Conserving Three-Dimensional Objects

  • The three-dimensional objects treated in this lab are made of a variety of materials and often times a combination of materials. Conservators working here are trained and equipped to handle different types of stone, wood, metal, bone, shell, ceramic, leather, rubber, and synthetic materials. Treatments vary depending on the size, shape, and composition of the object, from the tiniest miniature locket to multi-ton sculptures. Like all conservators, an objects conservator's responsibilities include research, monitoring environmental conditions, and evaluating preservation concerns for objects on loan, on exhibition, and in storage.

    NARRATOR: Objects conservator Helen Ingalls and curator George Gurney carefully plan for a major treatment to Ferdinand Pettrich’s sculpture "The Dying Tecumseh." In 1878, before entering the Smithsonian’s collection, the sculpture’s tomahawk was shortened and rotated 180 degrees. Written documents and photos of the artist’s plaster model confirmed this alteration. Curators and conservators frequently collaborate to figure out how to accurately preserve an artist’s original intent.

    HELEN INGALLS: It was a perfect opportunity to set right what is not right and what’s been bothering us for a long time. So, I’m delighted to be able to do this finally, to do right by Tecumseh.

    NARRATOR: A hard stonelike material held the reversed tomahawk in place. There are no records of the materials used, and the space between the hand and the shaft is tight. A single slip could put the marble in jeopardy. It’s a risky procedure requiring multiple techniques and a steady hand.

    HI: I’ll proceed figuring it out as I go. I won’t necessarily know the exact right tool the minute I start working on it. This is always a process of discovery and experimentation.

    NARRATOR: Once loosened from the hand and the base the tomahawk is removed with care so that it can be repositioned and lengthened. A dowel fits into the end of the existing metal-shaft. And a copper pipe slips into place around it. The documentation specifies that exactly 15 inches were removed, so the new extension is exactly 15 inches long. The copper pipe will be painted to match the existing shaft. A trial run reveals that the sculpture’s arm needs to turn to accept the longer shaft. Fortunately, the angle of the arm joint could be easily adjusted along an existing seam.

    HI: One of the good things about being able to take the arm off is that I could see the position had changed, that it had rotated slightly. It seems clear to me just based on the musculature when it’s in this position, that in fact we can adjust it slightly back to what the artist originally conceived. So that’s an exciting change that we didn’t anticipate.

    NARRATOR: Fully cleaned and restored, Tecumseh is now on view on the second floor of the museum. With the tomahawk’s blade extended overhead, the piece once again reflects the warrior’s dying moment with dignity and grace.
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