Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 1

This post is the first in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at an international conference on the use of gels in conservation, including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. Stay tuned– new parts will be published twice per week!

A few months have passed since I attended the London three-day conference “Gels in Conservation” co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd), better known as James (Jim) Black. You will know him from Archetype Publications; he’s the one who always remembers you.

1. conference logo

The conference was the brainchild of Jim Black and Richard Wolbers, hatched over drinks and Indian food a few years back. They posed the idea, “wouldn’t it be great if we got all the people together working in gels? Scientists, conservators, students, etc., and shared what we know, or were working on in gels?” Apparently they were right, they weren’t they only ones who thought it was a great idea. More than 550 attendees from 39 countries attended the three-day conference. For me, and judging from fellow attendee’s responses, I can tell you it sure felt like a roaring success.

2. gels conference audience

It was one of the most thoughtfully arranged symposiums I’ve ever attended. I suspect Jim Black may well be a genius and I hope other program organizers take note. There were three sessions each day, and each session started off with two or three talks about 25 or 30 minutes in length followed by several 10-minute talks. It kept things fresh and helped avoid listening fatigue. For the most part the 10-minute talks were just as informative as the longer format. At the end of each session the presenters had a panel Q&A with the audience. This gave people a chance to clarify and presenters an opportunity to add detail.

The conference was filmed/recorded, so take heart even if you didn’t get one of the sought-after tickets: you can still virtually attend, albeit slightly after the fact. Having the publication at the conference was brilliant. I can’t emphasize enough how excellent the publication is. It includes the papers from the presentations and the posters with great images. It was very helpful to listen to a talk then be able to refer to the paper immediately. Over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas. Each day the talks were grouped together loosely by theme such as polysaccharide gel systems, which included agars, gellan gum and methyl cellulose, often compared or alone, sometimes with additives like enzymes or chelators. Day two, polysaccharide and polyacrylic gel systems, which included solvent gels, such as pemulen, and the new wave of solvents, silicone solvents. And finally, day three was entitled Novel and Multi gel treatment. Many speakers talked about trying to utilize less toxic materials as an alternative to “traditional” organic and aromatic solvents, moving toward greener alternatives. Authors shared their successes and failures, both being very informative. Many attendees, me included remarked that they really enjoyed the multi-discipline approach, learning what textile conservators and easel painting conservators are doing with the same sort of materials. It was very inspiring and informative.

The overall tone of the conference was one of hopeful optimism and desire for more research and development. Richard Wolbers spoke several times, first as the key note speaker and later as collaborator for many of the authors. He emphasized the need for conservators to look to other industries for potential products, greener or less toxic than what we use now, and to know the materials well enough to tailor them to our own specific needs for each specific treatment challenge. I came away inspired and intrigued. In this and the companion posts coming soon, I hope I can convey some of what I learned and inspire you to obtain the publication and start reading. I will end with my favorite slide of the conference:

3. Your Plan vs Reality

Jodie’s favorite slide: what a research journey really looks like.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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Introducing the MRCG Symposium Presentation Archives

MRCG is introducing a new website feature: a collection of presentation materials from past MRCG annual meetings. We are kicking off with submitted papers from the 2017 Annual Symposium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Materials published here are those submitted voluntarily and expressly for this purpose by the authors to facilitate continued dialogue and shared scholarship among conference attendees and Guild members. Access to this password-protected section is a benefit of membership. Visit the Symposium Presentation Archives!

If you are a former presenter and you would like to share your presentation materials with the Guild members, please do! Send an email to the Vice President with a single PDF document of your slides, notes, and/or text in the format you want to be published. Please include the names of all authors, title, date, and where it was presented (“Presented at the Midwest Regional Conservation Guild 2017 Annual Symposium (Cincinnati, Ohio)” or similar).


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Participate in the AIC Symposium on the use of leather in book conservation

Be part of the first AIC symposium devoted to the use of leather in Book Conservation!

Tuesday, May 29 • 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, $99 including lunch

Leather has long been used as a repair material for damaged leather bindings. The working properties of historic leathers can be very different than modern ones. In recent years, conservators have begun to employ other materials, such as paper or cast acrylic, as an alternative to leather in book conservation treatments. Tanned animal skins offer less long-term stability and may be more difficult to prepare than other materials, but may also provide better strength and flexibility in a functioning book. Should conservators continue to employ leather using traditional book repair techniques on leather bindings? Should we abandon the use of tanned skins in favor of more chemically stable materials? Do alternative book repair materials really stand up to the mechanical stresses of use?

Be part of the debate and register for the symposium!

For more info and a list of speakers, please see the AIC Annual Meeting page – you don’t have to register for the entire meeting to attend this symposium.

Questions? Contact the symposium chairs:

Marieka Kaye, marieka@umich.edu

Henry Hebert, henry.j.hebert@gmail.com

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Welcome our new MRCG officers (2018-2019)

MRCG has two new officers: Claire Winfield, President, and Christine GostowskiSecretary. Claire Winfield has previously served as MRCG Vice President.  Both officers will serve for the two-year term of 2018-2019. Welcome!

We also acknowledge our outgoing officers who have served the previous two years: Co-Presidents Cecile Mear and Betsy Allaire, and Secretary Marieka Kaye. Thank you for your leadership.

To see the full list of current officers and their contact information follow this link: Current Officers (2018).


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“Ask A Conservator” Gallery Feature at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis

The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University has had a unique opportunity to put conservation on display in its galleries while a large, newly acquired artwork is undergoing treatment before installation. Informational panels posted throughout the gallery shed some light on the process, such as the fact that the team is using human saliva to clean some surfaces, but curious visitors are encouraged to interact by posting questions on a message board about the project, conservation, and the museum.

Check out the treatment process and gallery conservation experience of Michael Tracy’s Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador, featured in this article: https://www.slu.edu/news/2018/january/mocra-visible-conservation.php

Ask A Conservator

Ask A Conservator panel near the Visible Conservation gallery exhibit/conservation treatment at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Saint Louis University.

Here are a selection of the questions and answers by Katherine Langdon of Langdon Art Conservation, LLC, the objects conservator heading this treatment.

What happens if a piece falls off?

We always save fragments, no matter how small! Often they can be reattached with aappropriate adhesive, but sometimes they are valuable as samples for chemical analysis. We save them in labeled bags or vials and store them where they can be found when needed.

Do the digestive enzymes in saliva affect the artwork aall?

They can, so you always have to be aware of the type of material you are working on and its chemical sensitivities. Those enzymes are precisely why we use saliva– they’re great for breaking down surface grime. Most surfaces that can be safely cleaned with water-based solutions are also able to be cleaned with saliva, and we always make sure to clean off the saliva once it has done its job.

Is there a product you can buy instead of using human saliva?

Yes, there are commercially available “enzymatic cleaning solutions” that mimic the effect of saliva– but if you need a small quantity, human saliva is easy to acquire and free!

How many stars are in the sky and where do they go during the day?

I’m sorry, you posted on the wrong board– go Ask aAstronomer!

How do you clean the fabric parts?

The textiles on this object cannot be detached and washed– and it turns out that some of them are sensitive to liquid and would stain! So we only use dry cleaning methods (not solvent cleaning like at the “dry cleaner”)– in this case, we carefully (and sometimes indirectly) vacuum the surface to remove loose dust and debris, and then use dry cosmetic sponges to lift up the grime.

Are all paints the same or do they have to be treated different ways?

There are so many different kinds of paint! A paint is essentially pigment (the color) dispersed into a binder or medium such as linseed oil, casein, acrylic resin, or other material, which is mixed with other chemicals to give it the desired working properties, and this can vary between colors and brands even of the same type of paint. So while they’re all “paints”, they can be chemically very different. Conservators do small cleaning tests on all the different paints and materials they want to clean, every time, to make sure that the cleaning methods used are appropriate for that piece of art.

It seems, to me, that the work you do is, in itself, aartform. Do you think conservators recognize themselves aartists?
While certainly the process of conservation treatment is as much aart as it is a science, “artist” implies a level of creativity and original content that conservators strive to avoid. Any restoration work we do is as much as possible an educated recreation of the original structure or surface, and to add elements from our imagination rather than from good evidence is to do a disservice to the artwork and to the mission of cultural heritage preservation.
However, many conservatorare also artists, i.e., creators of new art, on their own time!
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