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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Conserving a "Shipwrecked Mother and Child"

The conservation treatment of Shipwrecked Mother and Child by Edward Augustus Brackett (American, 1818–1908) is in full swing!

Soon after the sculpture arrived in the Museum’s Jeppson Idea Lab from the basement storage room last October, as the conservator of this project, I moved my equipment, tools, and materials into this gallery. I then began the conservation treatment of this slightly over-life-size sculpture depicting a shipwrecked mother and her child lying on the edge of the ocean on a rocky shore outcrop. Many visitors have already enjoyed watching me work through the glass doors as I engaged in the first major chapter of the conservation treatment—cleaning the sculpture.

When I began cleaning the white marble surface, it became immediately apparent how much dirt and grime had accumulated on it over the 150 years since Mr. Brackett carved this imposing artwork from one huge piece of marble. During careful examination over the last few months, I discovered—to the great delight of WAM’s assistant curator of American Art, Erin Corrales-Diaz—that the marble base is not a separate piece of stone but the very same as the bulk of the artwork.

In the initial testing phase, I also found that many different types of dirt, grime, accretions, and other deposits exist on the surface—each one needing a slightly different chemical or chemical mix to be dissolved and removed. To address these, I developed a cleaning protocol that will take place in three steps. Before the Museum closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was currently engaged in the first and most time-consuming step of removing the thickest of dirt and grime layers using a water-based, scientifically-formulated cleaning solution using brushes and swabs.

The second step will involve using a gel that holds the cleaning agents, which includes solvents that will dissolve waxes and greasy components on the surface of the sculpture. The gel is applied with a brush and, after a minute or so, the gel with the dissolved unwanted substances is removed with brushes and cotton pads. Finally, the gel residues are cleared off with a solvent. For this step, I will use a local fume extractor because of the toxicity of some gel components.

Edward Augustus Brackett (American, 1818–1908),
 Shipwrecked Mother and Child, 1848–1851, white marble,
Gift of Edward Augustus Brackett, 1904.64
The third and final cleaning step will involve using a laser to specifically remove numerous dark markings and scuffs scattered over the entire surface.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was halted but will resume when the Museum re-opens to the public again. Please come back and visit us then to check out the progress of this exciting conservation project!

Learn more about this important conservation project:

—Paula Artal-Isbrand
   Objects Conservator
   April 21, 2020

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