Story by Jim Caiella, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Just 18 months old, the Conservation Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), has made its mark nationally. Already, the small four-person staff, led by branch head David Krop, has helped restore and conserve a very large 12-by-8-by-4 foot World War II diorama at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in California, has been engaged by the Marine Corps to aid in its efforts in identifying and preserving artifacts within its areas of operations, and helped preserve a granite marker dedicated to Sailors and airmen at an Air National Guard base in New Jersey. None of these are what the branch was created to specifically address, but all are within keeping of its and the command’s larger mission of outreach and support, especially here in the case of the Marines, to the warfighter.
The Conservation Branch is on a par with its sister branches—Curator, Underwater Archaeology, and Art—within the Collections Management Division. It, along with most of the Curator Branch, is housed at NHHC’s Collection Management Facility (CMF) at the Defense Logistics Agency compound in Richmond, Virginia. At the huge facility with three 400-foot-long by 120-foot-wide bays, the conservators are temporarily sharing workspace with curators in “A” Bay as work continues on their Main Conservation Lab, which is about 50 percent complete.
Krop was the branch’s first hire. Coming to the Navy from nearly a dozen years work with the U.S.S. Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, he was given a blank slate to create the branch’s work environment. “The division had done a fantastic job in working up and preparing this [CMF] facility.” They had a “footprint laid down for conservation and established its layout” and “allowed me to fill the spaces. Their trust carries a great responsibility.”
The branch’s primary function is to document and handle conservation functions within the NHHC house. Second, is to deliver conservation services to the command, especially its nine museums nationwide, and third, is to assist other government and non-profit agencies as possible.
The mention of conservation yields a mental image of the hands-on and “most glamorous” work with individual artifacts, “but,” Krop added, “that is just one piece.” Before substantive and, most importantly, proper conservation can begin, conservators need to fully identify the piece. Certainly the piece’s place in history is the primary concern. But more important to the piece’s conservation is its own history. When was it constructed? By whom? What are its materials? What stresses and environments has it encountered over the years? What was done to it over time?—Was the bell frequently polished with Brasso? Was it painted, stripped, painted again? What paints? What stripper? All these and many more highly detailed forensic questions are asked and answered before work begins.
Modern conservators work to preserve a piece to a status no worse than it currently has. Much like the medical profession, their mantra is “to do no harm.” While restoration to its former glory, such as one would “by repairing a dinged door on a ’57 Chevy,” was taken as good practice in years past; conservators today take a different approach. Often, such repairs resulted in further injury the piece, and were of such materials that the fixes could not be repaired. Today, if restoration is the goal, conservators use reversible fixes as a solution, such as those being implemented by Senior Conservator Yoonjo Lee on a set of ceremonial bullets from USS Enterprise (CVN 65).
To prepare them for display in the Pentagon office of the Director of Navy Staff, Lee uses a water-soluble acrylic putty to fill gaps created by missing pieces of the wood structure. Once the structure is built up and the putty has dried she will match the surrounding colors with water-soluble paints. Hence, if necessary, all her work can be stripped and the object returned to its pre-conservation state.
Lee’s main project is preservation of Admiral George Dewey’s greatcoat. In her preparation for conservation, she discovered under microscopic evaluation of some of the coat’s fibers, that an early assessment had been flawed, and that this portion of the coat required an entirely different preservation treatment.
Another small piece of the magnificent Enterprise is the small quarterdeck bell that Conservator Karl Knauer is laboring over. Its problem is not missing pieces or chipped paint, but fingerprints. Few realize that the oils of human skin can etch metal. Such is the case with this bell. Krop noted, “These are so detailed we could forensically identify the individual.” Obviously with etching one does not wipe the prints away. Knaurer started with their most basic tools, mild solvents, which do not affect the metal. With no effect observed, he turns to very mild abrasives, to keep metal loss to a minimum. Calcium carbonate, a very soft white powder that one would almost expect to see used as a cosmetic base, is working. [Knauer 2]
A nearby table holds three bells. Although apparently similar, none are going to receive the same treatment. Each, because of its history, has its own unique issues. One had previously been wrapped in tape leaving a residue, which attracts other contaminants. An early test showed that scraping with a soft bamboo stick works best for its removal. Another bell appeared to have been wrapped in a rope, perhaps coated with tar. The treatment has not yet been decided. And the third has a significant large crack that extends from almost top to bottom. The goal is to stabilize the crack and have it expand no further. Knauer devised and built a solution. As displayed, the bell rested on its rim, which was uneven. This added stress to the crack expanding it. Knauer’s device supports the bell it one point, its top, lettings its weight naturally hang as it was designed, which relieves all stresses.
One cannot help but be awed by the extreme range of tools, techniques, and expertise required of conservators. Their “toolkits,” as one termed it, are both mental and physical and have been accumulated over years of experience. Indeed, as Krop noted, “the Navy is fortunate to have such highly trained and skilled conservators.”