A behind-the-scenes look at Conservation at the Royal Ontario Museum

Dec 04, 2013

A visit to the conservation labs at the Royal Ontario Museum is an unusual opportunity to see how objects that are usually on display might look in a state of “undress” so to speak.  Here, in the laboratories of the ROM, conservators work to keep the objects from dissolution, but they also solve mysteries – of origin, of materials, and of chemical composition and decay.

My visits to the labs on two occasions this summer really brought home to me how much there still is to learn about material culture.  As a curator, I had already experienced the museological interest in provenance – where an object had originated, who had made it, and who had collected it.  Curators (and archaeologists) always want to know these things about an object, because that is how it is given context – the information about it is its story – whether it is displayed as part of an exhibit, or it is catalogued and stored in a collection as one of many similar things.  Information about an object is also given to the public as a story –scholars, curators, exhibit designers, and the museum itself (as an institution) present the objects as part of a narrative.  This has all been written about many times in the museum literature, and there are often debates over whether the story belongs to the objects, the scholars, or the museum.

What if the story is not so obvious, however, and what if it is open to investigation?  What I learned in the Conservation labs made me think about this, and wonder what would happen if we opened up the museum to the public in a way that exposes the investigative possibilities of objects.  Conservation is fascinating – and the general public rarely gets a glimpse of it because it involves “messy” things (artifacts that need repair or preservation) and complicated scientific explanations.  I learned a lot on my tour, as did the other folks who were at the open house on my first visit.

On July 25, the conservation labs held their annual staff open house. Besides the museum staff, a small group of people was invited to tour the labs, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.  We began at the stone, ceramics and glass conservation lab, where Laura Lipcsei spoke animatedly about her work on the iconic Chinese guardian lions that adorn what is now the East entrance (Avenue Road) to the ROM.  The lions are very popular and well known, and because they have been standing outside for many years, a brownish-black crust has accumulated on their lovely white marble skins.  A number of curators and conservators at the ROM have worked on the lions and various treatments and preservation methods (including wax and other coatings) have been applied in order to clean and protect them.  It’s a tricky business, because, as Laura explained, some of the treatments used to remove the encrusted dirt from the surface, risk losing the stone’s patina as well, making absorption worse. She has been trying various methods (including gentle steam cleaning) to remove harmful abrasive and acidic products from the sculptures in an effort to preserve and protect the stone lions for future generations.

Some of Laura’s other work was on display on the tables beside the collection of chemicals in bottles on shelves that take up one whole side of the lab. A collection of Meroitic[1][1] Egyptian ceramic shards with writing on them was waiting for cleaning, a porcelain candelabra with two sconces was waiting for repair, and a glass goblet with a hollow stem was waiting for Laura’s analysis as to why the glass is deteriorating on the interior.  All of these projects are ongoing, and some of these artifacts will probably never be put on display.

Next, we moved on to the X-ray photography lab, where high and low-tech are combined by Heidi Sobol to investigate paintings, mummies and metals.  Heidi’s excitement was contagious, and the group asked lots of questions about the machines (X-ray photography, digital photography, infrared scanners) and the photos that she had displayed on the wall to illustrate various points about things that can be discovered about the composition and the age of artworks (especially paintings) and composite objects.  There was, additionally, a flat glass table that is used for x-raying mummies, and much hilarity ensued from this – provoking comments from the group that should not be repeated here.  Truthfully, some of the most interesting discoveries are made in this lab: a painting that no-one was sure was authentic has been authenticated through an infrared photographic technique; an artifact that looked suspicious to the Chinese curator proved to be a composite of old and new, and therefore a fake, and so on.  It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this lab.

Janet Cowan runs the paper treatment lab, and Janet loves to tell people about her latest projects – we think she is a teacher at heart.  Many different types of paper objects were laid out on the tables in the paper lab, and because there were so many, there were many questions.  The first thing that caught our eye was a table which included Egyptian papyrus[1] fragments; a much-faded Tibetan scroll with a demon glaring out of it; and an Indian Moghul[2] painting on paper.  Drawn to the faded Tibetan scroll, our questions elicited a small lecture on the scrolls themselves, their provenance, what could or couldn’t be done to bring them back to their original vibrant colours, and whether the pole at the end (for hanging it up) was original to the piece.

Moving on to the next table, a beautiful 14th century Book of Hours[3] was being restored, and some research was also being done to determine whether it was an early example of this type from France.  The illuminations (brightlycoloured lettering and pictures of saints) in the book almost beg the reader to turn the pages, and Janet obliged us by carefully turning a page or two with her white-cotton-gloved fingers.  Also on the table were a 20thcentury manuscript, made by hand in the medieval tradition, made for one of the first great patrons of the museum, and housed in a lovely painted box, and some Japanese prints.  Janet really got into her stride when she was asked about the extremely large grey-and-white piece of wallpaper on an easel.  The wallpaper panel was one of 26 panels depicting the story of Cupid and Pysche, and it is of French Napoleonic[4] origin.  Preserving it and restoring it to a whole without adding too much extra is quite a task, and Janet emphasized that matching the empty sections with the rest of the printed image would be difficult.  Eventually the wallpaper will be displayed in the European galleries.

The only male conservator, Greg Kelley, runs the wood conservation lab. In this lab the statues of Cambodian dancing goddesses are veiled with plastic sheeting.  A beautiful wood divan from Quebec shares space with them, but the main focus here is the provenance of the wood, and species of trees, discovered through careful examination through a microscope.  We were drawn to the softly glowing cross-sectional slices of hardwood and softwood, seen through the microscopes they were fibrous, with porous blotches.  DNA analysis is another method of identification used by the wood conservator, and he told us solemnly that this information is very important to Canadian companies because of illegal logging.

My tour was cut short here due to another appointment, but about a month and a half later, I was able to set up another appointment to tour the labs that I’d missed at the Open House.  This time Cathy Stewart, Manager of Conservation, welcomed me, and I began my second tour in Julia Fenn’s Ethnography lab.  Julia showed me a Komodo dragon skin from Toronto Zoothat had been sent to British Columbia for taxidermy, unfortunately with somewhat mixed results as he was missing parts of his tail.  In another part of the lab, Julia was treating some Tuareg[5] leather camel saddles – made of deerskin and wood, rather than cowhide, they were decorated with red and black paint, and lookedvery uncomfortable.

In the Ethnology lab we also examined a small ivory statue of a Minoan bull-leaper[6] that Julia is researching to find out whether it is, in fact, an authentic artifact from 1600 B.C., or a fake made approximately 100 years ago. The little bull-leaper/dancer is beautifully made – her arms and waist are slender, emphasized by her gold sleeves and belt.  Her enigmatic expression reveals very little. Julia and other researchers have found it difficult to determine whether the ivory that she is made of has been artificially aged, and also whether parts of the gold costume she is wearing have been added to make her seem more authentic. The thingsthat might give Julia and her colleagues some clues are ambiguous, the calcium phosphate of the ivory could have been artificially aged with acid, or it could have become that way on its own; the gold codpiece that the statue is wearing could have been a breastplate from another piece, or it could be authentic. Because very little is known about the Minoan culture, and the statue is rare and beautiful, it is worth pursuing these questions but Julia may never know definitively whether she has answered them.

Helen Coxon’s job: Preventive Conservation may be one of the most important and difficult jobs at the museum.  When Helen joined the staff of the ROM in 1987 to work on the conservation of arms and armour for the new European Gallery she probably never thought that she’d eventually become an authority on climate control for objects on display and in storage; pest control; and on safe materials for use in conservation and display.  However, after 26 years at the ROM, through at least two major overhauls of their storage facilities, that is what she is.  Much of Helen’s day is spent checking monitors for humidity and temperature controls that are spread through both the old and new parts of the museum.  Since the addition of the new building, and the refurbishment of the galleries in the old building, Helen’s job has become more complex, and perhaps more interesting as a result.  She showed me a small wireless monitor about the size of a small cigarette pack that costs $475, but it is these wireless devices that make it possible to keep an eye on display cases all over the museum.High and low variations in temperature and humidity can damage the artifacts, and the conservator’s main task is to reduce their rise and fall as much as she can. It is also mainly due to Helen’s work that a new integrated pest-management system was introduced in the past few years, after several scary incidents involving cigarette beetle, drugstore beetle (related), and moth infestations in the collections. Helen stressed that preventive conservation measures in the galleries and storage rooms at the ROM have greatly improved, partly through the creation of an inspection and treatment facility for incoming material, and partly through an awareness program that will take a further step forward with the imminent release of a formal Integrated Pest Management manual for the building.

My final stop was at the Metals conservation lab where Susan Stock showed off her latest project – a small statue of Min Hor, an ithyphallic statue from Saqqara. The statue is suffering from a bluish-green “bloom” – a type of corrosion that Susan is investigating to try to stop it from happening every time the statue is put out on display.  The statue is important for its iconography – it represents Horus (a hawk) with outstretched wings, but it also has many other animals incorporated into its elements – snakes, jaguars, and crocodiles – but it is also a puzzle that Susan wanted to solve, so that she can treat other metal objects (like the Osiris statue beside it) with the same problem.

Susan’s other example of how her metals research can affect curatorial decisions was an impressively sharp set of metal arrowheads, supposed to be Han Dynasty[7] Chinese, which had a light-blue scum around the section where the arrowhead meets the tang. After discovering the presence of zinc in the corrosion using XRD (X-ray Diffraction), the SEM(Scanning Electron Microscope) was used to examine a cross section of the arrowhead. Firstly, zinc was not used in this period. Secondly, the SEM results showed that the amount of zinc in the alloy was technologically linked to advances made circa 1945 AD.  Therefore, the pieces could not be considered authentic to this period.  Susan was sure that the arrows were fakes, in other words, they were copies of true Han Dynasty weapons.  They looked very impressive on display all together in an array of 500, but it is rare to find that many,archaeologically speaking. In the end, Susan’s research on the metalused for the arrowheads proved her right.

I am certain that ordinary visitors to the ROM would find the labs, and the research that is done in them, fascinating.  It would be impossible to have as many people as visit the galleries during the day through Conservation all the time, but it might be possible to show the processes that inform the research, and how artifact preservation works.  Similar exhibits for the dinosaur gallery have had some success at the museum. One exhibit some years ago included paleontologists working in a viewing booth behind glass to demonstrate the process of removing the surrounding rock to reveal the fossils. The scientists neededto work behind glass because of safety concerns involving the equipment, and there was no real opportunity for them to interact with the public. Nowadays, however, with most of the general public arriving at the museum with their own interactive handheld devices – phones, iPads, etc. it would presumably be a fairly simple thing to have two-way communication (on Twitter and other social media) so that visitors could ask their questions and receive answers about scientists’ activities, both in the exhibit and elsewhere at the museum.

The ROM’s current willingness to interact with visitors and potential visitors can only be enhanced by forays (such as these) into interpretation and information through interactive social media. It would require coordination and change throughout the museum, but in the end would benefit both visitors, and the curators and scientists who work so tirelessly to preserve our past.

*Elka Weinstein, regular contributor to Master in Museums.






[6]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_Bull-leaper; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bull-leaping