Art & Me Preservation Family Workshop | Unlocking Secrets of the Past

  • Make no bones about it—the art doctor is in! Learn how Smithsonian conservators preserve ancient objects made from bone in this hands-on online workshop for children ages three to eight and their caretakers.

    From a large skeleton of a mastodon to small oracle bones from ancient China, unlock the secrets of the past through close looking and investigation. Then try your hand at carving techniques by making your own soap and model clay figures.

    Part of a yearlong series that encourages families to experiment with artmaking and preservation techniques, this program is co-hosted by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

    MATTHEW LASNOSKI: Hi, everyone, we’re going to be getting started in about a minute or two. I still see people coming in and joining this webinar. While you’re waiting, this is a great opportunity to set up your work station. Make sure you have your supplies for the art activity that we’ll be doing today. If you’re already set up and ready to go, what you can do is look at two of the artworks that we have here, and we’d love to hear in the chat what you see and what questions that you might have and what it makes you wonder. Then, share that with us. If you want to know some ideas about materials, Laura has shared that in the chat, so look there if you want to get some ideas about types of materials that you want to have for your art activity today.

    We also have a tip for a lot of you. If you want to show off your creation at the end of the webinar, we’re going to be inviting people to email a photo of their artwork, and we’ll be showing it to everyone who’s been a part of the workshop. The email address is in the chat. Make sure that you have your cameras ready so you can take a picture and send it to Laura, who’s here joining us. She has the email in the chat. Make sure to look there.

    I see we have a lot of people here, so if you have everything ready, just take a moment and share with us either through the chat or the Q&A what you see or what these different artworks make you wonder. What questions do you have for them? We’ll get started in about one minute. I do see one question, and I think this one is for Ellen. Someone was curious what was on that artwork on the left. Is it pictures? They’re curious about what it might be.

    ELLEN CHASE: Okay, hi, everybody. I’m Ellen. That is a piece of bone, and we’ll talk about it more during the session, but what you’re looking at are carvings or inscriptions of pictures. It’s very early; it’s the very first writing in China. We’ll learn a lot more about it later on.

    ML: Perfect. One more question before we move on and get started was about the artwork on the right. They wondered if it was a dinosaur or something like that, so they were curious about what it is and why it’s in an art museum.

    LEAH BRIGHT: That’s a really good question, and that’s also something we’ll talk about later, but you’re getting very close in that it’s fossils like the dinosaurs we see in museums, but I’ll tell you more specifically about what it is and why it’s in an art museum in just a little bit. Excellent question.

    ML: Yeah. Someone has a guess that it might be an elephant, so we’ll see if that’s right as we go forward. I think we’re ready for the next slide and to get started. Welcome to this Art & Me workshop on preservation. We’re going to be talking about different bones today and artworks that are in our collections both at the National Museum of Asian Art as well as the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. We’re going to be talking with some of our conservators about how they protect artworks and bones. As I said earlier, my name is Matthew Lasnoski, and I work in the Communications and Education department at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery. I’m joined with some colleagues here, so I’m going to let Ellen, who also works with me at the National Museum of Asian Art, introduce herself.

    EC: Hi, everyone. I’m Ellen Chase, and as Matthew said, I work with him at the National Museum of Asian Art, and I am the Objects Conservator there. We’ll talk a little bit more about what that might mean, but I’m going to pass you on to Leah, who is also an Objects Conservator, and she’s going to tell you about herself a little bit.

    LB: Hey, everybody. My name is Leah Bright, and like Ellen said, I’m also an Objects Conservator, so I take care of the sculptures and three-dimensional artworks in our collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which we like to call SAAM. Next up is Laura, who is also at SAAM.

    LAURA HOFFMAN: Thanks, Leah. I’m Laura Hoffman, and I am the Program Manager at the Lunder Conservation Center, as Leah said, at SAAM or the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I work on programs, and I get to work with all of the conservators. Let’s go on to our next slide.

    EC: Leah and I have just been talking about how we’re conservators, and we’re just wondering if anyone knows what a conservator is. Have you ever heard that word before? Maybe if you haven’t, if you have a guess, what do you think it is that we might do in the museum? While you’re thinking about that I can tell you a little bit. One of the things we do is that we try to preserve all of the artworks in the collection. We try to keep it safe, and then if something happens, we try to make it better and fix it. Iris just said they fix things. That’s right, we do. If you think about it, we’re a lot like doctors for artwork. Just like when you go to the doctor, you go there for a checkup, to make sure everything is okay, we do the same thing for the art. If you’re not feeling well, there’s something wrong, the doctor tries to help you feel better and help you fix things, right? We’re basically like art doctors.

    We have special things that we wear. If you can see, I’m wearing a lab coat. I wear a lab coat for two reasons. When you go to the doctor, sometimes doctors wear lab coats, too, and what is the reason doctors wear lab coats? One of the things would be to protect myself from the stuff I’m working on so that I don’t get dirty. If you look at my sleeve, you can see that sometimes I get dirty when I’m using paint. That’s one of the reasons I wear a lab coat, but I also wear the lab coat to try to keep the artwork safe. If I’m wearing something like a fuzzy sweater or anything like that, I don’t want to get that on the art, so it serves two purposes.

    If you look in the picture, you can see that the conservators are wearing something special, too, that you don’t wear all the time. I’m wondering if you guys can take a look at the picture and see if you see anything that those conservators are wearing that are special things that they’re wearing to work. Take a look at their hands. See if you see anything special or different about what they’re wearing.

    ML: Iris wrote badges.

    EC: Right, they are wearing badges. We wear badges, especially in the galleries so that visitors and the security officers know that we are supposed to be there. They are also wearing gloves. We wear gloves because there are oils on everybody’s hands, and you wear gloves to make sure that you don’t get any of the oil on the artwork. Even if you wash your hands, and we wash our hands all the time, there’s still stuff on there that can damage artwork. I notice someone said in the chat they couldn’t see me and my lab coat. If I’m talking, can you see me? Can you see the lab coat? If not, the slideshow will get turned off later, and you’ll be able to see it.

    For now, let’s move forward a little bit and talk about some of the other things. When you guys are working on your projects, we’ll talk more about tools, but this just gives you an idea. This is my desk in the middle of a very busy project, and you can see all different kinds of tools that I have to work on artwork. We’ll talk about that a little bit more, but now I’m going to pass it off to Laura, who’s going to get you guys started.

    LH: Thanks, Ellen, yes. As Ellen mentioned, we will have time where we’ll take off the slideshow, so we have some other tools that we’ll be able to share and they’ll be larger. For right now, we want to get your hands busy, so please take out your carving material. You can have either a bar of soap or modeling clay or honestly anything you feel comfortable carving into. A soft material is going to be best. I have some tools with me that I’m going to use. Again, you can use what you have. I like to use a pencil or some sort of wooden stick. This is actually often used by conservators to wrap cotton around, so they use it as a cleaning tool like a cotton swab, but I just took off the cotton. It has a very dull point here, which is good. I also have some child safe pumpkin carving tools, which can be good, and then not a likely carving tool but very effective for this activity is a paperclip.

    What I’m going to do is think about what I want to create here, and I’m going to start with a basic design. You can either do it with the point of a pencil or you can use a wood stick, and I’m going to draw some lines here of the basic design, just an outline. You can see I started to do some curves here, so I can start to use that as a guide to cut away. Then, I’m going to start to carve these sides here, so I’m just going to take off big chunks. I’m using this child safe tool, but also if you want some smaller ones you can see how effective I’m just using the paperclip. It takes off this nice little point there. Start to carve away, and once you have your basic shape, you can see that it’s still pretty flat here, right? I’m going to carve away at the sides to really round it out. As you keep working, you can keep working on it and chip it little by little. That’s why we suggested two if you’re using soap. You might want to have a toothbrush – not one that you actively use – because it can have some shavings. You might want to be able to brush those away, and a toothbrush can be very helpful.

    ML: Laura, I think some people don’t have their settings set up so they can see it. I don’t know if for this part, if you want to just get rid of the PowerPoint.

    LH: I sure can. Let me stop sharing for a second, thank you. Again, I already started carving here, but once you draw an outline and impress it in to show you where to go, you can use some of your tools. This is my pumpkin carving tool here, a very dull one, and I start to take off these chunks. I also like to use this paperclip here to cut off even smaller pieces if I wanted to create a fun, little shape within that. You can also use this to cut off sides, too, or you can just break your little stick. Depending on which materials, some of it is stronger than others. One part that I did notice and take it off is you just keep shaving away little by little, and you also want to think about the surface.

    Once you carve away your basic shape you want to think about what you want on this surface, this top part here. Do you want to create some interesting textures or do you want to leave it very smooth? You might want to take your popsicle stick or skewer and make little designs on here. Ellen and Leah will be showing some examples of different things you can put on your surface here. You can create little lines. Just think about it as you start working, and we wanted to give you lots of time to work on this, so please continue working. We’re going to give you two examples. One from Freer and Sackler, and one from SAAM. At the end of this, we want you to take a picture, so as you’re working, have your caretaker take a picture of your artwork, and you can email it over to – I put it in the chat, and I’ll put it in again, and at the end of this we’ll get to see your creations. I’m going to go back to sharing.

    ML: We’ve done this workshop once before, and some people just shared a progress shot of their artwork, so if you’re not 100% done, it’s okay to share your artwork, and we’d love to see what progress you’ve made.

    LH: That’s a really good point. A few participants after the workshop will email us a final one, and that’s great, too, because we’re going to show you that we have a learning lab with all of the resources. If you want to share for that learning, there will be ample opportunity for you to do that. Okay, let’s keep going as you’re working, and Leah, would you like to share some source of inspiration for us?

    LB: I would. Alright, as you can see this is that same photo that we looked at initially at the very beginning, and this is a really fun piece that combines art and science. I know someone said they thought maybe it was a dinosaur or an elephant. What else do you see? Does anyone else have other ideas about what we could be looking at? It’s possible there are some hints on the screen there. Take a second and look closely.

    Yes, Jay said mammoth, and Carrie said woolly mammoth. Excellent. On the next slide we have a bit of an answer for you. Oh yes, Shirley said mastodon. Perfect timing for that answer. As you can see here on your left, this is what scientists think that that animal looked like when it was alive about 10,000 years ago. It is a mastodon, which is related to mammoths, but they look a little bit different. They’re not as hairy as you can see, and it kind of does look like an elephant.

    The one that is in the museum was dug up in the state of New York about 200 years ago. At that time, it was the largest land animal that anyone had ever known about. It was dug up by someone named Charles Wilson Peale, who is a famous painter, and he was friends with people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Eventually that skeleton ended up in Germany, and this is the first time that it’s back in the United States since it left. What do you think they’re doing on the right? What is going on there? There’s a bunch of different people, and it looks like they’re in our museum. What do you think is happening there?

    ML: Someone wrote in, Leah, that they thought that they might be putting it together.

    LB: Yes, Jay, good job. Luckily nothing had really happened to it at this point; this is all the different people who were needed to help put it up in the museum. It came to the museum in a bunch of different crates, in a bunch of boxes, and these are some of the people who helped put all of those bones together on display for you to see them in the museum.

    It’s not actually all fossilized bone. When it was dug up out of the ground, a lot of the bones were missing, so Mr. Peale actually hired a sculptor to make those missing bones out of wood. That’s why this is a particularly fun project for both scientists who study animals and for art conservators like me because it’s part animal and also part sculpture. This is a picture of me and some of the other conservators taking photos of the mastodon so that we can know more about which parts are carved wood and which parts are fossilized bone. Here’s a crazy photo. What do you notice? What is happening in this picture? Are there any different colors that you see? Are some parts different than others?

    ML: I see some people typing. Someone notices that some of the parts are blue and some of the parts are a brown color.

    LB: Yes, that is exactly right. If you can see its head and those big, long tusks – those look brown, and then most of the other bones look bright blue. There’s a little bit of difference between those blue colors. Some look much brighter and whiter, and some look darker and not as bright. The really bright white ones are actual bone. Jay is so on top of it: the blue might be real bones and the brown might be fake. Yes, you are spot on. The top of the head and those tusks are parts that were missing when it was dug up out of the ground. Those were made out of wood and plaster. Some of the ribs and leg parts are also made out of wood. It’s kind of hard to tell some of those differences, but you’re exactly right.

    In the next photo are some details or closeups of those wood carvings on the legs and the ribs. This is a great place to get some inspiration for your own carvings. On the left you can see little dots, and those are actually from the wood carver’s tools, so think about textures when you’re making your sculptures. What kind of textures can you make on your carving? On the right are the ribs of the mastodon, and there’s some writing on those. Those are numbers, and they are actually original. Those were made after the sculptor carved them. We think those were used to help put them together. I think it’s really cool that you can see the tool marks and the numbers, the writing, from someone who made these over 200 years ago. Feel free to put any other questions you have in the chat, and up next Ellen will show you some more fascinating marks and textures made on bone from the Freer and Sackler Gallery.

    EC: We have a lot of different kinds of objects in the Freer and Sackler which are made from bone. These are just a few of them, some of which may look more familiar to you than others. Take a quick look and see if you recognize any of these objects, see what they might be. Some of them are things we might have now or you’ve seen before, but they may not be made of bone now, but at the time they were made, bone is something that was used. Is there anything that you guys see that looks familiar?

    ML: Jay thought that this might be the tip of an arrow, and Harry said this looks like a comb. A comb, Iris said, too.

    EC: That’s right. That is an arrowhead that would be put onto the shaft of an arrow. On the lower left is a comb. You can see it’s old, and it’s been buried, some of the teeth are missing, and there’s some dirt in there, but yes exactly, it can be used to comb your hair. On the right, the box that you see is mostly lacquer. The red and the black is a different material, but the white images are carved from bone. Then, on the upper left, you can see a little piece which would have been a spatula. A whole spatula would have been carved, but I really like the face that was carved into it. I thought it might give you a good idea of the ways people can carve the surface of bone.

    When you guys were asking earlier about what was on the bone in the beginning, that was one of a number of pieces in our collection known as oracle bones. These are some other examples. These are smaller pieces, but they would be used for rituals where you could either ask a question and hope to get a question answered or make a prediction. A lot of the time it would be things like weather or a hunting expedition or is it a good time to perform a ritual to honor your ancestors? All kinds of different things.

    Like I was saying, these are over 3,000 years old and the writing is called a pictograph or a pictogram. It’s very early, and some of it is pictures and some of them are characters. A lot of them developed later on into the characters that are now used in Chinese writing, though some of them are separate. About half of them are very similar, so people can actually read these and understand what they say.

    If you go to the next one, Laura, this is that first example. I’m showing you this one because it’s bigger. They tend to break into small pieces because bones are fragile. This one has a whole section that’s written. You can see on the back, the way they would do the question answering, or the divination, it they would make little depressions and then heat them. Then, they would wait and see how the bone would crack, and depending on how the bone cracked, they would make a prediction. We don’t really know how they read the bones, just that they went through this process. They would record what they were asking in the answers, so we know in a lot of cases, especially on the bigger pieces.

    This one in particular was asking about the weather. It says if in the twelfth moon on day two, the question is whether it will rain, and it was predicted that it would rain on day fifteen. The answer is that it rained on the fourth day of the month, so maybe not quite right, it did rain, but not on the right day. On the left side, that’s only part of a question, but it’s a question about animals, and so you can see there’s an animal there, but we don’t have that whole part. It gives you an idea of the different kinds of symbols and ways of carving in what the pieces have.

    If you want to go to the next slide, Laura. To help us see them, sometimes you can see from the slide of the picture of the original object, but it’s sometimes hard to read them, so we’ll go through and very carefully record all of the different characters to make it a little bit easier to try to read it and understand what’s on there.

    This is for you guys. Sometimes you can actually guess or understand by looking at them, even if they’re not necessarily similar to a character. Sometimes they’re so similar to modern characters that you can see, but if you take a look at some of the ones that are on here – maybe take a look and see if you can guess what these symbols might be talking about. What do you think that one on the left that Laura is pointing to might be? Any ideas? Does it look like something similar to if you were drawing something? What does that look like? To me, it looks like some sort of animal. Does that give anybody some ideas?

    ML: Someone said it looks like it’s dancing or moving. And another person, Iris, says it looks like a mouse.

    EC: Cool, it does look kind of like a mouse, you’re right, but they actually think it’s either a mule or a deer. There’s another part there that’s talking about a number, so it’s talking about 20 deer. The apart on the other side is the whole part they’re talking about weather. Some of the ones circled in blue are the ones you might guess relating to weather, so what are some words you might use to talk about weather or time of day or anything like that.

    ML: Raining was something that Jiao said.

    EC: That’s right. Three dots are the character for rain. Then, Laura if you want to go to the next one, you guys can see what all four of them are. There’s the mule and the deer and rain, and then next to rain is sun which also means day, and then up top you can see the one that looks like a crescent. It looks a little bit like a moon, which is what it is, but it also represents month. You can see how the pictures connect directly to the words, and sometimes they are easier to figure out than others.

    One of the things about working with bone is that it can be very fragile, so for Leah and I, we have to think a lot about what makes it more fragile or how we can take care of it to try to prevent anything from happening. Bone can be very brittle and fragile and it’s very sensitive to the amount of water in the air, so if you think about what Washington is like in the summertime, it feels like there’s tons of water in the air, right? In the wintertime, it feels much dryer, and I don’t know about you, but my hands get really dry in the winter. Number 1, because I’m washing them, but 2 because it’s so dry.

    Bone doesn’t like it when it gets really dry, it makes it crack and break, so if you look at the one on the left you can see all those cracks. Part of that is because it got too dry at some point. This was before it came to our collection. It’s a good example, so I’m showing it to you. The oracle bones are already cracked as part of their use in their culture, it makes them more susceptible, but it’s also really important because we want to keep those cracks in that case because they’re part of its use. It’s part of its history. We have to think really hard, in that case, about how to preserve it but also make sure no more damage happens.

    If you look at the piece on the right, sometimes we have old repairs that someone did a long time ago because the bones are so easy to break and sometimes the repairs are actually causing their own damage, and they’re hard to undo. Whenever we work on stuff, we try to do things that are easier to take apart if something goes wrong or we have to redo something.

    I think, for now, these are just a couple of our examples. I can show you that I did the one on the left, which was kind of inspired by the piece of the spatula that I showed you in that earlier slide. Leah made the awesome cat on the right, so she can talk about that.

    LB: Yes, here’s my little sculpture here. Oh, perfect. Next, we’re going to talk about the Art Doctor report, and send us photos of your sculptures. We would love to see them. An important part of our job is filling out these Art Doctor reports to make sure that all of the artwork is healthy and in good condition to make sure it stays that way. We’ll go through this with you guys using my little sculpture here. At the top it says art doctor or conservator’s name, so that would be me, Leah, and the art’s name. What would you title this? What do you think this sculpture should be called? Any ideas? Let’s see. I don’t know the best way for you to see it, but there we go.

    ML: We see some people typing. Someone wrote, “Grumpy Cat.”

    LB: That’s perfect. I love it. This was based off my sister’s cat, who is in fact a very grumpy cat, so I think you really got that there. I’m going to call it “Grumpy Cat,” and the examination asks what three words best describe your artwork? Someone already said grumpy, but are there any other words that you think describe this sculpture? Anything like color or maybe the texture. What words describe this carving?

    ML: Carrie says “cute,” Jay says “important,” and Perry agrees with Carrie and says “cute.”

    LB: Thanks, everyone. I’m glad you think it’s cute, so cute would be good. Clara says white. Yes, it is white. You probably can’t see it very well, but I also tried to make it look fuzzy. I used a fork to give it texture, so hopefully it looks fuzzy. Perfect, those are great words, and the next question asks which emoji best describes how you felt creating the art? I felt really proud of myself making this carving, so I would probably choose the sunglasses emoji. I hope you all feel pretty happy making your carvings.

    The next question is what can you do to best care of your art? If this was real bone, just like Ellen said in the beginning, you would want to make sure your hands are either wearing gloves or they’re very clean. Bone can stain and anything that is on your hands could stain bone. She also talked about the amount of water in the air, so if this was a bone sculpture, we would want to try our best to make sure it’s in an environment that doesn’t have too much or too little water in the air. I would probably also want to keep this out of direct sunlight because bright sunlight, just like our skin, artwork can get damaged by the sun.

    Those are pretty important, and at the bottom is a place for you to sketch and draw your own carvings and your own artwork that you’ve created. That can help us monitor over time any changes or issues that are going on with your sculpture. I hope that makes sense. Let us know if you have any questions about the Art Doctor report. Most importantly, send us pictures of your carvings, even if they’re in process. We’d love to share them with everybody and see what you’ve created.

    LH: Thanks, Leah. As we mentioned, too, we have a Learning Lab that we will be sending out in our follow up email where we put together all of these resources. There will be a place for our examples and your artwork to live as well as the PowerPoint and other links if you want to learn more. We also always encourage you to think about looking around your house to see what other materials you could possibly use. We mentioned modeling clay and soap. There’s a lot of different artwork that has been carved and a lot of different materials that you could use.
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