The obvious rewards of presenting two major exhibitions like Cherished Possessions, (on view at the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, through October 27) and Yankee Remix (at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, through March, 2004) are considerable: SPNEA's treasures will be seen by national audiences, and the attendant publicity and catalogues will have an even broader and more enduring impact. Less evident, but also important, are the benefits of the conservation treatment given to many of the objects to prepare them for travel and display. The portrait of merchant and civic leader Jonathan Sayward, which has hung in the parlor of the Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine, since the 1770s, has been transformed by cleaning and revarnishing. One of the finest pieces in the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, the handsome Foster secretary, is finally complete, newly crowned with replacement corkscrew finials and a central gilt eagle modeled on those from a similar desk in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. But not only the jewels of the collection were treated. Lesser known objects, such as a dress that belonged to Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and fought in the American Revolution, and a sleigh from Castle Tucker in Wiscasset, Maine, also received the same pain-staking attention.
In order to deal with the myriad problems associated with preparing, treating, and mounting hundreds of objects, SPNEA's Conservation Department became involved in the early stages of planning for the two exhibitions. First and foremost, the department was responsible for treating 280 objects out of the nearly four hundred to be displayed in the two shows. Some items, whose care falls outside of the expertise of in-house conservators-paintings, textiles, works on paper, and archival material-received the exacting attention of fifteen of New England's most respected independent specialists. SPNEA conservators also worked closely with contractors to design custom-fitted mounts to display these most prized works of art in a manner that was not only visually compelling but also safe.
Conservation treatments ranged from relatively simple surface cleaning to the six-hundred-hour marathon demanded by one of SPNEA's newest and most impressive pieces, a rococo looking glass purchased in London by Nathaniel Barrell in 1763. Nevertheless, no conservation treatment can be described as routine; each object required the utmost consideration. A particular challenge was posed by a lady's pelerine, a feather cape fashionable in the early nineteenth century, which was missing some feathers. The conservator digitally photographed a detail of the garment with the feather pattern intact, printed it onto iron-on transfer paper, ironed the paper onto fabric and then inserted it into the damaged area. The restoration is barely visible to the naked eye, and the pelerine looks perfect.
Although the Conservation Department was pleased to have improved the appearance of the objects on display, aesthetics was only a secondary motive for the treatment. Cleaning, structural repairs, replacement of missing elements where possible, and the addition of protective coatings where advisable, will protect the objects for travel and ensure them a healthier and longer life.
Director of Conservation