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New Colonial Williamsburg lab unravels secrets of the 1700s

WILLIAMSBURG — No one who works for Colonial Williamsburg's vast and perpetually busy collections department signs up for the job because they think it will be easy.

Starting with nearly 70,000 examples of American and British fine, decorative and mechanical art, this world-famous cultural hoard also includes some 5,000 pieces of American folk art, more than 20 million archaeological artifacts and 15,000 architectural fragments — all of whose long-term survival depends upon professional care and feeding.

Throw in 528 buildings and the never-ending task of studying, monitoring and conserving a host of rare objects ranging from historic structures to 250-year-old garden seeds looks even more epic.

But with the opening of a new materials analysis lab, the relatively modest corps of several dozen conservators, technicians and volunteers who carry out the bulk of this work now has a small battery of advanced new scientific instruments that can help them do the job more smartly and quickly.

Overseen and operated by CW's first full-time materials analyst, these same devices are also opening new windows into the 18th-century world through their uncanny ability to unravel the physical secrets of many objects with an accuracy and speed that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

"The XRF is a great piece of equipment — completely point and shoot — and it will give you a lot of very accurate information about an object very quickly," CW director of conservation David Blanchfield says, describing a handheld instrument known as an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

"If you point it at a piece of metal — say a piece of silver — it will tell you exactly what it's made of in 30 seconds. And that's invaluable when you're deciding how to take care of an object."

Scientific bent

Outfitted with a suite of laboratory-grade cabinets furnished by Georgia-based LOC Scientific, the new materials center inside the Wallace Collection & Conservation Building looks more like something you'd see in a major hospital or industrial lab than in a cultural and historical institution.

It also represents the cutting edge of change in a field that has evolved rapidly over the past few decades from the job of restoration to conservation — and from an art to a science, Blanchfield said.

Three decades ago, Colonial Williamsburg operated only one conservation lab — and that was devoted to wood and furniture.

That number has grown to nine since the opening of the foundation's 75,000-square-foot Wallace collections complex in 1997, enabling conservators to add archaeological materials, musical instruments and mechanical arts, objects, paintings, paper, textiles and upholstery as well as preventive conservation to their mission of preserving an often irreplaceable cultural legacy.

Even before the facility was completed, the staff envisioned the need for a materials lab and lobbied for the allocation of a dedicated space that could be used for that purpose sometime in the future.

But not until recently did the foundation begin acquiring various pieces of equipment and conducting analyses of its own rather than contracting the work out to other sources.

"It's been a pretty dramatic change," says Ron Hurst, vice president for collections, conservation and museums, describing a shift that started with the acquisition of the XRF in 2007.

"Twenty years ago, you would have been talking about a room-size proposition and a cost of $1 million compared to something that today costs $50,000 and is about the size of a hair dryer."

Probing the past

Following that change in direction, it didn't take long to realize that the XRF and the sophisticated analytical instruments that followed in 2009 and late 2013 — largely through the generosity of California donors Clint and Mary Turner Gilliland — needed a dedicated specialist and lab space if they were to be employed to their fullest.

So this past January the foundation hired Kirsten Travers Moffitt — a graduate of the Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware Art Conservation Program — who had spent three years at Colonial Williamsburg studying and analyzing painted surfaces in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum's early-1800s Carolina Room as well as numerous Historic Area structures.

"This is one of the few institutions in the world where architectural paint analysis is a paramount goal," says Moffitt, whose prior conservation experience ranges from period wall papers and decorative painting to metals.

"And here it's not simply about analyzing the colors and finding out what they looked like but how they were used and what they meant in the 18th century. So it's very exciting."

Revealing secrets

Equipped with a state-of-the-art infrared micro-spectrometer, fluorescence microscope and microscope colorimeter as well as the XRF, Moffitt has already conducted numerous pigment analyses for the foundation's paper, archaeological materials and furniture labs as well as identifying metals and other materials for the objects conservator.

She's also performed paint analyses for the architectural research and architectural resources departments, using her instruments to not only view the paint layers in cross section but also identify their ages, ingredients and original colors.

Among the discoveries that resulted was the existence of an earlier color and simpler casework than was previously suspected inside the public rooms of the Geddy House on Duke of Gloucester Street.

"Previous studies had identified a kind of gray color on the trim. But I found evidence of a bright green, very expensive verdigris pigment that had been used only on the inner trim and the doors," Moffitt says.

"That told us that the trim had originally been simpler — and then added on to later — giving us a much better idea about the physical history of the space."

Other analyses have included various kinds of materials, residues and coatings, resulting in findings that have not only helped conservators, curators and other researchers better understand an object's composition and condition but also provided insights into its history and authenticity.

In one recent case, Moffitt's instruments helped untangle the mystery of an otherwise unidentifiable and undateable bottle repair that needed attention after starting to turn yellow.

"It was an 18th-century glass apothecary bottle with an old repair to the neck. But we couldn't figure out how old the repair was or how it was done," objects conservator Tina Gessler says.

"When the analysis told us it was epoxy, we were surprised — because it looked like it had repaired much earlier. But once we knew what it was we knew exactly what to do."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.

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