Diary of a Conservation Intern

It has been almost three months since I started my internship at MOA and so far it has been a great experience.

From my very first week at MOA I was thrown right into the fray and began treatment on four Peruvian festival masks made of tin, that are now hanging at one of the entrances to the exhibit Luminescence: The Silver of Peru, which runs until December 16, 2012. The masks when I arrived were in poor condition, with many of the decorations requiring repair and reattachment. Treatment mainly involved using appropriate adhesives, determined through solubility testing, to reattach the various types of decorations.

One of the masks had a tooth that needed to be reattached. To do this I devised a support using conservation grade inert foam (shaped by carving), and some rare earth magnets that I inserted into the foam and secured in place with an adhesive. This proved to be a successful solution providing good grip and stability to the tooth, while remaining a completely reversible treatment, as the magnets are what hold the tooth in place, rather than an adhesive.

Reversibility is a main concept behind most conservation treatments, and along with documentation is one of the basics tenets of conservation. As conservators our job is to preserve the physical nature of objects with the least possible intervention. We do not want to change an object unnecessarily. This is also why we document everything we do to an object; to ensure that individuals in the future studying the objects we treat are aware of any alterations (such as reattaching loose decorations) we have made to restore the culturally significant qualities of an object.

Another object that I worked on that is currently on display in Luminescence (it’s an amazing opportunity having pieces I’ve worked on be on display to the public!) is a very colourful woven textile. In order for the textile to be displayed, a cotton and Velcro strip had to be sewn on to the back of the piece, to allow for secure vertical mounting to the wall. Velcro is selected because it provides support evenly across the width of the textile and reduces distortion as the textile hangs. The Velcro strip is sewn onto a cotton sleeve, and it is this sleeve which is attached to the textile, not the Velcro directly. A running or hem stitch is then used to attach the sleeve to the back of the textile. Sewing is done in a manner that disturbs the natural weave of the textile as little as possible.

One amazing thing about doing my internship at MOA is having the opportunity to work on many different types of objects and materials. My most recent treatment involved working on a calendar from India. The calendar dates to 1992 and features a large image of the deity Ganesh. Unfortunately at some point the calendar suffered damage resulting in extensive tears, as well as some loss of the image. In order to repair the calendar I prepared a wheat starch paste, a traditional adhesive recommended for use with paper artifacts.

I then used the wheat starch paste along with Japanese paper, which I tinted to better match the calendar, to repair the tears. Japanese papers known traditionally as Washi are papers made from the long inner fibres of three plants: Kozo, Mitsumata and Gampi. Japanese papers are strong, flexible and have a low-acidity making them ideal for repairs to paper artifacts.

And for my next challenge… cleaning, reshaping and building a support for a cedar bark loose woven basket recently acquired at the museum.

Nikita Johnston is currently a student at Fleming College in the Collections Conservation and Management program in Peterborough. A 2011 graduate of Trent University, she holds an Honours BA in Anthropology.