Please allow me to introduce Object number BH1-00026— the accession number for the decorative fireplace surround in the Claude Room of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. I spent 12 intimate weeks treating the fireplace surround for my job as an Art Conservation Technician. Conservation deals primarily with the materials of objects, so I thought of the treatment of the fireplace surround while reading on the topic of materiality, specifically Tim Ingold’s article “Materials against Materiality” and Martin Heidegger’s article “The Thing.” Ingold stresses in his article that people should be more aware of the material makeup of objects. What about Art Conservation? What about fields of study that are already concerned with materiality, that do not need to read articles advising the use of placing a stone nearby in order to remember that what makes up an object may be important. I decided to take a closer look at the treatment of BH1-00026.
Professors in the interdisciplinary field refer to Art Conservation as a three-legged stool, with each leg of the stool representing art history, studio art, and chemistry. A good understanding of how materials work on a chemical level is highly important because one must know how substances will react with one another. The Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” is only possible in conservation if one knows information like how certain materials will deteriorate over time, or which solvent will dissolve dirt, but not paint. The academia provides a foundation of knowledge, but the hands-on aspects are learned while one is a conservation technician, like an apprentice. Hours upon hours of conservation work under the guidance of a trained professional conservator teach the proper techniques and common tools and methods. To be a conservator, one must have the appropriate coursework, minimum number of hours of technician work, and pass a grueling interviewing process to secure one of the 28 spots available each year in the U.S. in the main conservation programs.
(For more information on Art Conservation, consult each school’s website: The University of Delaware, New York University, and Buffalo State College, or the website for the American Institute for Conservation.)
On my own lowly journey to become a conservator, I worked for two years at Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in America that was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. I was hired, appropriately enough, in the “Objects” Conservation Department to assist with a restoration project to open a suite of four rooms that previously had not been on the public tour. Each room included a fireplace and Object BH1-00026 was dirty and needed treatment in order to fit in visually with the other lavish decorations of the restored room, as well as stabilization to prevent further deterioration. One of the biggest concepts of conservation is the use of documentation. The whole treatment process is documented so future museum staff will know what kind of work the object endured. The object description for the fireplace surround was written following the appropriate terminology and investigation that is taught in conservation. It is described as follows:
“Object is a carved marble fireplace surround with gold leaf and/or paint installed in the Claude Room. The mantle and columns are white marble, while the inner marble is mottled orange with a brass trim lining. The gold along the mantle is believed to be gold paint, while the gold along the columns is believed to be a gold leaf. This object is very similar in style and design to the fireplace in the Damask Room (BH1-00027), although the decorative elements in the carvings differ between each room. For example, the statues atop the columns flanking the sides of the Claude Room fireplace are eagles, while the statues are lions in the Damask Room. Both fireplaces were “antiques” when George Vanderbilt bought them.”
If the same object were described by an art historian, curator, or anthropologist, its description would probably have less to do with the intricate details of its materials and more to do with the history and context of the piece.
The condition of the object is then described:
“The object is in fair condition. The surface is covered with a layer of dark dirt and soot, from years of use in Biltmore House and use prior to purchase by George Vanderbilt. Several crevices, especially the beading spanning across the top of the mantle, were filled with soot ash. Also in crevices and carvings along the sides of the mantle are patches of white plaster that have adhered to the surface and will not wipe off, but require mechanical removal. The marble itself is in good structural condition, but there are small areas of loss along the bottom edges of the columns. The gold painted area on the top portion of the fireplace, however, is in poor condition. The proper right half of the painted area is friable and actively flaking off of the marble. There are areas of complete loss throughout the painted surface, although the Claude Room mantle is in better condition than the Damask Room mantle. The gilded background on the sides of the mantle also has areas of loss, but is in good condition overall.”
After these observations, a treatment method for cleaning was outlined and carried out. Listed are but a few of the steps in the process:
- Mixed the cleaning solutions for the treatment in the conservation lab. The (Wolbers) marble cleaner is an aqueous solution containing chelating agents TEA and Citric acid, with ammonium hydroxide to adjust the pH level, and Triton XL80-N to act as a surfactant. The pH of the marble cleaner was adjusted to 8.5-9.0. The (Wolbers) 102.7 cleaner also is an aqueous solution containing a surfactant (Triton XL80-N) and a chelating agent (ammonium citrate), adjusted to a pH of 8.0. In addition to liquid form, each solution was made into gel form by adding Methyl Cellulose.
- Removed loose ash and soot in crevices using wooden skewers.
- Mechanically removed plaster using dental tools and wooden skewers.
- Applied marble cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the gilded surfaces. Using a gel allowed us to focus on cleaning a specific, controllable area. The marble cleaner was gentler on the gilded surface, not removing any gold as long as the cleaner was rinsed off the surface immediately. The gel was removed using sponges and water.
- Rinsed the surface with water using sponges to ensure no cleaner remained on the surface. Although the pH level was adjusted to ensure the cleaner was not too acidic to etch the marble, care was taken to rinse all cleaner from the mantle to ensure none would remain to etch the marble over time.
- Applied 102.7 cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the painted surface. The painted surface was more likely to dissolve if in contact with the marble cleaner, but not the 102.7. Therefore, marble around the painted surface was cleaned using 102.7. The gel was removed using sponges and water.
- Cleaned painted and gilded surfaces using cotton swabs dipped in liquid 102.7 cleaner, and rinsed with sponges and water.
- Mechanically removed stubborn staining on the white marble using a scalpel.
Other types of objects were treated at Biltmore in a similar manner-by inspecting the materials of the object, then selecting other materials to carry out treatment. Surfaces, varnishes, paint layers, corrosion, etc. are analytically tested to discover the exact materials as closely as possible. All treatments are reversible (with the exception of cleaning) so that if alternative materials/adhesives/epoxies are discovered in the future that are better, the old treatment may be removed and the new one applied.
Because of this experience in treating the fireplace surround, I did not agree with Ingold’s quote on page one of his “Materials against Materiality” article that “anthropology and archaeology literature that deals explicitly with the subjects of materiality and material culture seems to have hardly anything to say about materials” (3). Although art conservation is not explicitly anthropology and archaeology, the fields cross and intertwine, as I am sure many archaeologists would agree with when trying to conserve finds from an excavation. One must know how corroding metals or fragile ceramics will react to different solutions in order to stabilize or clean them, especially when the environment is unstable.
Ingold stresses that people have become too preoccupied with the materiality of objects, that the “concept of materiality, whatever it might mean, has become a real obstacle to sensible enquiry into materials, their transformations and affordances” (3). We have taken the materiality of the objects for granted, forgetting that the object is what it is because of its materials. “Thenceforth it is the objects themselves that capture our attention, no longer the materials of which they are made. It is as though our material involvement begins only when the stucco has already hardened on the house front or the ink already dried on the page” (9). Although we see the house as a whole and not as a sum of parts and materials, these materials continue “to mingle and react as they have always done, forever threatening the things they comprise with dissolution or even ‘dematerialization’. Plaster can crumble, and ink can fade.” (9). Ingold even points out that curators and “conservationists” (he uses the imporper term- conservationists deal with the environment) are constantly struggling with this fact, as indeed we are. Conservators are fully aware that “Materials always and inevitably win out over materiality in the long term” (10). Conservation differs from restoration in that the main objective is the stabilization of the object. Conservators wish to slow down the battle of materials over materiality.
An important way to slow deterioration is to monitor and control the environment, establishing a stable temperature and relative humidity. Ingold discusses the environment as a
“world that continually unfolds in relation to the beings that make a living there. Its reality is not of material objects but for its inhabitants. It is, in short, a world of materials. And as the environment unfolds, so the materials of which it is comprised do not exist– like the objects of the material world- but occur. Thus the properties of materials, regarded as constituents of an environment, cannot be identified as fixed, essential attributes of things, but are rather processual and relational. They are neither objectively determined nor subjectively imagined but practically experienced. In that sense, every property is a condensed story. To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate.” (14)
Ingold concludes this article in saying that “properties of materials … are not attributes, but histories” (15).
So… that’s all well and good. Pat yourselves on the back, conservators, for thinking of the materials of things, not just the materiality, and how that relates to the environment. But wait, isn’t there more?
What about those objects that have more value to them than their materials? What about sacred objects? Should they be treated simply as materials? The efforts to preserve sacred objects enacted by museum professionals are not viewed in the same exalted manner by the indigenous people to whom the objects originally belonged. Quite the contrary, these efforts are viewed as harmful to the objects and disrespectful to the cultures because of a lack of understanding of the power residing in the objects.
Native American George Horse Capture expressed his sadness over the display of objects in museums at the 1980 American Association of Museums by stressing the importance these objects hold in his culture. George Horse Capture stated that “Indian people utilize special items to help communicate with the One Above,” and that these items have a “vital function” for native religion (Ferguson 1983: 2). An article in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation entitled “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects” calls for conservators to reconsider traditional conservation practices in light of native views. The authors recognize that “the very process of handling, documentation and treatment could constitute interference with the integrity of the objects and destruction of its functional and spiritual value” during the “modern, scientific conservation treatment” that conservators practice (Wolfe and Mibach 1983: 1).
Without an understanding of the meanings and values placed on these objects, a conservator may treat the materials while disrespecting the materiality. Perhaps there is more to an object than the materials. It was on this point that Heidegger’s article “The Thing” was significant.
When determining what makes the jug a jug, he states that “the jug’s void determines all the handling in the process of making the vessel. The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that is holds” (169). While examining the jug—
“To learn what nearness is, we examined the jug nearby… at that moment, in fact, when the illusion intruded itself that science could reveal to us the reality of the jug … conceived in terms of physical science, that is what the void really is; but it is not the jug’s void… We had given no thought to how the containing itself goes on… We failed to give thought to what the jug holds and how it holds.” (171)
Perhaps my marble/gilded/painted fireplace is more than materials and surface dirt and surfactants and chelating agents.
“The jug’s jug- character consists in the poured gift of the pouring out. Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift, even though the empty jug does not admit of a giving out.” (174)
Heidegger ends his article with “Things, each thinging from time to time in its own way, are heron and roe, deer horse and bull. Things, each thinging and each staying in its own way, are mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown and cross.” (182)
Although this fireplace surround did not have a religious function, perhaps it should be investigated further. Perhaps there is more to its thingness than its parts. Perhaps Latour was correct in his encouragement to stop reducing.
Museums are structured institutions that allot specialized jobs to different departments. Conservators act on the materials, while the curators are in charge the knowledge of the context of the object. Curators know more of how the objects are used, for what purpose, the life history of the object, etc. The source communities from which those objects came will know even more. Curators, communities, and conservators should form a three-legged stool of their own and should all be in collaboration to investigate the many aspects of an object, in order to discover how the thing is a thing. In an article on “Conservation and Meaning,” the author Douglas Greenberg stresses the importance of conservation, but also the importance of consulting communities. He states that “this is not a theoretical matter either; in a culturally diverse society whose institutions of art and memory are multiple and occasionally conflicting, those that fail to accompany the conservation of objects with a conservation of meaning will themselves fail from their own stupidity and irrelevance” (44).
This semester has helped stress the importance of all characteristics of objects and things; that many aspects of BH1-00026 contribute to making it an object. We should heed Ingold and study the materials, while remembering Heidegger’s investigation of the importance of the materiality of things. It is acceptable for an object to have materials and materiality, and we should recognize that, especially conservators.
Ferguson, T.J. 1990. “The Repatriation of Ahayu:da Zuni War Gods: An Interview with the Zuni Tribal Council on April 25, 1990.” Museum Anthropology. Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-14.
Greenberg, Douglas. 2004. “Conservation and Meaning.” In Stewards of the Sacred. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.
Heidegger, Martin. 1971. “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row.
Ingold, Tim. 2007. “Materials against Materiality.” In Archaeological Dialogues. Cambridge University Press. Vol. 14, no. 1. Pp. 1-16.
“Treatment Report- BH1-00026.” 2007. Personal document by Fran Ritchie.
Wolfe, Sara J. and Lisa Mibach. 1983. “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. Vol. 23, No. 1: 1-6.