“Conservation: the restoration and preservation of works of art”

Objects are our physical connects to the past. They continue to tell stories long after the people who have interacted with them are gone, and can help shape fragmented histories. The valuable experiences of learning through objects[1] is why museums strive to keep their collections safe and on display for the public- present and future.

A major part of the work by the Curatorial & Collections Department is to be caretakers of the objects in the Montpelier Collections.  Safeguarding a variety of materials from 19th-century shoes to 18th-century books is a continuous challenge, as each year the artifacts become older and thus more fragile. Preventative conservation plays a significant role in our day-to-day responsibilities – everything from monitoring the light levels coming in, to the routine dusting and cleaning we do to keep dust and dirt off the objects that are on open display. However, sometimes due to various circumstances, objects experience deterioration in a way that needs professional help  – this is where conservation comes in.

What is conservation?

Conservation is the prevention of injury, decay, waste or loss by deploying interventive, hands-on work.  There are two broad categories of interventive treatments: stabilization and restoration. Within these two broad categories, methods and treatments greatly vary, depending on the material the object is made of.  What it takes to conserve a marble statue is much different from a photograph, a bronze statue, or a mirror. You can explore the number of conservation departments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for examples of different methods.

Developing technologies have also provided conservators with new options, previously unavailable to former collections caretakers. In this way, conservation also varies throughout time and history. With the ongoing development of new technologies and reevaluations of methods, a central tenant to any conservation treatment is the aim to be as close to 100% reversible as viable. In this way, if a new or better method becomes available, or if the process used proves to be damaging to the object, the methods can be undone. [2] Although the steps used to conserve an object may have changed, the intention has remained the same: to prevent injury or loss of an object to ensure its continued benefit to posterity.

What does it do?

Conservation technologies help objects “live” longer. Through conservation, a cracked marble statue or ripped canvas can continue to tell its story to people and help bring history to the present. Many objects found in museums were not intended to withstand the test of time. They are everyday pieces, used by people, and that is the important story they tell. In addition to the wear and tear of daily use, environmental factors and the passing of time adds stress to the object. Conservation can add strength to an object’s structure, allowing it to be available to the public, for longer. This increases the number of people able to learn through that object’s history. Broadly speaking, conservation has two main interventive treatments: stabilization and restoration.[3] Stabilization aims to increase the stability or durability of an object by employing methods that will maintain the integrity and original material of an object. Restoration refers to treatments that aim to attempt to bring an object back as close as possible to its original appearance, or to its appearance at a particular time period, by removing subsequent additions or by replacing missing elements. Restoration efforts often aim to visibly identify and isolate where possible the new, non-original materials so that later in the objects life the new materials could be removed if deemed necessary. Regardless of whether the conservation treatment involves stabilization or restoration, the entire process is first discussed between the conservator and the curatorial and collections staff resulting in an agreed-upon treatment plan. Once the treatment is completed, the conservator provides a final report that details everything done. The treatment report is kept with the object’s file to be referenced in the future.

What needs conservation?

Conservation needs are determined on a case-by-case basis. It depends on a realm of factors such as stability, accessibility, materials, available technologies, funding, and many others. Conservation also varies deeply on the materials of which the object is composed.

The whippet dog statues before conservation, NT2015.8.671-672.

Here at Montpelier, we recently had two cast iron whippet dog statues conserved. The pair of dogs were a part of the décor of Montpelier when Marion DuPont Scott owned and lived on the property. The dogs date to the 20th century and are a part of the National Trust Collection here at Montpelier and had previously been displayed outside on the colonnade, at the back of the Mansion. Footage from Former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1998 visit to Montpelier shows one of the whippets seated at her side.

Hilary Clinton during a 1998 visit to Montpelier. One of the two whippet statues can be seen on the right. 

We don’t know for certain how long the whippets were kept outside on the colonnade but we do know they were eventually moved into storage and then back outside to Bassett House, a building on the property. Bassett House was named for Carroll K. Bassett, one of Marion’s jockeys who, with her famed horse Battleship, won the U.S. Grand National and two National Steeplechase Hunt Cups.[4] There, the dog statues remained outside and thusly exposed to the elements from 2010-2018.

Visible deterioration of the exposed statues.   

During a 2017 assessment, it was determined that the statues’ exposure to the elements had greatly affected their stability. The change in the condition seen through comparative photographs from 2010 and 2017 clearly shows the rapid deterioration of the cast iron dogs.

Conservation at work

In collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it was determined that in the case of these specific objects, conservation along the lines of restoration was a viable option.  An industry professional with over 40 years of experience was chosen to conserve this pair of statues. A new mount was installed to re-attach one of the whippets’ heads, that had been detached. The flaking, outer layers were removed, other minor damaged areas repaired and the statues received a new powder coating of color and protection, all to bring the statues back to their original appearance.

To ensure the newly restored statues did not succumb to environmental deterioration once again, it was decided they would be on display inside of the Visitor’s Center. They can now be seen flanking the fireplace in the Red Room, a reconstructed room of Marion DuPont Scott’s that she had arranged inside Montpelier, during her ownership of the estate.

During your next visit to Montpelier, be sure to stop in the William duPont Gallery, see these newly conserved statues in the Red Room, and learn more about the duPont Family.

Works Cited

[1] “Teaching & Object-Based Learning.” UCL CULTURE, 4 May 2018, www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/schools/teaching-object-based-learning.

[2]“Museum Conservation.” Museum Conservation (Getty Museum), The Paul J. Getty Trust, www.getty.edu/museum/conservation/index.html

[3]“Preservation Of Museum Collections, 1993.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, July 1993, www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/cons_toc.html#collectionpreservation.

[4]“Caroll K. Bassett.” Carroll K. Bassett | National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 2016, www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/caroll-k-bassett.

Written By

Leanna Schafer, BA
Curatorial & Collections Assistant

Leanna joined the Curatorial & Collections Department at Montpelier in 2018 as a Museum Technician where she provides preventative care for the Montpelier Collection. She values the histories and stories told by objects and works to preserve those objects for generations to come.

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