Caring for Collections at Harvard

June 10, 2019

Caring for Collections presentersCaring for Collections presenters

On May 4, 2019, conservation and preservation experts from across Harvard’s libraries and museums presented research and technical work covering a variety of disciplines. Here are summaries of some of the talks. (Right-click the images to view them at full size.)

Due Lottatori (Two Wrestlers), Michelangelo BuonarrotiDue Lottatori (Two Wrestlers), Michelangelo Buonarroti, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Tony Sigel, Senior Conservator of Objects and Sculpture for the Harvard Art Museums, studied Michelangelo's clay preparatory models to understand the sculptor’s working method — how he added, moved, or removed the clay. Two models in particular revealed an unusual subtractive process in which  the block of clay was largely carved away with tools, a technique used with stone and wood sculpture, but not usually clay models. Sigel suggested that Michelangelo was rehearsing his carving of the final sculpture in marble, using the cheaper, faster, and more forgiving medium.

Watermark Tracing from the Topkapi Palace Museum ArchivesWatermark Tracing from the Topkapi Palace Museum Archives (MS Typ 1215), Houghton Library, Harvard University

Luke Kelly, May-Crane Fellow in the Weissman Preservation Center, explained his work  contributing images of handmade paper watermarks to an international database. Kelly envisions a “big data” treasure trove that would allow a researcher to take an image of an unknown watermark and use the database to match it to a known papermaker, date, and location. Kelly also described revealing the writing on a palimpsest manuscript in the Dunster House collection using ultraviolet light.

Choral manuscript

Antiphonarium de tempore et de Sanctis Chori monialium S. Nicolai Novelli Luce, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 18 x 23 x 5 inches, 21 pounds. Examples of changes made to the text and music: Lead white paint and cut pieces of paper were used to cover neumes, and cut pieces of black painted paper were glued on to add more neumes.

Clara Huisman, Graduate Book Conservation Intern at the Weissman Preservation Center, presented her graduate specialization project on a 17th-century antiphonary (a very large choral manuscript of Gregorian chant used in church services). In addition to providing extensive conservation treatment to stabilize the paper and binding, Huisman found evidence of other interventions over the centuries, including changes to the text and music, and repairs to old water damage on the paper.

Cuff Band with Animals in Roundels

Cuff Band with Animals in Roundels, Harvard Art Museums, 2004.204, c. 3rd-7th century CE

 Julie Wertz, Beal Family Postgraduate Fellow in Conservation   Science at the Harvard Art Museums, analyzed dyes in late   Byzantine and early medieval Islamic textiles. Her ongoing   research, in tandem with an exhibition of these textiles, confirmed the historic nature of the natural dyes, identified white   dust as gypsum (likely from plaster), proposed rabbit skin glue or   a similar material as the substance used to consolidate fibers, and   radio-carbon-dated the textile fibers. 

Reflected infrared (left) and normal illumination (right) of detail, Pitching Quoits, Winslow Homer, oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 54 in., Harvard Art Museums, 1940.298

Reflected infrared and normal illumination of detail, Pitching Quoits, Winslow Homer

Anne Schaffer, Paintings Conservation Fellow at the Harvard Art Museums, studied Winslow Homer’s painting “Pitching Quoits,” in preparation for an exhibition this fall. During Homer’s lifetime, critics judged Homer’s work as unfinished and hurried, but Schaffer's study revealed an extensive underdrawing process that indicates the composition was anything but slapdash. 

These talks represent a small sample of what goes on within the various conservation and preservation departments at Harvard. Visit the links below for more information.

Join us in April 2020 for another afternoon of inspiring talks on new preservation and conservation topics! 

By Harvard Library Preservation Services staff