Aluminum: History, Technology and Conservation
April 7 – 9, 2014
Reviewed by Clara Deck
It’s the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust! The cap on the Washington Monument is cast with aluminum! It’s “the ultimate modern material” and it was the subject of an intensive 2.5-day symposium in Washington in early April sponsored by the AIC, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, ICOM-CC and the Lunder Conservation Center at the Museum of American Art.
It was a beautiful Cherry Blossom festival in Washington D.C. The weather could not have been nicer and it only rained on the days we were indoors for the sessions. A lovely evening reception at the Smithsonian “Castle” was sponsored by the Aluminum Association.
The keynote address by Lyndsie Selwyn of Canadian Conservation Institute got the conference off to a great start. Her presentation about the history and conservation issues with aluminum was clear and hugely informative. The subjects of the talks were wide-ranging from decorative arts to public/contemporary art and architectural elements to lots and lots of airplanes. Many Pourbaix diagrams, corrosion mechanism formulae and discussions about alloy designations later, we all left better informed about this ubiquitous metal.
Aluminum is complicated and is typically found in alloys that have numerical designations that were determined by the American Aluminum Association, which are now employed world-wide. 2000- Series alloys with their ~4% copper content are particularly common and can be corrosion-prone. I have a much better understanding of what anodizing is (and how fragile it can be). I have a new appreciation for conservators striving to rescue aluminum airplanes recovered from under-sea sites (a DC-3 spy plane in Sweden, others in Australia). It was cool to hear a presentation by Justine Poslunszny about the restoration of monumental “night doors” from the Justice Building in Washington D.C. and then walking over there to get a closer look (but not too close! It’s heavily guarded!)
A highlight for me was the presentation by Bruce Hinton of Monash University in Australia. A PhD Corrosion Engineer, his 40 years of experience in corrosion prevention on an industrial-scale translates well to my responsibilities here at The Henry Ford.
I presented on the work we did to prepare the Dymaxion House for exhibition back in 2001 and updated on a project to test its long-term structural stability after repairs to fatigue cracking (for more, check out the links to blog posts below!) Compared to the fascinatingly fragile “Throne of the Third Heaven…” which is a wonderful foil-covered series of folk-art sculptures at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art that Helen Ingalls presented, our sheet-metal house is positively robust!
The organizers are to be commended for a nicely-balanced symposium. Look for a publication of the proceedings later this year.
The Henry Ford