Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons, with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join Catherine Cooper as she speaks with Ingrid Neuman, the objects conservator at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, commonly referred to as the RISD Museum. In this podcast, they talk about Ingrid’s work on the upcoming Gorham Silver Exhibit at the RISD Museum, and her strategy to handle this large scale project at a small museum.
Catherine Cooper: Hello, this is Catherine Cooper. I’m here at the RISD Museum with Ingrid Neuman. So Ingrid, could you tell me a bit about the work you do here at RISD?
Ingrid Neuman: I’m the sculpture conservator here at the RISD Museum. We have a collection of about 110,000 artworks. It’s an encyclopedic collection, so it goes all the way back to the times of the ancient Egyptians and up to contemporary. We collect a lot of contemporary artists.
I’ve been here for 11 years. I’m really only the second sculpture conservator we’ve had at the RISD Museum. I’m the first full time sculpture conservator, so there’s a lot of backlog to take care of. I rely heavily on the student population who, both from Brown University and from Rhode Island School of Design, who are very interested in learning more about what it’s like to work in a museum.
As a sculpture conservator, I’m responsible for not only obviously sculpture, but three-dimensional, you know frames, for instance, wooden frames, gilded frames. I’m somewhat responsible for furniture that is also considered three-dimensional of course, but it really is a separate specialty unto itself. I would say about half of my time or so is spent on upkeep. And then the other half is spent on exhibitions. We have a pretty rigorous exhibition schedule.
Since April, 2016 I’ve been working on an exhibition called Gorham Silver Designing Brilliance 1850 to 1970. When we embarked on this particular exhibition, I thought it was going to be pretty reflective of most other exhibitions we work on where we start about a year, well, six months to a year in advance with a checklist from the curator. And then we survey the material that the curator would like to exhibit and then we start conserving it. We start preserving it, stabilizing it, condition reporting, cleaning it, repairing it, you know, preparing it for exhibition. But in this case, I soon realized that this exhibition was really unique in the history of the RISD museum and that the curator was going to select 1200 pieces of Gorham Silver out of our collection of 2200, so a little bit over half.
It’s the largest exhibition we’ve ever put on. We’re using so many. The sheer number of silver articles that we’re planning to present, the 1200, and that pretty much all of the silver was going to require some intensive cleaning, because it hadn’t been exhibited that much in the past. We do have a small silver gallery at the RISD Museum in the Pendleton House, the historic House that we have attached to our museum, but maybe there’s 30 or 40 pieces exhibited there.
I could only possibly complete one piece a day and that I wasn’t probably going to make my deadline if it were to be just me at a table sitting by myself. Plus it seemed like a really wonderful educational opportunity because we’re surrounded by colleges. Many students call me, email me, want to get involved in the museum. They don’t know how. There are many kinds of activities in conservation that would be too advanced for someone new who is interested in conservation.
So silver cleaning seem to be perfect. So basically, there are many ways that I was able to arrange to have several students help. Of course there was word of mouth, there was emailing, but some of the students for instance, at Brown University, used their Facebook accounts within their departments and so forth to reach out to like-minded students.
For instance, in the Archeology Department at Brown. I’d like to give a shout out to the archeology students at Brown who really came down the hill to the museum en masse to help us. They were particularly wonderful silver volunteers, because of their attention to detail, because they’re archeology students and they’re used to that level of detail. Not every student, for instance, would have the attention span, to be perfectly honest, for doing very detailed cleaning of silver and all the crevices and so forth. So they were a particularly wonderful population to work with.
Catherine Cooper: Overall, how many volunteers did you have on this project?
Ingrid Neuman: Well, it was interesting. It started out with probably 10 or so students and then when each individual had a roommate or a friend at their college, this kind of thing, we ended up with exactly 90 volunteers. A few of them were staff members in that 90, but the majority of them came from, you know Roger Williams University, Rhode Island Community College, Brown University, definitely. And early on there were some RISD students as well and RISD professors.
It was very exciting to have so many people that were also excited about working on the exhibit. As you know from your experience, silver cleaning can be somewhat repetitious and it’s not for everyone. It involves a lot of manual dexterity and manual repetition. It’s also very bright and shiny and it can affect your eyes, for instance.
But we didn’t have all 90 people, of course in, you know, one room all together, all the time. The way I structured it was in general, the volunteers would come in the morning and I would say typically we would have five to eight volunteers at a table. We would all sit at a long table together. So we would be comparing notes and everyone would have a spoon to work on, or small tureen, or a Yoyo, or a fish fork, or something like that. There were different, very unusual, some very unusual pieces. And we would talk about the issues and we would kind of work together. In fact sometimes with some of the larger pieces, like the epergne and the larger compotes that had multiple pieces, we would pass them around and we would work on them collectively, because often it was really almost too much for one individual. And so we would collectively work on them. And we used materials that were quite foolproof in the sense that you couldn’t go too far with the conservation materials that we were using.
Catherine Cooper: So that was one of the ethical considerations on bringing in so many people who aren’t necessarily trained in the profession yet, to protect the objects?
Ingrid Neuman: Yes. You know, I’m aware that as a conservator, in general, we do not employ a lot of volunteers to do actual hands on conservation work because there are so many ethical concerns in terms of knowing how far to go in the cleaning. When to stop, when to ask questions. But I felt that if I arrange the group so that we were all on one table together, we were all sharing our concerns and we had a lot of very strong light sources and we could talk about the issues together, it was more of an educational experience.
Some people were actually silver makers. They were students of jewelry and they knew a lot about how the pieces were actually made and they would educate everyone, and it was a wonderful experience. There were a few silver collectors, who also had pieces at home. I remember one day when we were working on a Gorham silver yoyo, and one of the older gentlemen who were helping us actually had a similar Gorham yoyo at home. So he had taken a real interest in the collection because he was a collector himself.
This project was very large, unusually large. I wanted to start as soon as possible. So we started the preparation for the conservation of the silver in April, 2016. And in fact, we’re still performing conservation on the silver works of art at this point. And it is, you know, now, December, 2018. We had to continue a momentum for a long period of time. And that was tricky. You didn’t want your volunteers to just disappear. A handful of volunteers decided it wasn’t for them. And that was totally fine. But there was really a hardcore group who expressed interest, came regularly. In fact, I was so excited by a core group of very diverse young people who took an interest in this project that we made a short film, which featured four or five of the students from different departments. Because I wanted to highlight the fact that it wasn’t one typical type of person that took a fancy to this project. And they spoke about what they got out of it. And you can see this very short film on the RISD Museum website.
Catherine Cooper: So one of the things that I remember from when we were cleaning was there were coatings on these objects as well.
Ingrid Neuman: So when these functional silver Gorham pieces were in use at people’s homes, they didn’t coat them. They would use them, they would put their string beans in the dishes. They would eat with the fork, they would play with the yoyo. Honestly, the hand oils probably from playing with the yoyo would keep the silver very shiny. Just like when you wear silver jewelry and if you handle it you’re actually kind of self polishing it with your hands.
But what happened was a lot of the Gorham silver that we own was, prior to our accessioning it, it was owned by a large corporation that bought out Gorham, called Textron. And for obvious reasons they wanted to coat the silver so it wouldn’t tarnish and they could display it in various showrooms for promotional reasons. And so the typical coating that was applied and still applied today in many, many museums, is called cellulose nitrate. And it is a coating that is wonderful in the sense that it levels really beautifully when you apply it by brush or by spray gun. It levels so that it’s not uneven and it fills in all the nooks and crannies of the silver and it can look beautiful for a long time and it also keeps the silver from being tarnished, so you don’t have to polish it. So it’s a wonderful, that’s a wonderful feature.
But what happens is, fast forward 30 years, 40 years, it’s a natural product, cellulose nitrate, so it turns yellow. It discolors, because it’s natural. And all of a sudden the silver, especially, it’s more obvious on the silver than the gold, because it turns yellow. So the silver has a very odd coloration. It shifts it to being a warmer silver than a cooler silver. Originally, the coating is clear, then it becomes yellow. So there’s a color shift.
So that’s why we want to get it off because it’s not really representing the silver in its original format. The gold on the other hand isn’t typically coated because it is gold. But in this case, we did find coatings on the gold and they were very yellow, so we took them off, which involved using acetone. Fortunately, it’s very easy to take it off, but it’s very tedious and it’s very obvious when it’s on there because you use a cotton swab, like a q-tip, use some acetone, the q-tip turns yellow. You know there’s a coating. I would say about maybe a third to a half of the pieces that we cleaned were coated. So more of the silver pieces were coated, not so many of the gilded or vermeil pieces were coated.
Catherine Cooper: With so many objects that we have been cleaned with such care, how are you going to transport it when this exhibit travels? Because that’s another big part of this exhibit is it’s not just going to stay at the RISD museum. It will go elsewhere. Yes?
Ingrid Neuman: Yes. So very often exhibitions stay at their home institution. In this case, our venue, the RISD Museum, will have the Gorham Exhibition from May 3rd until December 1st, 2019. But then it’s actually going to travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, from March 3rd through June 7th, 2020. And then to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina from July 25th to November 1st, 2020. And then it will come back to our museum about December 2020. It will be on the road for about a year. And in preparation for that, we’ve had to think seriously about how to keep the silver from tarnishing, because as we spoke about earlier, we removed a discolored coating that was on the surface, but we didn’t re-coat the silver because we frankly didn’t have the equipment to do that kind of thing.
Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put a coating back on and have someone have to remove it again in 30 years or those kinds of issues to consider. So in this case we went with the more passive technique, it’s called. An active technique would have been to coat the silver directly, but a passive conservation technique is to protect the silver. So in this case we’re using a specially formulated polymer sheet film that has copper particles in it and the copper particles embedded in a polyethylene matrix actually serves as a sacrificial component. The pollutants will react with the copper particles in that film that’s surrounding the silver and will not actually infiltrate into the bag in which the silver is placed. So we’re hoping that we’ll have really limited tarnish. We might have small amount. After all, the silver will be exhibited in cases that will have charcoal also embedded in it.
Charcoal is a wonderful adsorbent for chemicals. Charcoal is very porous and so there’s thousands of little pores that can adsorb chemicals. And so by putting charcoal paper, it’s literally paper that’s embedded with charcoal, into these exhibit cases, we can also maintain a more or less tarnish free environment for the silver.
These particular exhibit cases that are being created for us, some of them will be historic in nature. They will appear to be historic, even though they’re newly made. And they’re going to travel in at least one or two tractor trailer trucks. And then the silver, which will be crated for reasons of security, because also silver is soft as I mentioned—it can easily be scratched or dented. So very wonderful crates will be made and we will have at least four tractor trailer trucks, perhaps more. We’re working on using computer diagrams to calculate how to fit. It’s like a big puzzle, how to fit all the crates and all the exhibit cases into these various trucks. And we will tour the exhibit that way.
We begin the installation in three months on March 27th. Basically what’s involved here is that now that we’ve prepared all of the silver for exhibition and we’ve protected it from tarnishing and so forth, the installation crew, which is comprised of about five individuals, will be installing the exhibition for a bit over a month before it becomes available to the public.
Catherine Cooper: Will the parts as they go in be sort of on view or just everything happens in a back room and then the doors will open?
Ingrid Neuman: Yes, pretty much like that. There’s two rooms. The exhibition is going to be in the newest portion of our museum. Our museum was built originally in 1877 and since that time we’ve had four other appendages built onto the museum.
The most recent edition was built in 2008 and it’s more of a modern edition and it has very large rooms. Two of the large rooms in the modern edition will be the area where this Gorham Exhibit will be. It will take a good month to create the walls. We’ve pre-ordered exhibition cases. In fact, some of the exhibition cases will be an imitation or a reflection of the 1901 World’s Fair, in which Gorham was very much represented. And so there’ll be some historic references looking back to the past and the material will all be on view at once and the public will not be able to see it until it’s completely installed.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to the first podcast on preparing the Gorham Silver Exhibit at the RISD Museum. Please join us again next time for the second half of Catherine Cooper’s conversation with Ingrid Neuman as they discuss the history of Gorham Silver in Rhode Island, and why the RISD Museum decided to mount this particular exhibition.