A Very Special Drum

Check out this video of a project that we recently completed.

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Preserving cultural history: on TV

In case you missed it last Sunday, our brief appearance on national television in a CBS news a segment about conserving Hollywood costume : http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/hollywood-history-creates-new-industry/.

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A Reflection: The Treatment of a Makonde Sculpture


Today’s post will discuss a fairly challenging treatment of a 7′ tall African sculpture. The sculpture is titled “A Reflection,” and was carved by the artist Tangawizi of the Makonde tribe in northeastern Mozambique sometime in the late 1960’ s-1970’s. “A Reflection” is made out of a single log of ebony that has been intricately carved and highly polished.


Before Treatment Overall

The Makonde are a group located on the plateau of Mueda in modern day Tanzania and Mozambique. These were some of the last tribes to be placed under European colonial control, coming under Portuguese rule in 1920. Prior to European contact, the Makonde made masks and other useful items.  Post-contact, the Makonde began creating prau-preto (ebony) sculptures for export to the Portuguese. The first subjects were the everyday activities of the Makonde; these became known as binadamu sculptures. Later, as woodcarving developed as a craft, styles expanded to include ujamaa or unity sculptures that depict families in a pole format, and shetani or spirit sculptures that are more abstract in their subject matter.


Before Treatment Detail

The Makonde sculpture that came to our studio is of the shetani genre. The work depicts a battle between a man and a tree spirit. The artist states that, ”the sharp pointed areas are a cunning feature as it does not reflect on the spirit but on what it wants us to believe; this spirit has a hidden agenda.”


Before Treatment Detail

The Makonde sculpture was broken into twelve sections with numerous other partial breaks, for a grand total of 31 breaks in need of joining.  What made the repair difficult was that the wood had become distorted upon breaking, and the broken sections were no longer in proper alignment.

Unusually, this sculpture came with annotated repair instructions from the gallery in Kenya where it was purchased.  The instructions suggest using a mix of ebony powder with a wood glue to rejoin the broken pieces. Our technician Katy modified this method to address the different kinds of breaks.  Common “wood glue” is strong, but is difficult to reverse and does not age that well, so it is not an ideal conservation adhesive.

For most of the breaks, Katy used a high-tack fish glue to join the broken sections. These breaks all had large surface areas with good contact at the break sites and were non-load bearing.  Fish glue is strong, reversible and easily re-treatable, making it an adhesive well-suited to this situation.


Treatment documentation photo view 1.Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue shows epoxy repairs, and red lines indicate pins inserted. 

A stronger adhesive was needed for some of the breaks, though.  These breaks were tricky because they were previously held under tension when the sculpture was whole, load-bearing, and have very little areas of contact. When the sculpture broke, the internal tensions were released and the somewhat flexible ebony underwent some distortion, or became “sprung” (a term usually used to describe this phenomenon when it applies to high-fired ceramics). In these cases, a two-part flexible epoxy adhesive bulked with ground ebony powder and pigments was used instead of the fish glue because it is stronger and more resilient.

Treatment documentation view 2--

Treatment documentation view 2. Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue for epoxy repairs, purple shows previous restorations, and red lines indicate pins inserted.

We had to come up with some creative clamping solutions. In some areas, cauls were needed to prevent the clamps from slipping on the smooth, rounded surfaces.

During treatment clamping of joinsIMG_0385


In addition to the epoxy, carbon fiber pins were inserted into some of the breaks (namely, in load-bearing, previously repaired and re-broken areas, where the broken sections had to be forced back into alignment) to further support the piece structurally.   The instructions suggest ebony dowels inserted to act as “screws” or “nails”; however, we felt that carbon fiber rods would be stronger, more flexible and less invasive since they required much smaller holes to be drilled, thus more appropriate for the narrow joins we were working with.


After Treatment Detail


Treatment documentation photo view 3. Orange indicates fish glue joins, blue for epoxy repairs, purple shows previous restorations, and red lines indicate pins inserted.

Treatment documentation view 3

The losses along the break lines were filled using a microcrystalline wax blend that was tinted with dry pigments to approximate the color and sheen on the surrounding areas.  The wax mixture was applied using a heated spatula.  Finally the entire surface was given a light coating of clear paste wax  for protection and unified gloss.


After Treatment Overall


Sources include:


Zachary Kingdon. A Host of Devils. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.


Rich, Vincent (2012) Carving a Life: The Political Economy of Woodcarver Livelihoods in Cabo
Delgado, Northern Mozambique. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London


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Project Spotlight: National Trust at the Blickling Estate

Today we are fortunate enough to be able to spotlight a guest project coming all the way from the Blickling Estate in the United Kingdom.  Thanks to donations from Ashford Trust and the Norfolk Centre, the National Trust has been able to preserve a series of five Grisailles paintings by artist Francis Hayman (1708-1776) — one of the founding members of the Royal Academy.


The paintings are significant because of their genre, the word ‘Grisailles’ referring to the greyish, monochrome colour scheme used.  A Grisaille painting may be created for its own sake, or used as an underpainting for the artist to later finish in colour.  Little is known about the Blickling’s collection of five Francis Hayman Grisailles paintings except that they used to hang in the library.  The fashion in the early 18th Century was to hint towards classicism and antiquity, and the Grisailles resemble the frescos and marble reliefs that were popular at the time. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the changes in fashion, with a move towards the Arts and Crafts period in the later part of the 18th Century, these paintings have stood the test of time, and remained as valued pieces throughout their lifespan.


The conservation of these five works took two forms: consolidation of the paintwork, and stabilization of the frames. Conserving the paintwork was especially challenging because the surface is unvarnished and the paint is quite matte. Hayman is thought to have used a higher proportion of pigment to oil to replicate the look and feel of stonework, and this has resulted in a very porous paint layer. The canvas itself is also unlined. This means any cleaning liquid or glue inevitably soaks through the thirsty surface, and can easily discolor the paintwork. Conservators Sally Woodcock and Polly Saltmarsh consolidated the painting by filling in any surface cracking with specialist glue and using a hot air blower pen kindly borrowed from Willard Conservation Ltd to set this in place. _R9A8153

Once consolidated, Sally used deionised water to lightly clean the surface of the painting, gently removing excess dirt and debris caused by insects and bats.


The money donated also helped to carry out preventative conservation to the frames to ensure that they fully support the canvases. First, they were treated for woodworm. Then balsa wood spacers were inserted between the frame and canvas to prevent the canvas from moving around.  The spacers also ensure easy access to the canvases in the future by minimizing the potential damage caused by needing to remove the paintings from their frames. Interestingly, it’s been assumed that these black frames with gilded edges are original, but white flecks of paint seen on the sides of the canvas (only visible when the paintings are removed from their frame) perhaps suggest that the frames were actually white originally.


The conservation work that was carried out on this Hayman series will significantly improve the lifespan of these works, embodying the idea of preserving the past forever, for everyone.


Written by the National Trust, Blickling Estate.  Edited by Fine Arts Conservation.

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Hope for Hopi Kachinas Part II

This post is the second segment of our two-part spotlight on the Kachina dolls that came into our studio. This part will focus on the treatment of the Cumulus Cloud Maiden that was mentioned in our earlier post.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the front.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the front.

The Cloud Maiden came into our shop in several pieces.  Kachinas are prone to breaking because the cottonwood they are made from is very soft and fragile.  In this case, the figure had broken off from the base, and some of the feathers on the tunic and headdress had become detached.  The owner had saved several of the pieces but others were missing. After taking an inventory of what could be reattached and what had to be recreated, we set to work.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the back.

Before treatment photo showing a view of the back.

Before the breaks could be addressed, residual adhesive from a previous repair had to be removed.  The adhesive was first softened with water and then removed mechanically.  After the adhesive was reduced, the broken pieces were reattached to the Kachina. In order to stabilize and strengthen the  joins, small pins were inserted.  Carbon fiber rods were used to make the pins for the broken feathers. For small or lightweight broken elements, carbon fiber rods (made of epoxy reinforced with carbon fiber, see http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Carbon_Fiber)  are ideal because they have high tensile strength, so a thin (1.2 mm diameter) pin can provide plenty of support.  


Examples of carbon fiber rods.

By contrast, to reattach the Cloud Maiden to its base a bamboo pin was used to join the two sections together.  Wood was considered the preferred material to support this larger surface area break because it is not as hard as the carbon fiber.  A larger carbon fiber pin would be much stronger than the original material and could potentially damage the cottonwood if an impact occurred.

After treatment photo showing the front.

After treatment photo showing the front.

Once the broken pieces were adhered, our expert technician Katy took to recreating the lost feathers.  To do this she used two different techniques. For the feathers that were entirely missing she carved new ones out of balsa wood.  Although balsa is not the type of wood originally used by the artist, it has similar properties, is lightweight and easy to manipulate.  Once the she got the shape right, she set about toning the replacements using gouache.  The new feathers were then attached using carbon fiber pins and bulked fish glue.  The fish glue was bulked with cellulose powder to act as a gap filler where material had been crushed or lost at the break.

After treatment photo showing the back.

After treatment photo showing the back.

For feathers that had lost only their tips, Katy also used tiny carbon fiber pins, this time as posts onto which she could build up the feather shape.  To recreate the tips she used Modostuc and then inpainted the feathers with gouache.


Before treatment left and after treatment right, showing repaired and replica headdress feathers

The treatment was successful and the Cloud Maiden left looking fabulous.  A round of applause to Katy for her excellent work.

Post written by Allison King

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Happy 2014!

Happy 2014!

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December 31, 2013 · 11:16 am

Hope for the Hopi Kachinas


Hi All!  Sorry for the long absence but things have been very busy this year!  We have had our hands full with so many interesting projects, but in this post we’d like to feature a particularly colorful group of objects we’ve been working on since fall.  So begins our two-part spotlight on the six Kachina dolls that came into our studio looking for help.  This post will detail the cultural context of the pieces, and the next part will describe some aspects of the dolls’ treatment.


Kachinas are iconic objects of Southwestern Native American Art.  These Kachinas come from the Hopi Tribe.  They are not objects of worship but rather depict  the many different types of  Kachina spirits.  A Kachina doll, also known as a tihü, is traditionally given to a Hopi Girl at a ceremonial dance.  They function as decorative objects, toys and didactic objects that tell the stories of the Kachina spirits.  In more recent years, native artists have manufactured Kachinas for export.


Kachinas are carved out of the roots of the cottonwood tree. The wood is very soft and easy to carve.  Traditionally, Kachines were carved using knives and other customary tools but today native artists use modern tools such as chisels, Dremel tools, hand and power saws, pocket knives, X-acto blades and wood burning irons.  Kachinas are highly decorated and brightly painted.  Historically feathers, fur, leather, yarn and seashells were used to decorate the dolls.  Our dolls do not have any additions other than carved wooden elements and paint.  In the past, pigments made from natural ochers and minerals would be used.  In more recent years Kachinas, like the ones in our studio, have been painted using acrylics.


Color is a symbolic feature of the Kachina mask.  Six colors and color combinations indicate the direction from which a Kachina originally came to the Hopi village: yellow-north, blue-green- west, red- south, white- east, grey or a combination of the above colors- up and black- down.


The different iconographies of the Kachinas identify them as specific spirits.  An example is the Kachina shown below, which depicts a blue spirit standing on one foot as if mid-dance.  The figure is draped in a white robe with small blue feathers attached to it.  The spirit holds a tray of cornmeal.  The half of the face mask is painted brown and the other half is painted white.  A rainbow symbol splits the two colors.  The tablet above the face depicts cloud and rain symbols.   The color of the form, the tray of cornmeal, the style of the mask and the cloud symbols on the tablet identify this figure as the Tukwünag Kachin-mana or Cumulus Cloud Maiden.  The Cumulus Cloud Maiden appears in Hopi Shalako ceremonies.


To read more about the history of Kachina dolls, the stories behind the different spirits or the Shalako ceremonies please check out the books and article listed below.

Bassman, Theda.  Treasures of the Hopi.  Northland Publishing Company Flagstaff, AZ.  1997.

Colton, Harold S.  Hopi Kachina Dolls: With a Key to Their Identification.  University of New Mexico Press.  Albuquerque, NM. 1987.

Fewkes, J. Walter and Hough, Walter. The Sio Shalako at the First Mesa,  American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1917), pp. 410-415


Written by Senior Blog Editor Allison King


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The Lopez Adobe Preservation Project

Check out The Lopez Adobe Preservation Project for the latest news and interesting  historical information about the Lopez family and the early days of San Fernando.

San Fernando Valley, 1880

Lopez Adobe, ca. 1882

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Welcome! « The Lopez Adobe Preservation Project

Announcing a new blog chronicling our preservation efforts for re-opening the Lopez Adobe in the city of San Fernando as  a historic house museum.

Welcome! « The Lopez Adobe Preservation Project.

Casa de Lopez Adobe in 2012

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After stabilization

I just realized I’ve neglected to post some after treatment images of the first panel, which was completed quite a while ago. We are now finishing up the third of four panels. Here is panel 1.

For comparison purposes, here are a couple “Before” views of the lower part.

Although the quality of these images is not great,  I’m happy to say that we’ve since upgraded to a DSLR camera and improved the photography setup (following the AIC Guide to Digial Photography and Conservation Documentation, 2nd edition), so future images should be much better!

The next post will be about an entirely different project, a ceramic tile mural…

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