A Day in the Life of a Museum Intern….

I’m Stephanie Carter and here at the museum, I spend my time in the conservation lab with conservator, Corey Smith.  I’m going to give you a sneak peak into the work I do for the museum, and tell you what prompts  me to keep making a 2.5 hour drive each way to be at the museum  at least twice per month (or more, depending on if it’s exhibit time)!

So why would someone drive 280 miles in a day to work in a lab? Well in my case, it all comes down to my passion for material culture, as well as my career interests in museum work, preservation, and conservation.  I’m currently a student in the Johns Hopkins University Masters of Museum Studies program, and can happily report I am halfway through my degree and getting more excited every day at the future that lies before me. 

As much as I love the path I’m on, I’ve never been able to completely distance myself from my innate love of historic objects and the intense feeling of purpose I feel while working hands-on with them.  Through a Florida Association of Museum’s course held at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, I was introduced to Corey and her conservation lab.  It was love at first sight!  Being able to treat, conserve, learn from and give appropriate attention to objects sounded like paradise to me!  Once my current degree is completed, I’m interested in going into conservation studies.  Many of the schools that carry a conservation degree (and there are only 4 in the United States), require internship hours with a trained conservator prior to applying.  The intention of going on to conservation graduate school is one of the requirements to work as an intern in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Conservation lab.  In addition to the conservation internship hours, I’ll need additional classes in chemistry, organic chemistry, art history, studio art, and fluency in a foreign language, just to be a likely candidate for the graduate programs!  Conservation labs are hard to come by (especially in Florida), so when I applied to be the intern at the museum and was accepted, I was very grateful and honored that Corey would give me the opportunity to follow this passion.

So, enough on my background.   What everyone really wants to know is what I do when I work at the museum, right?  For the last few months, I’ve been working with Corey on readying military items for exhibition in the upcoming Tools of War show.  My job has primarily been to work on 18th and 19th century muskets, rifles, and pistols that will be on display.  On a typical day in the lab, I start the conservation process by doing a thorough historical search of the particular gun I’m working on.  Some items in the museum’s collection have little to no documentation or historical background, so it’s my job to find out as much as I can about the item.  With the help of the Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and other weaponry books from the museum’s library, I’ve been able to fill in many gaps of information including approximate year of manufacture, materials, caliber, and many other pertinent historical facts.  Of course, the internet is always another useful tool for information!  After the research, I make a detailed report of my findings to be added later to the museum’s cataloguing software.  I then examine the weapon for cracks, corrosion, insect holes, discoloration, or any other problems, and compose a detailed condition report from my discoveries.  Archival digital photographs are taken of guns to visually document their current condition.  Lastly, with Corey’s assistance, I compose a treatment proposal and submit it for authorization.  Once the proposal is authorized, the REAL fun begins!

After the treatment has been authorized and with Corey’s guidance, I then can begin the treatment process.  With the guns I’ve worked on thus far, the attention they’ve needed has included: vacuuming them with a HEPA filtered vacuum, cleaning corrosive areas of metal on the gun gently with cotton swabs and ethanol, coating the metal with a microcrystalline wax, and then buffing the metal  to a shiny finish with a cotton cloth.  Some of the guns have also had foreign powders, adhesives, accretions, or other vestiges of residue on them that require careful removal.  Part of the conservation process is the removal of these potentially harmful substances that could induce further damage to these already fragile objects.  Depending on the substance, other tools such a wooden skewer, adhesive remover, stiff boar brush, or a scalpel may be utilized for the removal.  After the treatment is completed, I write up a report detailing the work I performed.  The gun is now ready to be installed into the new exhibit!

Make sure to come out to view the new exhibit, Tools of War, beginning in March, and see what the wonderful employees of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki (including myself) have been working on!  For more information on conservation work at the museum, visit http://www.ahtahthiki.com/seminole-indian-conservation/index.cfm.  For more information about the field of conservation and other projects happening around the globe, visit the American Institute for Conservation at http://www.conservation-us.org/.


Testing for Safety: Heavy Metals and Pesticides in Museum Collections

Are there hidden dangers in your museum collection?  When it comes to health and safety sometimes you can’t even see the most dangerous elements.  Did you know that from the 1700’s to the 1970’s heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, were used in museums as active pesticides to protect their artifacts, especially those made from organic materials?  Organic materials are those which were originally living such as textiles, baskets, leather, and other materials very commonly found in Native American collections.   As we always say, every material on earth will eventually return to dust, but organic materials are much more susceptible to this deterioration and are therefore in greater need of protection from environmental factors especially insect damage.

Cheryl Podsiki testing beads on a bandolier bag

                The practice of treating collections with heavy metal pesticides was extremely common in the United States, Canada and Europe.  Arsenic (in many forms such as arsenic trichloride, orthoarsenic acid, potassium arsenate) and mercuric chloride could be applied in many manners.  It could be used as a powder, as a soap, or as a solution.  It could be rubbed, brushed, sprayed or sprinkled on.  This practice was extremely successful.  Bugs and pests stayed clear of artifacts that had been treated with this type of material.  These pesticides remnants on artifacts today remain potent and extremely hazardous to all bugs, pests, and not surprisingly to museum employees and community members who have contact with the artifacts.  As a rule of thumb, I consider any ethnographic or Native American artifact older than 100 years that is in extremely good condition with very little pest damage highly suspicious for dangerous pesticide content.

XRF computer display with turtle shell mask

                How can you detect pesticide residues on your collection?  I carefully examine any older artifact that I find in suspiciously good condition.  Loose white powders found on the surface of the artifact or in the storage materials can raise red flags.  At the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum we were lucky enough to have Cheryl  Podsiki, a Conservator  from New York State who specializes in Contaminated Objects, come to test 29 of our objects as a short survey into the pesticide presence at the museum.  Cheryl works with a hand held X-ray fluorescence (XRF) Elemental analyzer called a Tracer III-V made by Bruker-AXS .  The XRF machine uses a completely non-invasive and non-destructive technique that bounces x-rays off of the surface of an artifact in order to identify the organic elemental content of the surface of the artifact.  Twenty eight of the artifacts chosen for the sample testing were selected from the Speck Collection, while the last one was a bandolier bag that is going into an upcoming exhibition at the museum.  Frank G. Speck, who was the originally collector of these objects was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  It is known that the UPenn Museum used arsenic as a pesticide during the years at the beginning of the 20th century when the Speck Collection was stored in their facility.  Only one of the twenty nine artifacts selected for this study clearly had arsenic applied as a pesticide.  The feathers on this blow dart are in extremely good condition without any insect damage present, so the visual evaluation corresponds to the scientific results.

                My favorite moment during the testing with Cheryl was when we examined our lab mascot, Vlad the Bear.  Vlad is a stuffed Maine bear that lives in the conservation lab.  Since he is from the state of Maine, he does not fall under the mission of our museum and is not an accessioned artifact.  We keep him in front of the observation hallway window to entertain the school children that come through the hallway.  Taxidermy animals are also very likely to contain heavy metal pesticides.  In fact, these pesticides were used inside the stuffing of the animals as late as the 1970s, so be careful with those stuffed dear heads in your dens!  For the most part Vlad tested negative for heavy metals, but one small spot on his paw where the skin is very thin tested faintly positive for mercury.  It is likely that there is mercury inside his stuffing, but as long as he stays in good condition with proper handling he is safe to stay in the lab.

XRF testing of Vlad the bear.

                What can you so about pesticide content within your collection?  Sadly, the answer is very little.  There are no common treatments for the removal of pesticides from museum artifacts, although conservation scientists across the world are currently researching methods.  At this point we vacuum the surface of pesticide containing artifacts with a HEPA filter vacuum to remove any loose powders, seal the artifact in a bag to prevent cross contamination between artifacts, and clearly label all records and the artifact storage itself.  Keep in mind that you need to ingest the pesticides for them to cause major damage.  If safe handling and storage practices are followed, you should not be at risk from pesticides within your collection.

Corey Smith, Conservator, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Creation of a slant board

Adaptability and flexibility are crucial when you are working a museum that is short on space, so when it became apparent that we needed a larger support for photographing textiles Greg Palumbo, the exhibits coordinator, jumped to action to help me make a removable and adjustable photographic slant board.  Photographic documentation is an important step in conservation treatments, because it is essential to have pictures of an artifact’s condition so that you can help to identify any future changes that might occur.  It is much easier to see changes that have occurred in photographs than to id changes through a written condition description.

The photography copy stand set up in the dark room.

                When the curatorial building, where the conservation lab is located, was built in 2004 museums were still using black and white photographic film and color slide film to record the condition of artifacts.  In the last six years however museums have gone the way of our family photos and migrated entirely to digital photography.  The “dark room” off the back of the conservation lab has been converted into a photo studio, but due to the small size of the room we can only photograph small artifacts that will fit onto the copy stand or can be photographed at a very close range.  The beautifully colored patchwork textiles in our collection are much too large for this set up and needed to be laid down on the floor on top of gray photo paper in order to achieve acceptable photographs.  This is where the idea of our new slant board came into being!

Katy Gregory and Corey Smith covering the slant board with grey material.

                Slant boards are extremely useful because they can be fixed at a slant equal to that of the camera, which is attached to the top of a large tripod.  This will create photographs that are square and without distortion or a “keystone” effect (just stand to the side of a table and take a photograph of a framed piece of art laid out on it in order to see what I mean).  If textiles are placed on top of paper on the floor, the camera would have to be mounted directly above the artifact in order for the photographs to be properly squared off.  In reality the camera needs to be mounted on a tripod in order to minimize the vibrations and create the clearest and crispest images.  A tripod will also help you reduce the blur in your personal photographs, but they can be heavy to carry around.  A tripod that stands on the floor, like the one we have here at the museum, cannot be mounted directly over the artifact because the legs would cast funny shadows in the image.   A slant board is the best way to fix this problem. 

The slant board photography set up in the conservation lab.

                Greg used sheets of coroplast (an inert plastic corrugated board) on a wooden frame to make the base of the slant board.  We covered the frame with a medium grey felt stapled to the back of the base.  I always choose to take my conservation photography on a grey background because it is a good middle tone and it does not throw off the color or light contrasts in the rest of the photograph.  The D-hooks installed on the top of the board can hook onto a number of screws on wall that are arranged to give different levels of slant.  Now it is all set up to take photographs of a number of new acquisition patchwork textiles that recently came into the collection.  For more information on these textiles see Robin Kilgo’s upcoming article in the AQ (“Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Quarterly”) publication!

For more information, contact Corey Smith at coreysmith@semtribe.com.

Conservation Workshop: “Emergency Preparedness, Response and Salvage in Museum Collections.”

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was honored to host a museum workshop last week titled “Emergency Preparedness, Response and Salvage in Museum Collections.”  We invited two conservators to come down to the Hollywood reservation and teach the course at the Native Learning Center.  The instructors were MJ Davis, a paper conservator from Northern Vermont, and Barbara Moore, an object conservator from New Jersey.  Both of the instructors are members of the American Institute for Conservation’s Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT); which was formed after Hurricane Katrina when the conservation community realized that cultural collections that are unfortunately involved in disasters were not getting the attention needed for a successful recovery.  AIC-CERT offers free emergency response assistance to cultural organizations when a disaster has occurred.  If your historical site or cultural institution needs advice or emergency help, please call 202-661-8068.

MJ Davis and Barbara Moore explain which tools to use in a water recovery.

            The Emergency Preparedness workshop held by the museum was a two day workshop open to any museum or cultural institution employee in Florida.  The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has annually held museum workshops to help bring together museum employees in the state and create a network of communication within the professional field. 

As we all know, Florida is threatened by numerous hurricanes and the resulting floods.  Unfortunately, there are few educational opportunities in the Southeast to teach museum employees how to handle disaster and emergency situations should they arise.  During the course of the workshop, the participants were taught what needs to be included in their institution’s emergency plan.  The lessons included how to work with first responders (fire, police, EMS, governmental aide), how to assess the document damage and how to prioritize, document, organize and carry out a salvage operation. 

Teams work to recover water damaged items.

            The course consisted of a day and a half of classroom lecture.  The sections included what should be in our own institutional emergency plans and covered risk assessment for natural disasters (hurricane, flood, blizzard, and fire), man made disasters (bomb threats, workplace violence, vandalism, arson), and internal disasters (building failure, pipe leaks).   We were also taught how different materials react to water or fire damage.  The materials highlighted were paper, books, textiles, paintings, photographs, electronic media, wood, furniture, leather, ceramics and glass.  The most exciting portion of the class was our actual salvage activity.  Groups of various “artifacts” were gathered from local yard sales, employees’ houses, and good will stores.  These artifacts were thrown into kiddie pools and allowed to soak for 6 hours before we staged a rescue operation on them.  This activity was a great way to provide hands on training as well as an understanding of both the rescue structure with its defined roles and how materials change when they are saturated with water.  We all enjoyed this activity and learned tremendous amounts about salvage of artifacts.  Let’s just hope that we never need to use these skills! 

All of the teams working on thier recovery efforts.

            For more information on this course, AIC-CERT, or conservation during disasters, please feel free to send me an email.   

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Conservator Corey Smith explaining what her team did.

Conserving the Past

Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position. Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.

Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position.  Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.   
Corey in the Lab
Corey Smith treating one of our historic canoes.

When I speak of conservation, I am referring to art conservation not environmental conservation, which is a very common misunderstanding. Although I do like trees quite a bit and the wildlife out here on the Big Cypress Reservation is incredible (more on this later), my job at the museum involves object and textile conservation.  Conservation, in the most general terms, is the process of stabilizing artifacts through examination, documentation, and treatment of the artifact’s internal conditions (the chemical composition and physical structure) and external conditions (the museum environment and storage conditions). 

Most materials on earth will return to dust at some point.  It is my job as a conservator to slow this process down and preserve the original material of an artifact as it exists today.  Many factors, both natural and those created by humans, can cause an artifact to deteriorate.  Insect damage, pollution, accidents and extremes in light levels, temperature or humidity can accelerate deterioration.  The conservator must recognize these issues and minimize the effects that they have upon the collection within their care. 

The field of conservation is often associated with or confused with the practice of restoration, and I think it is important to point out the differences between the two.  Conservation is the act of preserving and stabilizing the original material of an artifact.  Restoration is the act of adding or subtracting elements of an artifact in order to make it look like it did at an earlier point in time.  The illusion of an earlier time may be enhanced by changing the surface quality of the artifact or adding additional elements to create a “whole” piece of art.  There are times when my conservation treatments involve elements of restoration, but this only occurs after lengths have been taken to stabilize, identify and separate the original components and conservation treatments never involve the destruction of original material.  As we have all learned from the various antique-themed television shows, restoration can commonly devalue an artifact.  Conservation on the other hand does not devalue a piece of art, because it is not damaging any of the original components of the artifact.  Often conservation can enhance the value of the artifact because it adds to the prolonged life of the piece.

I am excited to be able to use this blog to explain conservation treatments that are going on at our museum.  Visitors to the museum can see the conservation lab through the observation hallway on our boardwalk.  Sometimes we feel a bit like animals in a zoo on exhibition, but it is a great opportunity for our visitors to see the museum work that happens behind the scenes.  There is also a small exhibit in the observation hallway featuring tools and equipment that I often use in conservation treatments.  It was in this observation hallway my very first week of work here that I realized that our museum was not going to be like any museum I have worked in before.  As I was sitting at the table in front of the hallway I looked up to see a large bobcat trying to come in through the observation hallway exterior door.  The bobcat had been peacefully walking on the boardwalk through the swamp when the sound of visitors frightened him and he was trying to run away but had come up against the glass door.  As I watched he leaped off of the boardwalk onto an adjacent tree and jumped to the ground.  Since that point I have seen bears, bobcats, snakes, turtles, and other creatures out on the boardwalk.  In fact this morning we created a screen cover to help protect three small eggs of a pond turtle that were buried in front of the curatorial building.  Hopefully in 80 to 150 days they will hatch and we will have baby turtles here at the museum!
Turtle laying eggs
Turtle laying eggs outside of our Curatorial Building