JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 12 (pp. 211 to 220)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 12 (pp. 211 to 220)

THE DILEMMA OF INTERPRETING AND CONSERVING THE PAST AT NEW YORK STATE'S HISTORIC SITES

DEBORAH LEE TRUPIN, DAVID BAYNE, MARIE CULVER, NANCY DEMYTTENAERE, HEIDI MIKSCH, & JOYCE ZUCKER



2 ASSESSMENT AND PLANNING

In the mid-1970s, conditions in many museums and historic houses were less than optimal by current standards. This was true of New York's state historic sites. Plans for Bicentennial celebrations served as a major impetus for upgrading the site system. An integrated, professional conservation program started when the first staff conservators were hired in 1974 and development of the lab spaces at Peebles Island began.

Staff from all bureau units surveyed Bicentennial sites such as Washington's Headquarters. While buildings were investigated for the integrity of the exterior envelope (the outer shell of walls, roof, and foundation) and interpretation was updated with an energetic new exhibit program, collections assessments began. Despite poor storage, erratic climatic conditions, and care that ranged from benign neglect to overzealous maintenance, the overall condition of the collections was fair.

Following site visits, conservators prepared summary reports on the sites and then surveyed and treated objects proposed for Bicentennial exhibits. General collections surveys continue to be extended and updated; however, objects needed for exhibits or loans continue to determine treatment priorities. They are still treated before others that may have a greater inherent need for stabilization treatment, except in emergencies.

The perpetual problem of balancing available staff time with the sites' needs was especially evident when—following a 1975 fire at Crailo in Rensselaer—laboratory work for other sites stopped. Staff members devoted all their time to preserving water-damaged collections until conditions were stabilized. Fortunately, this quick and comprehensive response saved objects damaged in the fire. The event served to promote the development of disaster preparedness plans at sits throughout the state, but the time lost to treat previously scheduled objects could never be replaced.

Recently the bureau has chosen to focus on the development of historically accurate furnishing plans, which represent another priority for limited staff time. These plans describe the interior decoration as well as the location of historic artifacts within a room, using available records along with a knowledge of period practices. This approach involves the coordination of specialists in various disciplines. Team-based restoration of an entire room is a departure from the traditional approach of prioritizing individual conservation treatments. The conservator looks not only at the condition of an artifact but also at its appearance in relation to other components of a furnished room.

Staff at Mills Mansion in Staatsburg, for example, researched the original room settings of the 1895 mansion and concluded that the original interior design elements had been carefully integrated to create an overall impression. The re-creation of this indefinable character was therefore a critical goal of restoration. The prominence of textiles in the decorative scheme, as upholstery, carpets, and draperies, meant that these materials assumed primary importance in the renovation. A textile conservation survey showed that the mansion retained almost all of its original furnishings and furnishing fabrics and so represented a unique resource upon which to draw.

An initial planning team designed a highly structured brainstorming session, which was attended by an expanded team of five outside consultants and 10 bureau and site staff members. The purpose of the multidisciplinary meeting was to elicit opinions on two major issues: (1) the extent of replacement necessary to preserve original fabric while not jeopardizing the authenticity of the mansion and (2) how to retain the impression of the mansion given the necessity of incorporating some new fabrics.

Similar questions occur in large-scale restoration projects at other sites and have proven difficult to answer clearly. The team members at Mills Mansion agreed to recommend the installation of reproductions of historic window treatments to control light and heat and recognized the necessity of retiring all historic draperies from display. They also identified which rooms warranted exact reproduction fabrics, which could use adaptations, and which required further research. With this direction, the initial team met again and outlined a restoration plan, choosing as a pilot project Mr. Mills's bedroom. The restoration, which included wall finishes, floor coverings, window treatments, upholstered furniture, and decorative art objects, is nearly complete and is considered quite successful. Site staff now feel that a project previously considered overwhelming can be planned using an organized decision-making process. Each step can be pursued as resources become available or as suppliers are identified, with some decisions waiting for completion of specific steps.

In the Mills Mansion pilot project, insights from object-specific surveys supported treatment decisions within the context of a broadly based research effort. To further encourage a comprehensive approach to collections care, in 1992 the bureau adopted the National Institute for Conservation/Institute for Museum Services Collections Assessment Program (CAP) as a model for in-house assessments. For the first time, a bureau collections conservator and a bureau restoration coordinator worked jointly to produce a unified assessment of the buildings and collections needs of a site. Findings and recommendations of these ongoing studies now form the basis for long-range preservation strategies for each historic site. Consistent patterns in conservation concerns have become apparent. These concerns include environmental management, storage needs, and inherent risks facing collections on display.


Copyright 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works