Behind the Scenes: The Conservation Lab


As you can probably imagine, the art and artifacts you see throughout Glenbow require significant care and attention to preserve and protect them. Conservators are skilled chemists, painters, sculptors and problem solvers dedicated to the art and science of making delicate interventions needed to address the wear and tear of time. Glenbow’s conservators occupy a large, purpose-built lab on the northeast corner of the eighth floor of our building where they methodically mend all manner of objects with expert care. We thought you’d enjoy a peek into the working world of our three conservators, Marianne Breault, Heather Dumka and Lisa Isley as they tend to three fascinating objects from our collection.

Sculptural Polish

Glenbow art conservator Marianne Breault with Katie Ohe's Ripple

The first thing you notice when you walk into consevartor Marianne Breault’s area of the lab is that there just happens to be a Lawren Harris painting awaiting attention at a work station. Breault laughs when asked if working on art of such famous pedigree makes her nervous.

“We always use the same methodology and the same care, regardless of the worth of the object,” she explains.

Today Breault is polishing an artwork from a master much closer to home – it’s a 1973 bronze sculpture called Ripple by renowned Calgary artist Katie Ohe.

“It’s a good example of why we shouldn’t handle bronze objects with our [bare] hands – most of the damage was caused by handling,” she says, adding that the work also sustained light scratch marks at some point in its 46 year history, possibly from an attempt to polish it with an inappropriate agent, namely a cleaning solution with strong additives and abrasives.

Ripple, before and after treatment

To avoid further scuffing, Breault uses just a stick of wax and a gentle abrasive to return Ripple to its original lustre. “Since there are no additives, I know what I’m putting on the object, and I know that when I rinse there will be no residue left,” says Breault.

One imagines that Ohe’s work typically causes challenges for conservators, as her kinetic sculptures are intended to be spun, turned or twisted by the public. In such cases, a protective coating is applied. However, in the case of Ripple, the art is a stationary piece, so the sculpture will be exhibited in a display case – no fingerprints this time!

Doll TLC

"Mama Pop" and artifact conservator Heather Dumka
Most of the "Mama Pop's" damage was easily concealed by the doll's clothes

The somewhat battered little doll put into the care of artifact conservator Heather Dumka was far from the most complicated or time-consuming job she’s ever faced at Glenbow. She says that honour would probably go to an Inuit beaded skin parka that she relined over the course of some 300 hours of work. In contrast, the doll only required about an hour’s care.

Although it arrived at the conservation lab with a large hole in its fired clay head, Dumka didn’t need to figure out how to fill it in as the doll’s bonnet handily covered up the unsightly aperture. So after a gentle face wash, a small crepeline patch to its torso and a good steaming of its clothes, the doll was fit for display.

But what seems like a rather unassuming artifact actually comes with a powerful history. The person who donated the doll to Glenbow, Jeanette de Miranda, received it as a gift from her father on her 8th birthday in 1942 in the Netherlands, which was under Nazi occupation. Shortly after, her father, who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, was sent to Auschwitz where he died. The doll, which de Miranda had named “Mama Pop,” was one of the relatively few items she brought with her when she immigrated to Canada in 1959.

“It’s very moving,” says Dumka. “Some of these objects in
the collection don’t look like much, but then you start hearing or reading
about the history behind them and they become special.”

Stain Be Gone!

Top: before treatment; Above: successful stain reduction

Paper conservator Lisa Isley’s latest project also has an interesting backstory, albeit one that’s curious rather than tragic. Isley has been working to reduce a large stain on the right hand side of an ink and pencil drawing by American illustrator Rose Cecil O’Neill (1874 – 1944) whose work appeared in Cosmopolitan, Life Magazine, Good Housekeeping and many other prominent publications.

However, O’Neill’s most enduring contribution to popular culture was a result of her work as an entrepreneur – in 1913 she patented Kewpie Dolls. The strange little beings first emerged from her pen and onto the pages of Ladies Home Journal in 1909, but as their two-dimensional adventures gained popularity, O’Neill began marketing them as toys.

Today, though, the only gremlin-like creatures Isley needs to worry about are the mythical variety that make mischief out of aging artworks by way of staining and tearing. Treatment of this particular piece first involved testing to determine the sensitivities of the paper and media, followed by a wash to de-acidify the paper and allow for localized stain reduction. Finally, after the piece was flattened, Isley mended the tears. As you can see by the images to the right, the process worked beautifully.

“There’s satisfaction knowing that the piece can be experienced without that distraction,” says Isley of her successful process. Reflecting on the work itself, she says, “It was really interesting to look at the illustration and then realize this is the same person who invented the Kewpie dolls. It’s kind of fun because it’s a cultural icon most people can connect with.”

You’ll be able to see Katie Ohe’s Ripple and “Mama Pop” as part of the exhibition Recent Acquisitions, opening March 30, 2019 at Glenbow. Rose Cecil O’Neill’s illustration is included in the exhibition Ladylikeness: Historical Portraits of Women by Women, on now at Glenbow.

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