Restoring Damaged Artifacts | WBEZ
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Restoring Damaged Artifacts

Clean-up efforts in Texas continue to bring some since of normalcy to those displaced by Hurricane Ike. Many homes were destroyed and so were a handful of cultural intuitions in that state. A Chicago based company that specializes in rescuing and restoring artifacts is helping out in Texas.

April Hann works for The Chicago Conservation Center - one of the largest restoration companies in the country. She says her job as a conservator is to assess the damage and stabilize the piece and not to trick anyone into believing the object is in its original state. The work must be detectable and everything documented. Hann and her crew drove to the site a few days after Hurricane Ike hit. I reached her by phone for an update. She is in a climate controlled warehouse in Dallas, assessing the damage to a private furniture and art collection. The pieces were in a flooded first floor condo unit. She says the carpet held a lot water. Everything, sat soaking in flood water for two days.

HANN: The bottom legs of the furniture absorber the water so you have staining and tide lines. And there's a lot of humidity damage; so even though there's works of art and the paintings that were hanging on the walls. Most people would think that since they weren't touched by water they wouldn't be affected and they would be ok…but they were actually affected by all the humidity in the room. Once client had said well if I just opened all my windows and let it air out, I don't have to worry about mold. And I said well you're not in a stable climate and you know you still could have mold if the humidity is above sixty percent.

The Chicago Conservation Center is a light drenched workspace buzzing with activity yet as quiet as a library. Folks are busy trying to save the artifacts at hand. The work is slow and time consuming. If you don't have the patience removing lavers of grim or old paint may not be the job for you. Anne Kennedy-Haag was born into the business. She says that as much as she tried to fight it, especially in her teen years, both parents being convertors made it difficult to escape. We are standing in front of a piece damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

KENNEDY – HAAG: This particular frame is a gilded frame. And the base or bed for gilding is gesso which is bound by water based glue.

And scientifically speaking, water is the most universal solvent known.

KENNEDY – HAAG: The water washed away the glue and we lost almost all of the gilding in the lower portion of this frame. There is usually moving which has debris and this has an abrasive effect like a sandpaper or power washing. So additionally you'll have damages such as dents and abrasions. Joints usually come apart. The entire base of this frame we're not sure what it was because the joints failed and it washed away.

The conservation center is divided into a number of work stations. Large metal racks hold acid free mat boards used for framing. Some tools are a puzzlement others are familiar like the can of paint brushes stored on a shelf. I'm standing near a long blonde wooden. Two women are inspecting early ninetieth century military uniforms that belong to the National Czech – Slovak Museum and library in Cedar Rapids Iowa. The museum and it's artifacts were damaged in June, during Iowa's worst flooding in years. Chicago Conservation Center CEO Heather Becker

BECKER: When our staff first walked in it looked like a wave had moved through the first floor of the building. And everything in the collection was sort swooped up along the wall and covered in mud. It was hard to even tell what you were looking at.
Conservator Iola Gardener says that some pieces from the collection were washed out of the museum. Volunteers found items tangled in bushes and in trees. She says the damage has to be assessed immediately. Gardner uses the word triage to describe the procedure. She says when dealing with textiles, it's important to removes as much of the flood muck as soon as possible. She is inspecting a black woolen uniform jacket with gold buttons. It was hosed off on site and then transported to the conservation center. It's dry but there are still patches if dirt on the surface to deal with.

GARDNER: The surface cleaning will have to be done just manually, we can't immerse it. There are gentile brushing techniques. That will lift some of the dirt and we'll move as much as much as we can. De-ionized water is very good because it's kind of hungry water and it will help soak things out.

At any given moment, the center houses approximately 30,000 artifacts in need of restoration. One thousand of those artifacts came from the Iowa floods alone. Conservator Brian Kapernekas is working to restore a collection of works on paper belonging to the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center also in Cedar Rapids Iowa and damaged by the storm. He says when it comes to paper, the rescue plans sound so crazy they actually work.

KAPERNEKAS: By freezing the paper we're able to control the extent of how you are going to treat it once it's get's back to the lab or a more controlled situation.
FIELDS: Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. They froze it as it was or did they clean it off and then freeze it.
KAPERNEKAS: No, there's not time.
FIELDS: Just mud and everything else.
KAPERNEKAS: There's no time…there's not time. They need to freeze it immediately.

Kapernekas says the conditions in Iowa were such that mold could happen with hours. So the paper really needed to be frozen fast. Once they arrive in the center, the process of saving the paper takes another turn.

KAPERNEKAS: What we do is that we have to submerge the entire, in this case, flat file into water…fighting fire with fire basically. The damage has already caused at that level so we have to really address what's was going on.

Kapernekas says paper is very resilient. It likes to be rehydrated and water brings it back to life. So if handled properly it stands a good chance of being saved. One drawing is a pastel of a man with a huge head, tiny body and big feet. On it is written - "Matt says... It you think my neck bones are sweet…Honey dig the rest of me."  Unfortunately, there are times when no matter what you do some pieces can't be saved. Heather Becker says it's the role of the conservator to make some very hard calls. Sometimes it's their job to declare a cherished object beyond repair.

BECKER: Because the integrity of what the original artist or maker intended it to be, has been permanently altered to a significant degree. And that's a sad moment.

In light of the recent four day rain that flooded parts of Chicago; You may be tempted to drag that water logged dining room table out in the sun to dry, but if the wood cells have expanded you will do more harm than god. Or you might decide that your great grandmothers wedding dress is growing mold, beyond repair and toss it into the trash. The best thing to do is remove the items from immediate danger and do a little research before you decide to repair or discard anything you thought worth saving in the first place.

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