” objects – which can be picked up and moved by hand. There are, however, a handful of extra-large objects that we have planned to work on over the course of the grant, including (but not limited to!) historically significant motors, electrostatic producers, and transformers. These objects are important within the electrical scope of the grant, and they need work to be stabilized and preserved for the future.
Note that “extra-large” for us is a lot different than extra-large for the rest of the museum – the Allegheny is magnitudes larger than anything we are working with, for example! The “extra-large” objects that we are working on range up to 2 tons in weight, and require specialized equipment such as forklifts to move. We draw the line at artifacts requiring specialist rigging or outside contractors. These sorts of objects do bring their own issues – moving them from one place to another is difficult and requires careful planning, they require a good deal of space in the lab, and the treatments can take a significant length of time. We’re moving at a quick pace with the work on this grant, so taking two to three weeks just working on one object isn’t a good solution for us.
The first extra-large object we’ve grabbed, viewed top-down – a Sprague streetcar motor.
So how do we balance the amount of time it takes to treat very large objects with the need to keep up a pace in order to achieve completion goals? We’ve tackled this perennial problem in an interesting way. Since we don’t have an enormous number of extra-large objects to complete, we are allowing three months for the conservation of each. What this means practically is that we can bring the object into the lab, give it a space, and then as we have breaks between work on smaller objects, we can dedicate a few hours to it here and there. Breaking up the conservation work in this way has been very successful so far!
The first object that we’ve treated in this way is a Sprague streetcar motor. This is a really interesting and important object, believed to have been used in Richmond, Virginia on the first major electric street railway system, and dating to the end of the 19th century.
Two of the coils on the motor before treatment.
In the image above are shown two of the coils on the motor before treatment – the textile covering was loose and dirty, and in some places the damage extended to the layer below the outer wrapping as well. The treatment for this object required not only cleaning, but repair to these areas of damage.
Their ‘tails’ have been rewound and reattached, and the dust and dirt have been removed. The area around the coils has also been cleaned and the wire wrappings have been tidied. The engine overall is nearing completion, but does have some areas that still need cleaning. It’s been great to have it as a project we can come back to for small spurts of time, which is exactly what we were hoping for our extra-large object treatment plan.
Louise Stewart Beck is IMLS Conservator at The Henry Ford.
When should protecting something’s authenticity outweigh our entertainment?
Malcolm Collum has a dream job. He’s the chief conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That means he gets to play (in the serious sense) with historic aircraft and spacecraft every day.
Before that, he was a senior conservator at The Henry Ford, where he was the last lucky person to drive Old 16 — the first American car to win America’s first great international auto race in 1908.
But long before Collum put on his official conservator’s hat, he was a collector. The proud owner of a 1967 MG MGB GT since 1984 — that still resides in his garage — he happily remembers taking it to car shows, often one among many polished and preserved beauties waiting to be admired. Collum’s car, however, was different.
“In high school and college, I always saw the value of the authentic, even if it meant showing a little age,” said Collum. As a result of that conservator- style mindset, Collum never restored his MG to a state of imperfect perfection, as he sees it, preferring to appreciate and preserve the car’s patina and slight blemishes.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, other people were drawn to the car’s authenticity, too. “In these car shows, you would have a line of MGs beautifully restored. They all looked the same,” he said. “People would just seem to gravitate toward me and my MG. They appreciated the subtle details that are often lost when you start replacing parts.”
The phenomenon witnessed by Collum at car shows with his MG isn’t necessarily new news. This trend toward seeing greater value in dings and dents versus shiny and new has been growing exponentially in car collector clubs and car show circuits over the past decade or so. The Concours d’Elegance shows, for example, have long had a Preservation Class as part of their awards, honoring unrestored, historically significant entries with intriguing stories attached to them. At Pebble Beach last year, it was a rare 1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica Coupe that made one of the biggest splashes among the judges, car aficionados and media. Unrestored and as original as the day it left an Italian dealership, the car is one of the only untouched and remaining such Ferraris built with an aluminum-alloy body.
This public pull toward the rare object that shows its age with grace is trickling over to other collectible communities, too, from toys and watches to antique tower clocks. “It’s the beauty of the survivor,” explained Collum. “It gets people’s attention and opens up discussion of their story.”
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW EFFECT Collum’s recollections of his MG allude to bigger questions that fall far outside the realm of collectibles. Questions that conservators such as Mary Fahey, chief conservator at The Henry Ford, and Clara Deck, senior conservator, think about every day. Is it better to restore or conserve? Just because we can fix something — or make it look better — does that mean we should?
Watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS, noted Deck, and you’ll quickly understand the heated debate and the marked difference between the two methodologies and mindsets. So often on the show, appraisers tell hopeful object owners that if only they hadn’t refurbished that chair or made that repair it would be worth thousands more.
“It’s called the Antiques Roadshow Effect,” said Deck. “People are starting to rethink notions about historic objects. Yes, anything can be restored if you throw enough money at it, but do you really want to?
Not to say that the conservator doesn’t appreciate the art or skill behind restoration or understand its place. At The Henry Ford, restoration is a daily practice in Greenfield Village’s T Shed and roundhouse, where talented machinists, mechanics, engineers and expert hobbyists do whatever it takes to maintain the historical integrity of the institution’s Ford Model T’s and steam locomotives, while keeping them operational so they can provide a moving visitor experience. If a part breaks or fails, it must be repaired or replaced so the machine can run. Sometimes historical methods of repair and replacement such as pouring castings make sense, sometimes they don’t.
Where things can get gray between restoration and conservation, said Collum, is when you’re dealing with that rare, special item and what you should do with it. “I understand the innate joy people get in restoring things. When you take something tattered and worn and make it look new again. But what if you took an artifact like Old 16 — original paint, glorious varnish on the wheels — and restored it? It would ruin it. Make it a bad replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
BEHIND THE SCENES The Henry Ford recently faced its own conservation conundrum when one of its prized artifacts, a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, was damaged in transit for an event in England. This was the U.S.-built race car/engine driven by American auto racing legends Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt that won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. An all-American feat yet to be repeated.
While The Henry Ford does most of its conservation, restoration and repair work in-house in its Conservation Lab, a team of curators and conservators decided to send the vehicle to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in Santa Ana, California, for careful inspection and treatment. “The project was the perfect merging of car restoration and conservator ethics,” said Fahey.
The ‘67 Ford GT40 was in Gurney’s shop for nine months. The directive was not to repaint or replace, only to disassemble and catalog damage, and make approved repairs where absolutely necessary.
“If this would have been a restoration, we would have taken parts off the car, replated, repolished, replaced. Made it look better than new,” said Justin Gurney, All American Racers’ CEO and racing icon Dan Gurney’s son. “Conservation is way different. We needed to leave the car just as it was when it came off the track.”
That meant green potted-plantlike foam found under the lower rocker panels was left as is because it was related to modifications made on the fly by the Ford team for better aerodynamics. Panels that had notes on the back — written in black marker by Ford team member Phil Remington — also remain. Cracks in the windshield, fiberglass and paint weren’t repaired either because they occurred during the historic race.
“One specialist at the 1967 Le Mans race had told us they remembered the crack in the windshield,” said Fahey. “It was important to us to keep it as part of the car’s race story.” According to Le Mans racing lore, the crack most likely occurred as the crew jumped on and rode atop the car in celebration after the big win.
Fahey said Gurney’s team went so far as to send her bags of paint chips, which popped off as the team disassembled and repaired the car. In-painting to repair damage to the car’s surface was later painstakingly completed in The Henry Ford’s Conservation Lab by senior conservator Deck.
The one thing Justin Gurney would have loved to do that certainly didn’t fall into the conservation column: Start the engine. He didn’t, of course. “We really wanted to get the motor running. Would have loved to hear that thing fire up,” he said. That would have required extensive restoration and replacement of parts that weren’t part of The Henry Ford’s conservation plan for the car.
“I see both sides of the story now,” said Gurney, who had never participated in a conservation effort of this scale before. “A lot of cars that sit in our museum are better than new. Sometimes it’s better to leave things alone. You can over-restore something.”
RESPONSIBLE UTILIZATION Gurney’s revelation speaks to every museum’s ethical responsibility to its collections and its visitors, and how it determines when an artifact should be preserved and when it should be utilized in some state to entertain or educate.
Conservators would cringe at the idea of restoring the engine of the ‘67 GT40, turning the ignition key and taking it for a 200-mile-per-hour spin on a racetrack purely to entertain a crowd. Then the car quickly becomes more of a replica than an authentic artifact with a compelling history of use worth preserving. “As tempting as it might be to put the pedal to the metal and show off, an artifact is not there for our personal gratification or to massage our egos,” said Collum.
“I call it consumptive adoration. There is lots of pressure to operate mechanical artifacts in the museum communities, but it comes to a point where we can love something to death, where we consume it by using it and the artifact deteriorates and is lost.”
Circling back to Collum’s story of his unrestored MG or the rare Ferrari, it seems that more people might be joining this conservator’s camp. That there is this societal shift happening, where both collectors and observers are beginning to see the value in leaving things alone, keeping them in an original state rather than making them appear better than new.
And, as Collum explained, you know an idea is starting to go mainstream when a rogue group bubbles to the surface and tries to take advantage of what’s popular without actually understanding why it’s popular. “You’ve got people at car shows now that are trying to fake it up or Disney it up,” he said. “They are ‘unrestoring’ what they have already restored because they think it’s more glamorous and likely to win — latching on to an idea without fully understanding its meaning.” By Jennifer LaForce
SAVING A SURFACE Envision a car fender, bumped and bruised, with deep scratches in its paint. Most collision and body shops wouldn’t even bother trying to patch or cover, opting instead to just strip the paint, repair the damage and repaint the entire panel with sophisticated power spray guns for the best results.
Now, imagine those bumps, tears and missing areas of paint on a historic race car that belongs to The Henry Ford. While Dan Gurney’s All American Racers made careful repairs to the body of the 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV after it was damaged in transit, the painting was left to Clara Deck, senior conservator at The Henry Ford. Using a technique called in-painting, which is the same technique art conservators would use to repair a famous painting or print, Deck spent hours color-matching pigments, creating her own custom blend of wax/resin paste. She then applied it over repaired tears, in between cracks, around rivets and in areas missing paint — all by hand with small brushes, heated spatulas, irons and a hot-air tool.
All the work done by Deck is reversible and can be easily removed if required — a statement to the conservator’s pledge to maintain an artifact’s authenticity. Maybe even more interesting, Deck only filled in the cracks and blemishes caused by the transit damage. Cracks known to exist on the car’s surface as collateral damage from its hard-fought win were left as is, each representing its own small chapter in the story of the all-American win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Museum Conservators don’t usually like stripping. But sometimes we need to do it.
I partially stripped a yellowed varnish from select areas of this fabulous table to restore a more period - appropriate contrast between the painted panels.
If you collect antiques or watchAntiques Roadshow on PBS, you already know that “original surfaces” are usually highly valued. Even when it is found in slightly damaged and worn condition, the original varnish on a piece of furniture may help prove the true age of a treasured antique.
However, what happens when the varnish has aged and yellowed, causing a color-shift in the object? This normal yellowing, which happens over time, may make the object hard to “read.”
Many reading this post will remember that in 2013, The Henry Ford was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums for America: Collections Stewardship grant by the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). In this grant, The Henry Ford set out to identify, clean, treat, rehouse, and create digital catalog records for more than 1,000 communications-related artifacts related to photography, data processing, printing, telecommunications, sound communication, and visual communication. We’re pleased to announce that with about a month left to go in the grant period, we have put more than 1,000 objects through almost every step of the process, and expect to finish up a number of additional objects before we run out of time.
Given how close we are to the end of this project, I asked a few of the staff who’ve spent time working with these objects to weigh in with their thoughts on what was interesting, what was challenging, or what they’ve learned through this process.
In a current TV series celebrities donning white cotton gloves view documents and rare books as they learn about their family history. But is this really the way that professional museum and archives staff handle the hundreds or thousands of artifacts that are entrusted to their care?
What is the logic behind this practice?
The fact is that moisture, salt and dirt on human hands can damage artifacts and embed particles of dirt onto the surface of artifacts, this can permanently harm some artifacts. In the case of uncoated metals the human hand provides the perfect combination of salt and moisture in the form of sweat to cause damage in the form of corrosion. The image below shows a fingerprint on a brass plate.
You might have heard that we are partnering with Litton Entertainment to create a brand-new TV show, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, premiering on CBS later this year. As we worked with Litton to develop story ideas that might be featured on the show, we also wanted to make sure we digitized a variety of artifacts from our collections related to those stories. To that end, we’ve just digitized a couple dozen photos of the Rosa Parks Bus before and during its 2002 restoration. As former curator Bill Pretzer relates online, the bus had been left in a field and used as a storehouse for decades, leading to the significant condition issues that you can see in this photo of the driver’s seat. See more newly digitized photos of the restoration process by visiting our collections website, and learn more on Innovation Nation this fall!
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
In the past few years, the Conservation Department has worked on a number of historically important flags from Michigan, including several Civil War battle flags.
This flag dates from the end of the 19th century and was used by a GAR post in Lyons, Michigan. The GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) was a Union veterans’ organization formed after the Civil War and there were posts in almost every town in Michigan. This flag would have been used in parades on patriotic occasions in Lyons. In 1917 the flag was donated to the town “to raise at funerals of GAR or veterans of any war.” It was displayed for many years in the Lyons-Muir Historical Museum. Its caretakers recognized the need to preserve it and brought it to Textile Conservator Fran Faile.
Over the course of several months, the flag was humidified and flattened to reduce distortions in the weave. It was stabilized and protected by encasing it between layers of sheer nylon tulle. Hand stitching secures all the small fragments of fabric from moving or being lost. The Historical Society is presently having a protective case built that will enable the flag to rest flat rather than be stressed by continued hanging.
Years of use and display had made the silk fabric very fragile.
The painted lettering was especially brittle.
All the fragments were flattened and arranged between the layers of tulle.
The paint was humidified and flattened.
Ready to be installed in its new case!
Fran Faile has been the Textile Conservator at The Henry Ford since 2000.
My name is Danielle and I am currently a museum studies graduate student interested in becoming a museum registrar. I spent this summer at The Henry Ford, working in the department of Historical Resources to digitize the museum’s typewriter collection.
As an intern in the Registrar’s office, I had the opportunity to work with the museum’s extensive typewriter collection, which consists of over 100 typewriters. The typewriters range from a Sholes & Glidden, invented in the 1870s, to a Typatune musical typewriter (above). The collection also includes typewriter accessories, such as stands and cleaning kits, as well as trade catalogs produced by typewriter manufacturers and photographs of typewriters found in offices and workspaces.