News from the Conservation Lab — On Research and Writing

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

One of the best parts of being a conservator, in my view, is the opportunity to do research. Here at the Kelsey, we do a lot of research in support of the conservation and care of the Museum’s collections as well as Kelsey-sponsored archaeological field projects. In our efforts, we accumulate a lot of books. Sure, plenty of information we use comes to us in PDF or other non-print format. Yet somehow, even in this digital age, books of all shapes, sizes, and subjects have taken up residence in our lab at a starling rate, to the point where things start to go missing among the piles. From time to time — often at the behest of a lending library or a fellow researcher — we let go of a few of them. A recent “return” pile made me laugh. The stack contained books on trade routes, conservation materials, geochemistry, Egyptian painting, and at least three other seemingly unrelated topics. The only thing these books had in common was the fact that they are bound blocks of text with chapters, references, and page numbers. They were otherwise complete strangers, hailing from disparate corners of the bibliographic universe.

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A conservator’s book pile.

Why so many books? One reason is that Suzanne and I have made a big push recently to publish some of the research we’re doing. This means checking sources, conducting literature reviews, and verifying information left and right. The research itself has been pretty wide-ranging, from computational imaging of ancient graffiti to chemical analysis of pigments on artifacts. This is where the diverse subject matter of the books in our lab starts to make sense. Conservators often find themselves needing to answer many different types of research questions. Sometimes these focus on figuring out how cultural materials were made and used. But more often than that, they’re about developing ways to characterize and slow artifact deterioration. Cultural heritage preservation is our primary goal, after all! Conservators have always been active in presenting their work at conferences, and an increasing number are publishing their practical experiences in books and journals. This means more peer review, and even more helpful references to fill our lab with. All good things, in my book!

November’s News from the Conservation Lab — Cultural Heritage Management

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Hello! The conservation excitement of my month was attending the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Denver. I co-chair the Cultural Heritage Management sessions for this meeting, along with my colleague Glenn Corbett (program director at the Council of American Overseas Research Centers). This year we had a great selection of papers in two sessions.

The first session focused on ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The ASOR group works on cultural heritage preservation in conflict zones and receives funding from a variety of important sponsors. They focus on documenting damage due to conflict, promoting global awareness of heritage in conflict zones, and planning emergency and post-war responses. We heard from archaeologists working on projects in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. If you love a) human life, and b) archaeological and built heritage, these papers aren’t easy to hear. And yet, it was good to see the important work ASOR is doing in partnership with local communities and heritage professionals in areas suffering from prolonged conflict and instability.

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Jerash, Jordan. Colonnade Street. Image from the ACOR Photo Archive.

Our second session looked at wider preservation initiatives for archaeological heritage and community-focused projects at archaeological sites. We heard about a great photo archive project at the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), where archival photographs of Jordanian heritage are being digitized and made publicly available; this form of virtual site preservation is also a special form of time travel, since researchers can see early images of important sites. Following this presentation, a report from Tel Mozan about the ongoing site preservation and presentation work by local community members and Syrian professionals made me jealous that I don’t work there; I would happily hear multiple days of papers about this project! We also heard from two other wonderful community-engaged projects: the Madaba Regional Archaeological Museum Project, and the Umm el-Jimal Project, which is doing so much cool stuff — like water conservation — with its community, it’s hard to know what to explore here. You’ll have to check it out for yourself.

The conference was also interesting for many other reasons. In addition to lots of great archaeology papers and posters (many by current or former IPCAA students), I attended several meta sessions about ASOR itself. For example — the name, is it time to change it? The member consensus was “yes!” Other big topics were: where and how the organization should hold its annual meetings, and how the group would like to develop its research over the next fifty years. I was impressed by the commitment of the ASOR and ACOR boards to transparency and the desire to engage members in these kinds of decisions. It was an inspiring meeting, as always, and I hope you enjoyed this update about it. Check out some of the links above!

October’s News from the Conservation Lab — Multispectral Candy Corn

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Happy fall from the Kelsey Conservation Lab! In celebration of my favorite season, Suzanne and I bring you this gem from our conservation image archive: multispectral CANDY CORN! Here in the Conservation Lab we use multispectral imaging (MSI) primarily for research. MSI involves illuminating artifacts with ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, and then capturing the results in an image. Some ancient pigments and dyes reflect and emit light in characteristic ways, and MSI can be used to identify them. We also occasionally deploy MSI for the sheer fun of it — because who wouldn’t want to see what their favorite corn syrup-infused Halloween candy looks like under ultraviolet light?

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Multispectral images of candy corn, courtesy of Janelle Batkin-Hall.

The image above presents candy corn four ways. Starting at the upper left, the first is in visible light (VIS), or how you’d expect your candy corn to look in a glass dish on your coffee table. Below that we have longwave ultraviolet light (UVL), which causes the candies’ ingredients — possibly the food dyes — to fluoresce different colors. (Cool! And slightly disturbing?) The black-and-white image at the upper right (IRR) shows the candy in infrared light, revealing that candy corn is pretty darn good at reflecting infrared radiation. (Who knew?) And finally we have an infrared false color image (IRR-FC), which transforms the infrared reflectance into distinct colors. This is a post-photo capture process that can help ID pigments, and could tell us something about the food dyes if only we had a multispectral database of such things. (A girl can dream ….)

I for one will continue to consume candy corn in spite of all this information, because nostalgia is a powerful thing, my friends. Thanks for tuning in to our blogroll, and many thanks to former graduate intern Janelle Batkin-Hall for capturing these inspired multispectral candy corn images.

September’s News from the Conservation Lab — Emergency Preparedness

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator, and Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Emergency preparedness is very much on our minds right now. Real-life disasters have been happening around the world: Hurricane Florence, Typhoon Mankhut, and the terrible fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Our thoughts are with the people and communities affected by these events, while the events themselves serve as sobering reminders of how important it is for museums to plan for emergencies. Here at the Kelsey Museum we have the ability to plan in a special way: by responding to an entirely pretend disaster.

Every other year, the University of Michigan’s Department of Emergency Management organizes and runs a tabletop drill for us, in which we respond to and recover from a made-up disaster scenario. In August we had our third such drill and — as happens every single time we participate in one of these exercises — we found ways to improve our plans for response and recovery. Our thanks to Sydney Parmenter, emergency management specialist at U-M, for organizing and leading this year’s exercise. Talking through each response decision, thinking about the roles we would each need to play as responders, and seeing where problems are likely to occur — this all helps develop our preparedness as a team. Real life is different from a drill, and we’re fully aware that we’ll never be perfect, but this series of unfortunate, hypothetical events always informs and empowers us to improve.

spiral bound pamphlet and yellow hard hat

 

August’s News from the Conservation Lab: Lab Cleanup Extravaganza!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Last week Suzanne and I took on the daunting, seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning out the Conservation Lab. When Suzanne mentioned earlier this summer that she wanted to schedule a lab cleanup, I thought she meant getting rid of some cardboard boxes, the used swabs … the usual tidying up one does in warmer months when there’s enough light to see things starting to pile up.

Oh, was I ever wrong.

What Suzanne had in mind was in fact a purge of all unused STUFF that had accumulated since her arrival at the Kelsey some 16 years ago, as well as a number of things that were here pre-Suzanne. We’re talking camera and microscope parts adapted to long-gone bodies; sad-looking Dremel tools that have seen better days; files that, at this point, belong in some sort of archive. We discovered the residues of past experiments — including blobs of dried-up green goo that I’m pretty sure were my doing — and various and sundry samples of artifacts, grout, bugs, and debris from now-ended research campaigns.

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Carrie rids her desk of old files, masking her wavering resolve with a smile.
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Workbenches-turned-sorting and stacking surfaces. Oh, the humanity!

There were moments of extreme indecision on my part, but Suzanne never wavered in her quest to rid our space of excess. Were it not for her drive and vision for a cleaner lab, I’m pretty sure we would have failed, with me buried under a pile of unused condition report template forms, never to be seen or heard from again. Thankfully, she got us through it. As a result, the lab has some rediscovered room to grow, and I learned quite a few things about the history of the Kelsey’s conservation department.

July’s News from the Conservation Lab

by Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

I recently returned from a few weeks of work at one of the Kelsey Museum’s excavations — the site of Notion in Turkey. Notion is a beautiful, rugged, and windswept site on promontory jutting into the Aegean Sea, and it’s interesting from a research perspective because it preserves an entire city, albeit at ground level.

Temple of Apollo at Notion
Altar of the Temple of Athena at Notion, with view of the Aegean Sea.

For the past three years, I’ve been working with Notion team to assess the site’s condition and the ongoing risks to its long-term preservation in order to develop a sustainable plan for its conservation. Conservation planning at Notion is interesting and challenging for many reasons. One is that the city is built from a few stone types that have inherent problems (translation: the stone is falling apart). Another is that Notion is poised to develop — and be conserved — in a way that’s uncommon for an archaeological site. Because the site has remained almost untouched, it preserves a large stretch of pristine coastline and is home to quintessential Mediterranean ecosystems. Unlike many archaeological tourism destinations in Turkey, Notion provides an opportunity for something closer to ecotourism, a type of sustainable tourism designed to benefit local communities at the same time that it encourages conservation and enjoyment of the natural environment. This poses a special conservation challenge: How can the site be preserved in ways that are unobtrusive and retain the value of its natural as well as archaeological features?

To give you a view into some of the difficult decision-making around this, here is one small example, focused on oregano. Yes, this star of summer cookery plays a major role at Notion! Notion’s wild oregano is incredibly powerful; it makes the site smell amazing, it’s attractive, and people come from all around the region to harvest it. But … it’s also a pesky condition risk to our falling-apart stone. It grows particularly well inside the blocks of the Temple of Athena. Not around them. In them. The oregano is literally breaking them apart.

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The Temple of Athena at Notion.
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Wild oregano bursting forth from the blocks of the Temple of Athena.

So the question becomes, which is more important? The temple? The oregano? Thankfully it grows in other places on the site, too, so if we decide to remove it at the temple, we won’t doom this herb to destruction (but I secretly think the oregano from the Temple of Athena is the best on the site). At the moment, the Notion team is still in the planning phase for excavation and conservation, so we’re not yet ripping this herb out wholesale. We do, however, occasionally harvest small amounts for our own use, and I will leave you with one recipe for it — a cocktail created by the conservation and site management team at Notion. Enjoy!

The Notionikos

Ingredients

  • 1 sprig fresh oregano* (additional sprig for garnish, optional)
  • 3 slices small cucumber, peeled (additional slice for garnish, optional)
  • 1/2 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 oz gin
  • ice
  • tonic water

Directions

  1. In a rocks (old fashioned) glass, muddle the oregano and cucumber slices with the lemon juice.
  2. Add the gin and fill the glass 2/3 full with ice.
  3. Add the tonic and stir gently.
  4. Garnish with the additional oregano sprig and cucumber slice, if desired.
*The oregano from Notion is STRONG – feel free to use more sprigs if you’re not getting enough of an herb-forward effect.

June’s News from the Conservation Lab: Conference Crunch Time!

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, earthlings! Suzanne and I have just returned from two professional conference journeys — and boy, are we tired! The conference I attended was at the Getty Villa, located in beautiful Pacific Palisades, California. The hilltop replica Villa of the Papyri and ocean view beyond served as scenic backdrops for a conference focused on the study of Roman Egyptian mummy portraits. (Sadly, I have no photos from the Villa itself, only the one below from the Getty Center — also beautiful!) The talks were wide-ranging, from discussions about portrait workshops and artists’ materials to imaging techniques and binding media analyses. My own talk explored changes in the green pigment palette during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, while looking at a group of painted shrouds as case studies. The conference brought together mummy portrait enthusiasts from around the world, and planted all kinds of new research ideas in my head. If you are wondering, How can I get my hands on the post prints? — fear not! They’ll be published online in fall 2019.

Suzanne attended the American Institute for Conservation’s 46th Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas. I say attended, but really, Suzanne was program chair and in effect the mastermind behind the conference’s academic program. The theme this year, Material Matters, explored the impact of material studies and issues of materiality on conservation principles and practice. One member-proposed session featured papers that discussed the preservation of cultural heritage through the transfer and transmission of materials and information from one medium to another. In a joint objects-architecture specialty group session Suzanne gave a talk about the preservation of ancient graffiti at El Kurru, Sudan. Suzanne’s research has also just been published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, which you can read here. I think we both agree that while a conference is a great opportunity to share research and catch up with colleagues, nothing beats a good old-fashioned peer-reviewed publication for getting new information out there.

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One of many ocean views from the Getty Center.
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Amaris Sturm and Suzanne Davis at the conservation graduate programs reunion in Houston.