Agents of Decay: they’re everywhere!

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The “best” example of inappropriate temperature is when you accidentally melt plastic during a kitchen mishap.

I know, Agents of Decay sounds like an epic punk band or a comic book supervillain gang, but it’s actually a concise list of the different ways things deteriorate. In 1994, Charlie Costain of the Canadian Conservation Institute created the original list of nine agents and coined the phrase “agents of decay” to summarize the forces behind object damage. The next year conservator Robert Waller added the final agent, making it an even 10. After 25 years, this list remains a linchpin of conservation theory.

You see, it is vital that a conservator first understands the problem before fixing it. We spend as much time learning about damage pathways in school as we do in addressing the problems. The agents range from everyday environmental issues to unlikely, but devastating, events. It’s important to remember, and you’ll see it as we go through the list, that often these agents work together. Conservators have two methods of combating damage. The first is preventive conservation, which focuses on manipulating the environment around the object to prevent or mitigate possible damage. The second is interventive conservation. This is a response to the damage and involves treating the object in order to stabilize it.    Read more

A salty situation

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Mmmmmm, salt…
Image by author.

“So… why are you guys so salty about, well, salt?”

If you’ve been following along with the blog posts about conserving USS Monitor, you may have noticed a common theme: salt. Salt is bad for this, we’re removing the salts from (or desalinating) that… but why? I’ve been sprinkling that stuff on my lunch; how bad can it really be?   Read more

Conservation Treatment of a 17th-Century Dutch Print

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Figure 1. Focht Naer Nova Zemla, by Jan Luyken, c. 1681, before treatment

In my last treatment post, I wrote about the Myriopticon, an object that is far from the type of treatment that normally comes across a paper conservator’s bench. This time, I’m going to highlight an object that received a much more “typical” paper treatment while introducing a couple of common conservation techniques along the way. Keep reading for details on how I completed the treatment and for some satisfying before and after photos!

This print, titled Focht naer Nova Zemla in den Jaere MDXCVI (translating roughly to “Trip to Nova Zemla in the year 1596”) by Jan Luyken came to the lab for treatment due to its fragile condition. The piece was printed c. 1681 and depicts a scene from Willem Barents’ expedition to find a northeast passage from Western Europe to Eastern Asia. Barents made three separate voyages from Amsterdam spanning from 1594-1597. Ultimately the voyages were unsuccessful, with most of the crew members, including Barents himself, losing their lives on the third and final attempt. This print illustrates one of the many dangerous obstacles the crews faced on their journeys: walruses (yes, those are walruses).   Read more

The Detective and the Cataloger

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This image from Johann Gottfriedt’s 1655 publication ‘Newe Welt Und Americanische Historien’ was originally identified as the burning and looting of Cuba. Recent research has changed the attribution of the scene to the pillaging and burning of the town of Allegona (Las Palmas) and the fortifications of the island of Gran Canaria by the Dutch in July of 1599. (Accession# 1945.236.01/LE 2361)

Although 2020’s pandemic has not been a good thing for museums there are some museum professionals who are reaping big rewards from being stuck at home. Who are these lucky people? The curators, archivists and collections staff responsible for cataloging objects because finally, FINALLY, there is plenty of time available to review, expand or correct the cataloging of the objects and images in their collections.

Cataloging is the process of researching and recording detailed information about an object.  This process is completed when an object initially enters a museum’s collection but at Mariners it’s pretty obvious that the curators and collections staff didn’t always invest the kind of time necessary to fully and accurately research the objects they were cataloging. The result is misidentifications, misattributions and sometimes a complete lack of information beyond an object’s name or title!   Read more

Conservation Update: Turret Knife

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- credit The Mariners' Museum and Park
The USS Monitor turret under treatment

With most of our staff working from home these days, we haven’t been able to work on objects in the lab as much as we would like. But, I thought I would update you all on some work I completed back in March. 

Some of you may remember a blog post from way back in 2017, when I found a bone-handled knife in the concretion of the turret. While the conservation department had found many objects and items in the turret before, this came as a bit of a surprise. Much of the concretion had already been removed from the turret, and we didn’t think there were many places left for objects to hide. But we were wrong! Hidden in the rails of the railroad tracking that were used to construct the ceiling of the turret was a knife!   Read more