Posts Tagged ‘display’

Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should: The Case of Reversibility

March 23rd, 2015
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Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should: The Case of Reversibility

Stephanie Byrd

One of the key rules in the conservation of artifacts is that the work must be reversible. However just because something can be reversed does not mean it should be reversed or that the reversing process could actually damage the artifact. This becomes a judgment call for a conservator to determine if the process of reversing a past conservation effort will damage the artifact more than leaving it with its current treatment.

Resins and polymers are often used in the conservation of organic material to add structural integrity to the internal system of weakened artifacts. The question becomes can a resin or polymer be reversed without the internal system of an artifact collapsing on itself. This collapse may actually be part of the re-treatment process because the removal of the old resin or polymer must take place before the artifact is treated with the new resin or polymer. To understand the treatment process a person must appreciate that often organics such as bone, wood, and even types of paint (egg-temper base) will have microscopic holes throughout their structure as they deteriorate. As the organics decay the holes widen and the structure becomes weak. Resins or polymers can fill in the holes left from decay adding support. Often during the reversibility of treatments the solvents used can cause damage to an artifact. In some cases, these must first be applied to remove the old resin and polymer buildup so that new conservation methods can be used. One example is related to the treatment of a painting. Gelatin was injected under loose paint but this treatment is really not reversible as the paint would come off once a solvent was applied to remove the gelatin (Appelbaum 1987). In this example, it is clear that the gelatin used by conservators to help stabilize the painting would ultimately damage the painting. This becomes an ethical issue for conservators when considering if reversing a treatment with possible damage to an artifact outweighs the damage of leaving it in its current condition with old methods of stabilization.

Another example is related to the conservation of bone. This has its own issues not only for long-term preservation and for stabilization, but also because bone is used for forensic analysis (Johnson 1994). It is important that the conservator take this into consideration that any resin or polymer used on ancient bone has the potential of changing the results from any chemical analysis used by archaeologists. However, it is possible that the chemical analysis can still be done if the archaeologist is aware of the chemical makeup of the resin or polymer that is used in the conservation or stabilization of ancient bone.

Once a conservation method has been determined and used on an artifact for display, it is also important to remember the display environment can have an effect on the stabilization. In situations where humidity and temperature are not controlled properly, artifacts can retain moisture that can damage or break down the resins adding further damage to the artifacts (Sanford 1975). If an artifact does get wet from humidity and temperature fluctuations, biological growth can occur, adding further decay to an artifact. If this were to happen the artifacts would need to be retreated which might add to further damaging the structure of the item.

Conservators are faced with a tough job when it comes to finding the balance between artifact stabilization and treatment methods versus whether a treatment is truly reversible without further damaging the artifact itself. It might be in the artifacts best interest to not reverse a past treatment and risk the integrity of the structure if the past treatment is still stable. As new technologies become available, old treatments might become obsolete, however new techniques have not stood the test of time yet so their longevity is still questioned.


Appelbaum, Barbara. 1987. “Criteria For Treatment: Reversibility.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 26 (2: 1): 65-73.

Johnson, Jessica S. 1994. “Consolidation of Archaeological Bone: A Conservation Prespective.” Journal of Field Archaeology 21 (2).

Sanford, Elizabeth. 1975. “Conservation of Artifacts: A Question of Survival.”


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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

February 26th, 2015
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Patience is a virtue when Conservation is the goal: “The Ozette Village”

Lori Kay Gross

          As archaeologists we have all learned the delicate and deliberate methods of excavation, recovery and cataloging of artifacts. Time limitations, Mother Nature and funding often dictate the methods of excavation creating a dilemma between archaeologists and conservators.   The Ozette Village is an example where conservators and archaeologists worked as a team to preserve one of the most extensive collections of artifacts through careful excavation utilizing unusual yet appropriate methods to ensure maximum preservation in a challenging environment.

The Pacific Northwest is rich in archaeological discoveries. Among these discoveries is a particularly interesting archaeological site located on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This site, nestled on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, represents one of the most important North American archaeological sites. The significance of this site is demonstrated by the large number of artifacts recovered their unprecedented preservation and is often referred to as ‘A North American Pompeii’ (Steury 2008). This site is called ‘The Ozette Village’.

This Makah Indian fishing village, occupied from the Middle Pacific to the Early Modern time, was buried by a mud slide in the mid 1700’s, preserving the site and its artifacts nearly unaltered. In the late 1960’s, during a survey of the entire Pacific Coast of Washington, Ozette was identified as an important site by Richard D. Daugherty when he performed a test trench survey revealing radio carbon dating data correlating to approximately 2,000 years ago. He encountered well preserved artifacts which supported its significance but without funding the excavation did not continue. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s, after a series of storms battered the coast that large portions of this ancient village began to emerge (Kirk 2007). The exposure of well-preserved artifacts reignited the interest in saving this important archaeological find and with the support of the modern day Makah Indians and the Washington Archaeological Research Center excavation began (Steury 2008).

Geological evidence and historical records indicate that the most probable cause of the massive mud slide was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that dislodged a water saturated hill above the village. Although devastating, the composition of the soil contained large amounts of oxygen free clay combined with the water. Excavation findings confirm that these conditions created an up to 10-foot thick clay covering that aided in the preservation of the predominately wooden artifacts. Excavation would require the use of water to continue the careful exposure of the artifacts from the clay and for transportation and final conservation (Daugherty 1977).

Getting the delicate artifacts out of the slide in the first place provided the initial challenge. Most of the wet site was excavated hydraulically. The Ozette archaeologists pumped seawater at various pressures for different stages of excavation. Initial clearing was with high pressure. Once artifacts started to show, lower-pressure garden hoses were used to clean and remove the artifacts. At the end of a nearly eleven year excavation, the artifact inventory exceeded 50,000 items including wooden structural remains, harpoon shafts, hooks, canoe paddles, wooden bowls, whale bones, whetstones, woven baskets and mats (Daugherty 1977).



Whale Bone Club 2


Wood and Whale Bone Fishing Hook

 Photos courtesy of


Many of the artifacts recovered from Ozette are much the same as they were when they were buried. Once they’re exposed to oxygen, however, they begin to get brittle and disintegrate. So everything that came out of the excavation immediately went into a preservative bath of polyethylene glycol which forces the water out, solidifies it and begins the conservation process (Steury 2008).

In reviewing the process and procedures that Richard D. Daugherty followed from his first knowledge of the Ozette village in 1947 through the nearly 40 years of investigation, research and excavation his involvement reveals a very ethical and conscientious archaeologist. Even when faced with this exciting discovery Daugherty knew that disturbing the site before procuring the necessary support could result in artifact decomposition upon exposure.   Although it was certain that this location was rich in artifacts and history his complete evaluation of the site and advanced preparation to ensure the safe and effective recovery was inspiring.

As unique as the Ozette excavation was it also stands apart in that no artifacts from the site left the Makah reservation. Everything discovered is either displayed in the cultural center or stored in a state-of-the-art storage warehouse. The museum is expertly curated and the artifacts are mesmerizing. This is the result of Daugherty’s collaboration with the members of the Makah Nation and his belief that the excavation work should be accessible to the public to participate in the revealing of the collective history of the Ozette Village (Steury 2008).


Daugherty, Richard D. The Ozette Archaeological Expedition: A Cooperative Project of Makah Nation, Washington State University, National Park Service, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Washington (State): S.n., 1977-. Print.


Steury, Tim. “The Home of My Family: Ozette, the Makah’s and Doc Daugherty.” Washington State Magazine (2008): 1-8. Abstract. Print.


Kirk, Ruth, and Richard D. Daugherty. Archaeology in Washington. Seattle: University of Washington, 2007. Print.


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Warbirds, etc., Part II

February 26th, 2015
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Warbirds, etc., Part II

James Pruitt

            Last blog, I examined the case of two PB2Y Coronado aircraft, and their very different methods of preservation. Both belonged to the US Navy, and the handling of both was legal as defined by the SMCA. Although the restored Coronado at the National Naval Aviation Museum brought up questions about whether it is “right” to erase years of history by restoring an object to like-new condition, the decision to restore it was carefully considered and the restoration expertly completed, and can thus be described as ethical. This post, I will examine the cases of two B-29 Superfortress bombers, and where they fall in the ethical spectrum.

First, however, it is worthwhile discussing restoration as it applies to aircraft. Much like automobiles, restoration of aircraft (especially to flyable condition) is generally undertaken by mechanics as opposed to conservators. A quick internet search for aircraft restoration returns dozens of companies specializing in aircraft repair, maintenance, and restoration. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) website does not list any conservators with the specialty of “aircraft” (AIC 2015). This leaves the conservation and restoration of aircraft in a gray area—those people who work on aircraft do not seem to be registered with conservation-oriented professional societies (although likely registered with professional societies related to aircraft repair or engineering), and thus may not share the same ethical code we do. This situation is not universal; the United Kingdom-based Institute of Conservation (ICON) Conservation Register lists three companies In the UK that have “professionally qualified conservator-restorers” specializing in aircraft (ICON 2015).

Figure 1_FIFI

Figure 1. B-29 Superfortress FIFI.


            FIFI (Figure 1), the only flying Boeing B-29 Superfortress, is owned and operated by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF, formerly the Confederate Air Force) (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The US Air Force, and former Army Air Force, enforces the SMCA quite differently than the US Navy. The USAF declared, “aircraft that crashed before 19 November 1961, and that remain wholly or partially unrecovered, are considered formally abandoned. The AF neither maintains title to, nor has property interest in, these aircraft” (AFI 23-101 2013: 165). This means that groups like the CAF can legally recover or purchase former USAF aircraft. Is the restoration of them ethical, though? FIFI was recovered from the US Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, where it was being used as a missile target (CAF Airpower History Tour 2015). The restoration of this aircraft, and subsequent display through tours and flying shows, certainly brought greater exposure to this rare aircraft. Further, the airshows “allow you to honor the sacrifices of countless men and women who fought and died for our freedoms” (CAF Bombers 2014). This sounds like an honorable, and ethical, cause, and the CAF is chartered as a nonprofit organization (CAF Mission and History 2014). However, they also offer rides in their aircraft at airshows—for a price (ranging from $600 to $1600 for a ride in FIFI). This seems unethical. How can a NPO ethically charge that amount of money to experience something listed as an objective in their charter? Moreover, how is that ethically different than performing conservation work on the Mona Lisa (for which the Louvre Museum charges admission)?

Figure 2_KeeBirdBefore

Figure 2. Kee Bird before recovery efforts, in situ.


            While the case of “rescuing” and restoring FIFI raises ethical concerns about conserving objects that will be used later to raise money, the case of Kee Bird is very different. Kee Bird, another B-29 Superfortress, crash-landed on the Greenland icecap in 1947 after getting lost on a mission (Figure 2). Forgotten to time, a team of mechanics, test pilots, and adventurers set out in 1994 to repair the aircraft in situ to flying condition, fly it out, and later completely restore the plane for a client (PBS Nova 2015). They completely replaced the engines, propellers, and much of the electrical system, making the plane flyable. Then they crashed it (Figure 3). The efforts to recover and restore what would have been the second flyable B-29 in the world resulted in its complete destruction. Ethically, this was a disaster, made more poignant by the fact that it was made by adventurers and warbird hunters. Looking at it in perspective, though, brings up interesting questions. Artifacts are occasionally destroyed by accident on archaeological sites, and not through malice or malpractice by the archaeologists and conservators. Is this different, then? Can all artifacts be successfully recovered, 100% of the time? With great risk comes great reward, but when is the risk of recovering and restoring an artifact greater than the reward?

Ruins of Kee Bird

Figure 3. Kee Bird after recovery efforts.


            These two B-29s highlighted cases that were legal, yet unethical. As conservators, the use of restored items for profit, and the complete destruction of an object through recovery and restoration efforts, seem unacceptable. Are these cases different because those responsible for the restoration were not necessarily conservators but rather mechanics? Is it a difference in fields? Or are they obvious to us because the objects in question, aircraft, are normally outside of the purview of our work; perhaps using examples of artworks, or historical artifacts, would change our viewpoints?



American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

2015 AIC. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2014.


Commemorative Air Force

2014 CAF Bombers. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2014 CAF Mission and History. Accessed 4 February 2015.

2015 CAF Airpower History Tour.!history/c66t. Accessed 4 February 2015.


Institute of Conservation

2015 ICON Conservation Register. Find a Conservator. Accessed 3 February 2015.


PBS Nova

2015 B-29: Frozen in Time. Accessed 3 February 2015.


United States Air Force

2013 Air Force Instruction 23-101. Accessed 3 February 2014.


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What’s it Worth Part 2: Monetary Value

February 26th, 2015
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What’s it Worth Part 2: Monetary Value

William Fleming

In my last post, I breached the topic of the values placed on objects, and I introduced three main types: monetary, cultural, and personal. As part of a continuing series, I will present each of these values in more detail, and I’d like to begin this week with the monetary value.

When someone asks another person what an object is worth, more often than not they mean the monetary value of the object. While it is certainly true that every object can probably be assigned a monetary value, based on a number of defining factors (which are readily available online), most professional conservators and archaeologists will refuse to place a price tag on an artifact. To do so would be to doom one’s reputation among professional and amateur archaeologists (Hranicky 2014:6). On top of that, the Society for Historical Archaeology, one of the leading professional organizations for archaeologists, definitively states that it is unethical for archaeologists to establish any “commercial” value for archaeological artifacts, or to trade, sell, buy, or barter artifacts as commercial goods (SHA 2007). Any persons who do engage in such activities are appropriately deemed treasure hunters, and regrettably, any artifacts acquired illicitly by such outfits are essentially blacklisted (along with those who acquired them and anyone who attempts to help) from conservation. Despite the stigma, it is still important to understand the monetary value behind an object, as money is typically the driving force of society, and artifacts are the physical manifestation of any given society.

In general, the monetary value of an artifact will be highest immediately after its creation, and will decrease over time until it has outlived its usefulness. However, some artifacts reach a point at which their monetary value begins to increase once again. Generally, this takes several decades or generations, and depends upon several other factors as well. For example, older artifacts that are well preserved are considered to be worth more money, and collectors will be willing to pay greater sums to acquire them. Similarly, as the number of a certain type of artifact decreases over time, the rarity increases, and therefore the value does as well; an artifact can fetch a king’s ransom regardless of its condition if it’s the final known example, or a unique work, such as those of artists.

Fleming Blog 2 image

This one-of-a-kind 18th century Florentine ebony chest, known as the Badminton

Cabinet sold for $36 million in 2004, the most expensive piece of furniture ever auctioned.

Source: Time Magazine


Whether an artifact has a distinct price tag or not as far as being an artifact in and of itself is concerned, the monetary value of the artifact must also be considered for one other important reason: conservation. As unfortunate as the reality is, not every artifact can be conserved. Therefore, several criteria must go into the selection of worthy artifacts, and several agencies consider the most “expensive” items worth conserving over those which may hold more cultural or informational value (Appelbaum 1994:185-191). Not only that, but artifacts can sometimes only be acquired through purchase, and afterwards continue to cost money to the conservator due to the necessary routine maintenance. It is tempting, then, to consider it necessary to appraise an artifact so that its conservation worth can be assessed, however it is important to keep in mind that the artifact itself is not being appraised, but the time and effort of the conservator assigned to preserve the artifact.

Monetary value is typically the first and foremost thing that comes to mind when someone wants to know the value of an object, especially to the general public. Trained archaeologists, however, understand that there are more important values in artifacts, and will refrain from placing a price tag on any artifacts brought to them. Next time, I will look at the cultural value of artifacts and how that has an impact on their conservation.



Appelbaum, B. (1994). Criteria for treatment of collections housed in historic structures. In

Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 33(2):185-191.


Hranicky, J. (2014). North American Projectile Points . Bloomington, Indiana. AuthorHouse.

Society for Historical Archaeology. (2007). Ethics statement.


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Conservation Challenges for Museums: Tactile displays for the Visually Impaired Patron

February 26th, 2015
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Conservation Challenges for Museums: Tactile displays for the Visually Impaired Patron

Lori K. Gross


While visiting museums I’ve often wondered how it would be possible for persons with disabilities, specifically visually impaired individuals to have the same opportunity to ‘experience’ the artifacts that are displayed. For instance, at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute in Chicago they have elaborate collections of artifacts on display but they are encased in glass surrounded by velvet ropes or labeled ‘Do Not Touch’. For those of us that have the gift of sight these barriers are rarely questioned and it is understood, on some level, that the items displayed are rare, valuable or irreplaceable and their safe keeping is important to ensure that others can enjoy them as well. During my visits I have observed visually impaired patrons accompanied by another person who describes the displayed items, often in great detail, but I have to wonder – is that enough?

While researching this topic I found out I’m not alone. Museums have begun to recognize the need for a more interactive experience for visually impaired patrons. Tactile interactions are becoming more popular at museums in an effort to provide enriched opportunities to these individuals. One of these museums is The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that has incorporated a guided tour allowing blind patrons to touch a select group of ‘contemporary’ sculptures. Utilizing cotton gloves individuals can experience the art form ‘first hand’ feeling the fine details and recreating its shape in their mind (Plamondon 2014). After reading this article I was glad that there was some effort being made towards tactile displays but it seemed limited to those items that were easily recreated, identified as popular and held little diversity. No ancient artifacts were included, which led me to think – “Are conservators too conservative – is there another way?”

Basic conservation techniques of artifacts recognize that merely touching an artifact can begin a destructive process through the transfer of oils, salts, moisture, bacteria etc. from a human hand. These concerns must be addressed when the conversation turns to tactile displays with ‘ancient’ artifacts. Professional conservators understand that it is a far more complicated process to maintain the vast collections displayed in museums. Lighting, humidity, acidity and even bacteria can damage an object that appears to the lay person as ‘just sitting on a shelf’. Most patrons have no idea of the hours of conservation treatments, techniques and decisions required to merely display the artifact let alone the actual handling. However, if museums and conservators are dedicated to the education and enrichment of every individual then they must overcome these challenges.

The Penn Museum is also taking an important step to address the issue of how to provide vision impaired guests with meaningful experiences in museums, where touching the objects has been traditionally discouraged. The conservators and curators of the museum launched an initiative called the ‘Touch Tour’ a two hour guided and innovative approach to dealing with issues of vision and accessibility in the museum context. A program called Insights into Ancient Egypt” combines education and gallery tours where patrons are invited to explore replicas of smaller ancient Egyptian artifacts and enhance the experience with tactile diagrams and opportunities to smell some of the oils used in mummification: frankincense, myrrh, and cedar oil. The experience evokes a range of senses that are often neglected in museum experiences. In the gallery portion of the tour the patrons experience through touch, ancient artifacts that include Egyptian stone artifacts, including a seated statue of Ramesses II, the Goddess Sekhmet, and two sarcophagus lids.   To mitigate the impact on the artifacts, each participant utilizes hand sanitizers to remove dirt and oils (Alton 2015).


“Not many people, either sighted or visually impaired, would ever have the opportunity to place their hands where craftsmen’s hands toiled thousands of years ago” (Alton 2015).



Museum programs with interactive and tactile approaches will continue to bring new challenges to the professional conservator. However, if our goal is to educate, inspire and enrich the lives of the museum patrons, then it is a challenge that conservators must embrace.



Alton, Elizabeth. “Touch Tours: The Penn Museum Offers Hands On Programs for Blind Visitors”. Entertainment Designer, January 3, 2014.

Plamondon, Judith. “Hands on art for blind at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts”. London Free Press, January 11, 2015.

Image credits: Daily Herald,


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“What is eating the Titanic?”

February 11th, 2015
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“What is eating the Titanic?”

James Kinsella

The story of the RMS Titanic is one of the most fascinating yet tragic events of the 20th century.  The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sunk off the coast of Newfoundland after she struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912 during her maiden voyage.  She remained lost for the next seventy-four years until she was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard.  This was touted as one of the greatest maritime discoveries of all time.  The discovery of the Titanic also brought about quite a bit of controversy.  The controversy ranged from who owned the wreck, jurisdiction of different nations, and whether or not any part of the wreck should be salvaged.

After the discovery, Dr. Ballard and crew spent time meticulously documenting and recording the wreck.  Once they left they had agreed that this should be a protected site and that no artifact recovery should take place.  In the years following this would become a topic of great debate.  There are many like Dr. Ballard that agree this should be a protected site and that it should remain undisturbed.  They feel that it is a tomb of all that were lost.  Then there are several who feel that there should be a recovery effort on Titanic and the artifacts.  The reason behind this thought is that the ship is deteriorating at an alarming rate and the feel that undertaking a recovery effort will preserve this part of history.

As the development of iron and steam maritime archaeology have emerged so has new areas of research, particularly the development of corrosion science and the understanding of the disintegration process of iron shipwrecks (Green 2004).  With new research, the individuals who want to recover part of the wreck feel that time is running out.  This is due to the fact that the deterioration of Titanic is actually a destructive bacteria that is eating away at it.  There are some that speculate a rust stain is all that will remain of the Titanic in 15 to 20 years, according to new research into the submerged ocean liner wreck (News Discovery 2013).  According to this source the science behind the deterioration is the bacteria which was isolated from rust samples appears to be accelerating the Titanic’s deterioration.  The bacteria are eating the wreck’s metal and leaving behind “rusticles.” The rusticles look like icicles; however are just deposits of rust.  Sooner or later these rusticles will dissolve into a powdery substance leaving behind just a stain of rust.  This was bacteria was analyzed by samples taken from a 1991 expedition to the wreck.  The researchers proposed a name for the bacteria; Halomonas titanicae (Ventosa 1991).

One of the biggest parts of the debate on whether or not to recover parts of Titanic is that in addition to those that feel it is disturbing a gravesite, there are others that feel that people looking to recover wreckage are just looking into it for financial gain.  There has been considerable debate within the maritime archaeological circles over codes of ethics (Green 2004).  The debate centers on whether or not it is appropriate to excavate a site and then sell the collection.

I can respect that there are those who wish Titanic remain as an undisturbed grave site.  I agree with their motives and feel that the site should be left alone.  I do not think that any personal artifacts should be brought up.  This is a grave site and there could be human remains left down there.  On the flip side however, I feel that an effort should be made to recover portions of the ship itself.  I understand that this would be huge undertaking and possibly cost prohibitive but the fact is that in 25 years the wreck will be gone.  All that will be left is rust stain on the ocean floor.  I firmly believe that there is enough science and technology to successfully recover a portion of the wreck and properly conserve it for future generations to enjoy in a museum setting.



“Titanic Being Eaten by Destructive Bacteria: DNews.” DNews. February 11, 2013. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Sanchez-Porro, C., Kaur, B., Mann, H., and Ventosa, A. “Halomonas Titanicae Sp. Nov., a Halophilic Bacterium Isolated from the RMS Titanic.” IJSEM. January 8, 2010. Accessed February 4, 2015.

Green, J.  2004.  Maritime Archaeology: A Technical Handbook. 2nd ed.


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A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

February 11th, 2015
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A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

Kristi Brantley

           The role of a tombstone is complex. It is a final physical connection to surviving friends and family- a reminder of life and a representation of loss. An important artifact for the historian, the tombstone normally has identifying information inscribed on it.  It can tell us who, what, when or where and sometimes, why.  Its cultural value increases with age.  The use of tombstones to mark grave sites is beginning to diminish, creating urgency for deliberate conservation efforts.  Tombstones should be preserved, not only for the obvious information they provide, but also for their value as a material culture object.

There are primarily two types of cemeteries: perpetual and non-perpetual.  A perpetual cemetery is usually privately owned.  A portion of the money collected for a burial plot goes into a special account that accrues interest.  The interest is used to ensure that the grounds and grave markers will continually be maintained. A non-perpetual cemetery is owned by an individual family, a local municipality, a church, or an organization, such as state and national veteran cemeteries.  They rely on private funds, donations or tax funds to maintain the gravesites and landscape.

The tombstones in the cemeteries are usually made up from one of four kinds of stone: granite, marble, slate and sandstone.  These stones are in direct contact with the ground and absorb some water from the surrounding soil.  The porous nature of the stone allows air to circulate and evaporate the water.  One could say that the tombstone breathes (an eerie thought), as it allows air to pass through it. The nature of the tombstone sets the stage for natural deterioration.

Normal weather occurrences such as rain, snow, ice, or wind impact the stability and inscription details of the tombstone.  Vegetation growing around and on the stone often causes damage.  A common problem is the attachment of lichen, fungi, or algae to the stone. These trap moisture and secrete acids.  Often roots from ferns, ivy, and moss will grow into the stone (particularly on the north side of it), further destabilizing it.  In addition, shifts in the ground from erosion can have a substantial impact on the degeneration of the stone.

There are man-made causes of tombstone deterioration as well.  Erosion problems as a result of poor landscaping can cause a tombstone to fall over or break at the base.  Pollution found in rainwater (i.e. acid rain) can do significant damage to the stone.  Actions such as recording the epitaph through crayon, pencil, or wax rubbings can eventually destroy the stone.  The practice of rubbings has been banned in some states and many others are now requiring a permit. Stones can erode internally, while the outside hardens because of environmental exposure thus giving the impression of a sturdy gravestone. The pressure applied during a rubbing can cause the stone to implode.  Cleaning attempts can also create a dangerous environment for the tombstone.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone using bleach to clean and enhance the stone.  The salt from the bleach is hazardous to the stone and wears away details.




Inappropriate cleaning techniques:  A power washer was used to clean this tombstone.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.

Notice the reduction in detail in the after photo.



There are a few companies that clean gravestones, but it is a job primarily done by ancestors of the deceased.  It is important to use proper techniques when cleaning a tombstone.  Never use household cleaning supplies to clean a tombstone.  The safest way to clean a gravestone is to keep a constant flow of water over the spot to be cleaned, using a hose, and gently scrub the stone with a soft bristle brush. If one has access to it, a D/2 Biological solution can be used.  It can be a time consuming task, but is eventually effective and safe for the preservation of the stone.




Appropriate cleaning techniques:  Notice the improvement in the tombstone after it had been gently cleaned with a soft bristle brush and water.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.





During the 1970s, many cemeteries, especially perpetual cemeteries, began moving away from using upright tombstones as grave markers and instead began using flat, bronze plates.  These ground-level plates granted more accessibility for grave digging equipment and allowed maintenance upkeep such as grass cutting to be easier and more cost efficient.  As cemetery spaces decrease and maintenance costs increase, the use of tombstones to mark graves will continue to diminish.  It is essential that the public be educated on gravestone conservation techniques and begin employing them because, eventually, tombstones may be a thing of the past.



Photo by Kristi Brantley.




Melton Caison, Jr. Location Manager of Johnson Funeral Home; Operation Manager of Rocky Mount Memorial Park, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Eddie Finch, Funeral Assistant, Johnson Funeral Home, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 20, 2015.

Chris May, Funeral Service licensee, operation manager Cornerstone Funeral Home, Nashville, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Chicora Foundation, Incorporated. 2008.

Conneticut Gravestone Network. 2012.

Odgers, David. Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments. 2011.  Digital.




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Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

February 4th, 2015

Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

Chelsea Head

            Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau played a large role in the Final Solution implemented by the Third Reich during World War II. Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in the south of Poland, and was built in the year 1940. With the end of the war in 1945, the Nazis tried to destroy everything that would link them to the horrors of the Second World War, including burning records and buildings in the camps. Despite their destruction, a large portion of the camp is left today, but with over 1 million visitors a year, there has been a considerable amount of damage and decay to the remaining structures[1]. The site has been maintained by the Polish Government as a museum and memorial since 1947, with large efforts to conserve and preserve the site[2].

One of the problems with Auschwitz is that it was never meant to last this long. Yes, the Nazi regime believed that the Third Reich would be long-lasting, but the concentration camps were never meant to last the supposed entire Nazi reign. Concentration camps were vital to the Nazis’ Final Solution and Hitler’s Aryan regime, but they were not built to last.  The type of materials that were used to build Auschwitz are difficult to conserve and preserve for future generations. With the amount of visitors each year, it is demanding to keep up with the amount of decay and deterioration throughout the site. The camp is a large and demanding conservation effort with, “The Auschwitz camp itself covers 50 acres and comprises 46 historical buildings, including two-story red brick barracks, a kitchen, a crematorium and several brick and concrete administration buildings. In addition, Birkenau, a satellite camp about two miles away, sprawls over more than 400 acres and has 30 low-slung brick barracks and 20 wooden structures, railroad tracks and the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria. In total [the staff] monitor 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two sites”.[3]

The amount of Holocaust and Auschwitz survivors is rapidly dwindling, which makes the preservation of the camp a priority of the museum, to preserve the history for younger generations who know nothing of the Holocaust. With the amount of work and money involved in the conservation of the camp, there have been some comments on whether Auschwitz should be left to deteriorate. Architect Eric Kahn believes that the camp should be memorialized in a way that doesn’t continue to rapidly deteriorate the camp, but still brings focus to the event and tragedy that occurred there.[4] By letting Birkenau disintegrate naturally, visitors will have to find new ways to tackle the topic of the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz without seeing the remains of the camp. But, many survivors believe that Auschwitz-Birkenau should continue to be preserved for future generations. Survivors faced many unthinkable horrors in Auschwitz, and the world needs to remember the camp and the tragedy.

The conservators at Auschwitz-Birkenau work on the many buildings and remains of the camp, as well as the substantial amount of objects in the site’s museum, such as shoes, suitcases, kitchenware, eyeglasses, clothing, art, human remains (hair, teeth, etc.), and records.[5] The conservation effort at Auschwitz is one of the largest in the world, with many conservators working to preserve the camp and artifacts. I believe that preserving the camp is the only viable option for the future of Holocaust memorialization. It will take a considerable amount of work, and money, but it is doable with the right type of people and conservation efforts. The memory of the Holocaust needs to be kept alive at Auschwitz-Birkenau for future generations.

[1]  Ryan E. Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz,” Jewish Journal. 30 January 2013. Accessed 19 January 2015. http://  

[2] Andrew Curry, “Can Auschwitz be Saved?” Smithsonian Magazine. Feb. 2010. Accessed 19 Jan. 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz”.

[5] “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed January 19, 2015.

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Inside Tips from Museum Professionals

October 23rd, 2014

One of the most valuable courses that ECU offers is HIST5920 Techniques of Museum and Historic Site Development. The class includes readings and discussions in museum theory, as well as, several field trips to a variety of museums and organizations. The field trips are often the best environment to see how our theoretical discussions are applied…the “real world” of museums.

This year we have been touring the Department of Cultural Resources/ State Historic Preservation Office (Eastern Branch), Greenville Museum of Art, Tryon Palace, Bentonville Battlefield, Tobacco Farm Life Museum, NC Museum of Art, The Mariners’ Museum (VA), Colonial Williamsburg (VA), Jamestown (VA), and Yorktown (VA). Museum professionals have given us a variety of tips so we thought we would share them here!

What are the #1 skills/experiences that museum professionals should have?

  • Project management: The ability to manage multiple projects and budgets at the same time.
  • Ability to communicate with a variety of levels: Everything from school groups to board members to politicians.
  • Writing skills: Grant writing is increasingly more important.


Since grant writing has featured so prominently in our discussions with museum professionals, we asked for three tips for those who are starting from scratch. They are:

  1. Read the guidelines carefully and make sure that our project is compatible with the type of projects they fund!
  2. Contact the granting agency early and often!
  3. Keep your project descriptions and goals concise, but general. Don’t restrict your project so much that you can’t be flexible in getting what the project needs (within the limits of the grant).

We also asked an exhibit designer that we spoke to, what his top three tips were for museum professionals that have to design exhibits with no formal training. His top three tips are:

  1. Really know your content. Know the subject matter and truly understand what the exhibit is about and the overall message.
  2. Really know your visitors! Too much text causes fatigue and too many artworks or objects can be overwhelming. Provide areas to sit and reflect.
  3. Color and lighting are the two most important features to an exhibit. Consider these carefully!


Nothing beats first hand experience and as we are reminded by Dr. Tilley, Director of the ECU Public History program:

“Any experience is better than no experience!”

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What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price


Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits




References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

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Tips on Exhibition Design

December 28th, 2013

On a recent tour to the North Carolina Museum of Art, we were able to meet with some of the “behind-the-scenes” staff including conservators and the exhibition designers. In North Carolina, we have  a large amount of small museums with small staffs that have to fulfill numerous roles including exhibit design, but many times staff don’t have prior training in this area. We asked what the top four tips are when designing a new exhibit! They are:

1) create connections w/ vendors

2) everything you purchase should be an investment that you can reuse

3) everything is a learning experience

4) you always need a scope, schedule, and budget for a successful project


Excellent words of advice! What are some of your tips? Other good advice we received was that teamwork in project management is a major part of museum work. So taking courses on project management and teamwork will help you in any workplace. Also consider the type of museum you are working with. Art museums are all about the visual, history museums are about the experience and science museums are about the process.

Additional Resources:


Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , ,

A Fine Balance: Presenting Conservation to the Public

February 6th, 2013

A Fine Balance: Presenting Conservation to the Public

Stephanie Croatt


            In the conservation field’s struggle to become more visible and better understood by the general public, there exist some difficulties in how to present the profession to the layperson. It seems that museums may be the key to this dilemma. Museums are often viewed as places for learning and offer the perfect venue for seeing the end results of conservation. Examples of museums that have made attempts to give visitors a glimpse of how conservators stabilize and prepare objects for display and how the museum environment is specially designed and maintained to ensure the objects’ well-being include:



The discussions of conservation in each of the museums above exhibit a variety of methods of attracting the public’s attention and eliciting thought about conservation. It seems that the three most effective devices by which museums can present conservation to the public are making the information accessible to the viewer, offering concrete and hands-on examples, and cutting romantic stereotypes of the field.


            That conservation is a very technical field with its own extensive set of jargon is undeniable, and presenting the key concepts and techniques to the layperson in an intelligible way is a sizeable task. Nonetheless, museums should strive to unpack the language and ideas for the average person. Adding layers of information that go from simple to more complex might be a good way of adding detail and complexity for viewers who want more information or detail about a certain idea or technique. Having trained “facilitators” that can discuss elements of the exhibit in more detail or give out bibliographies for further research might also be an effective way of deepening the subject for those that are interested and not overwhelming those who are not interested in more detail (Podany and Maish 1993, 102).


            In addition to making the ideas easy to understand, having concrete examples and hands-on activities may help to reinforce the main message of a certain part of the exhibit, as well as engage visitors who are otherwise not attracted to reading. In their exhibition, entitled Preserving the Past, Jerry Podany and Susan Lansing Maish included interactive opportunities for visitors. One such hands-on activity invited visitors to reassemble broken pottery sherds and then identify the vessel from a chart of Greek vessel shapes (Podany and Maish 1993, 104). Such interactive opportunities allow the public to experience some of the techniques used in conservation, and may excite the interest of more visitors.


            Hands-on opportunities that allow the viewer to follow the step by step procedure to conserving artifacts may also work to dispel unrealistic and romantic perceptions of conservation. Indeed, simplifying language for the layperson sometimes leads the exhibit creator to draw analogies between the conservator and the noble doctor, or present before and after photographs that may give the public a false notion about the realities of conservation (Podany and Maish 1993, 105). While sometimes attractive, the romantic view of conservation tends to lead the public to think that the conservator’s job is to swoop in and permanently save objects from certain deterioration. This perception tends to lead discourse away from the sometimes mundane reality of the field and the ideas of reversibility and minimal intervention, which are the main tenets of conservation.  


            Although it may seem that any public education about conservation is good, there are certainly pitfalls that can lead the public to misunderstand the field. Pitfalls may be avoided by making information accessible to the visitor, offering hands-on activities, and by dispensing of romantic notions of conservation. While these extra steps may increase the expense of creating and running exhibitions focusing on conservation, it is well worth the cost because a public that is better informed about the importance and realities of conservation is a public that is better prepared and more willing to fund conservation projects in the future.




Podany, J.C. and S.L. Maish. 1993. Can the Complex Be Made Simple? Informing the Public about Conservation through Museum Exhibits. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 32(2): 101-108.

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Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

January 30th, 2013

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

Chelsea Freeland

             Christopher Caple briefly discusses the inclusion of Nazi war memorabilia in his book, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making.  He uses the notion as an example of the dangers of using the past as propaganda, asking if the artifacts “celebrate their views or remind of the dangers of a totalitarian regime” (20). 

             When I visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, I was struck by the images of Nazi propaganda throughout the World War II hall: not because I felt they didn’t belong there, but because I had never seen anything like them before.  As a war museum, rather than a history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches has less of responsibility to the overall history of Austria and Vienna, instead focusing on the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars.  In this context, Nazi propaganda greatly explains how and why Austria came under German rule early in the conflict, making it an integral part of Austrian war history.

             What about other places in Europe, or even across the world?  Is it important to include Nazi propaganda in a museum of a country that did not experience the Holocaust, or does it detract valuable time and energy away from a more tragic chapter in world history?  Caple asks two questions in his book:

  1. Should they [Nazi artifacts] be collected and preserved as a record of the period and what happened at that time?
  2. Should they be displayed and brought to the attention of people? (2003: 20)

These are difficult questions, particularly for museums in Europe.  Coming from a background in history, I would argue that collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, regardless of their sensitive nature, is an important job of museums in general.  Whether or not they place those artifacts on display, is another question entirely.

            For countries in Europe, particularly those directly affected by Nazi occupation, these artifacts are a part of their country’s heritage.  They form an integral part of the story of World War II that many people forget, or choose to ignore, giving precedence instead to the tragedy of the Holocaust.  An interesting point to make is that Nazi artifacts and memorabilia are part of the story of the Holocaust as well. 

            For me, the jury is still out on what priority these artifacts should have in a museum.  Should museums withhold limited resources from these types of sensitive artifacts, simply because of their nature?  How do curators decide what percentage of their museum to use for these artifacts?   Are they less important to display because they represent a chapter in history the world would like to forget?  Genocide memorials and exhibits across the world speak to this last question.

            As a world traveler, I remember being shocked that the first, and last, place I saw that much Nazi memorabilia was in Austria.  There were posters, plaques, journals, clothing, and pamphlets: all painstakingly preserved to show part of the story.  I will tell you that they made a huge impact on how I viewed the German conquest of Austria and the subsequent events of World War II.  I believe that is the goal of the museum: to expose the public to things they have never seen or thought about before, and in doing so, give them a broader historical experience.


Caple, C, 2003, Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.


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