Lab Confidential: Conserve and Protect

by AMNH on

Research posts

An illuminated image of a Tibetan deity with six arms crouched in a ceremonial dance position, wearing a headdress.
Tibetan deity figures were analyzed as part of the Museum's conservation efforts. © AMNH/J. Levinson and K. Knauer. Click to enlarge.

Each of the 41 intriguing images in Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies tells a fascinating story about research or conservation projects. Here’s the third in a series of four snapshots.

For the past year, a 7-foot-tall totem of an eagle has towered over the well-ordered tables of the Museum’s Objects Conservation Lab, the special department within the Division of Anthropology charged with protecting its collections for future study.

“This is one of the smaller totem poles,” says Director of Conservation Judith Levinson, whose team is in the process of preserving the totem poles and other large carvings from the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. The tallest of these never leave the hall, where they must be laid horizontally, like patients on a table. Conservators then remove pinpoint-sized samples for examination with a microscope and UV illumination in the lab, allowing them to see layers of coatings, paint, and dirt—the history of previous restoration efforts.

The totem pole project is just one of the most recent examples of the lab’s wide-ranging activities. Levinson’s team routinely surveys the Museum’s collections to decide which specimens and artifacts need urgent care.

“We usually do not try to bring objects back to their original condition,” explains Levinson. For instance, alterations related to ceremonial use would be left untouched. But if something occurred after the object’s arrival at the Museum—even a well-intentioned, but misinformed, attempt by a previous restorer—the team has a decision to make.

“We may attempt to reverse it, as it may distort the real appearance of the artifact,” says Levinson. In the case of the looming eagle in the lab, the conservators have adjusted the angle of its head to match that seen in an early photograph of the totem in situ in British Columbia.

In all of their efforts, the team looks not only to preserve the past, but also to preserve for the future. While working on a collection of metal Tibetan figures, one of which is featured in Picturing Science, Levinson’s team discovered that many of the coatings on the copper alloy sculptures were not merely soot, as previously assumed, but also plant extracts and oil-based lacquers, which gave the team crucial clues about libations in ceremonial rituals and other details. Thanks to this information, future conservators will know not to clean off a crucial part of the life histories of these objects.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.