What We Do
Richard Baker, Tryon Palace Conservator, explains his work at Tryon Palace’s Conservation Lab
The Conservation Lab at Tryon Palace is responsible for overseeing the care and preservation of the artifacts in the collection. Artifacts include physical objects like furniture, glassware, candlesticks, fabrics, pottery, statues, toys, books, works on paper and many other items. In conservation these objects represent individual materials like wood, glass, ceramics, paper, stone, plastic, leather, and others. Consideration must be made on how we interact with these materials for cleaning, repairing, preparing for exhibit and the long-term ownership within their environment. The Conservator monitors and preserve these artifacts in the historic houses, museums, storage areas and grounds throughout Tryon Palace to be sure they will last for many years to come.
Artifacts in the collection whether in an historic house, gallery, storage space or in the gardens, are monitored regularly to check how it is responding to its environment. Environment is one of the key factors that can cause condition change in an artifact. Temperature, humidity, light, pests, and interaction with people can all contribute to a change in condition. These agents of destruction as they are often called are kept in check through different actions including keeping temperature and humidity at a stable level, reducing the amount of light into an exhibit, the use of special window panes to reduce UV emissions, cutting off any food or other materials that might be attracting pests and making sure that rules are in place to allow safety for both visitors and artifacts in historic buildings.
The practice of conservation seeks the long-term preservation of cultural heritage through several different activities including examination, treatment, preventive measures, and documentation. Education and research are fundamental to how the conservator approaches each artifact and how it will be handled, repaired, cleaned, or treated. Conservators have either been trained through a graduate conservation program or a lengthy apprenticeship with a senior conservator in their field. Conservators in the United States follow the American Institute for Conservation Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
The practice of conservation always keeps the historical considerations of an object in mind. Work done on the object must not damage, nor drastically alter its historical condition. Materials used on the object including adhesives, paints, solvents, coatings, and soaps must be reversible so that the next conservator can reverse or retreat the object. The conservator must be aware, not only of the primary material, but any additional materials, coatings, lacquers, paints, waxes, or other additional components that may be part of the object or have been added. These must be evaluated before any work is performed. In every type of object there are limitations and special factors that must be considered before conservation work can begin. A conservator must assume that they are not the last person who will work on an object and depending on its age, probably not the first.
The Conservation lab, where most of the conservation activities occur, comprises of three major sections: a clean area, a work area and the machine shop. The clean area is the section of the building furthest from the machine shop. It contains space for analytical research including microscopy, paper and book repair, matting and framing and concentration on special materials like leather or bone that may need to be located in a cleaner environment. The primary work room contains room for work to be done on large furniture, metal objects, glass or ceramic pieces with spaces for photography, wet cleaning and air extraction of volatile solvents. This area consists of worktables, a large stereoscopic microscope, special examination lighting and a dark room for detailed ultraviolet analysis of surfaces and coatings. The machine shop contains a full woodworking shop with both modern machines and traditional hand tools. The primary role of this space is to create pieces missing from original objects such as finials, braces, veneer, carvings, and any components of the construction. It is also used for building crates, supports, mounts and even reproduction back stools.
In 2019 the conservation lab performed 114 conservation projects. Forty-three of those were to prepare an object for display in one of the History Center exhibits. Of the total number of projects more than half were focused on furniture and metals. Most metal treatments are performed by volunteers and usually take about twenty hours or less to complete. Furniture can be anywhere from one hour to over two hundred depending on the severity of its issues and what the conservator needs to do.
Volunteers assist in all functions in the lab including performing conservation work, monitoring environmental conditions, giving Behind the Scenes tours, constructing supports, mounts and cases in the machine shop and taking documentation photography. In 2019, volunteers were involved in thirty-six conservation projects, some of which they performed most of the work themselves. Some projects are so large that it takes multiple hands to help. One example is the glass chandelier in the Stanly parlor that was broken during Hurricane Florence. Rewired and completed in early 2020, that project involved assistance from five staff members, one intern and seven volunteers for a combined time of one hundred ten hours.
Tryon Palace has maintained a conservation professional on staff for over thirty years. The Behind the Scenes tours of the lab are a great way for the public to get a glimpse of what goes on in the conservation lab. These special tours show not only what the conservator is currently working on, but they also present how conservation is performed as part of the ongoing care of the collection highlighting the tools and materials that are necessary for that care. The tours also feature artifacts that are specific to the Behind the Scenes tour and not seen on exhibit. Check the Tryon Palace website for upcoming tours.