POSTED: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Museums, those libraries of reality, keep things safe - at least that's the goal. Time and weather and eBay tend to chip away at what was once pristine. The major museums of the world, like Honolulu's Bishop Museum, have teams of conservationists working behind the scenes, preserving and protecting, trying to roll back time.



Bishop Museum faces the
challenge of how to pre-
serve the unique character
of historic Hawaiian Hall,
while making it a modern,
safe repository for some of
Hawaii's most sacred arti-

In articles through out the
year, we'll examine the nuts
and bolts of how expert crafts-
men and preservation archi-
tects are making that happen.


Generally this work is done incrementally. But with the renovation of Hawaiian Hall, the museum's conservationists are busy beavering away, stabilizing hundreds of artifacts in a kind of production line. Those rehabbed koa cases with individual climate controls won't fill themselves.

“;There's a schedule of artifacts to be cleaned and stabilized, about five a day, and we're not too far behind,”; sighs conservator Linda Hee. She's aided by assistants Kaori Akiyama and Shannan Chan, and volunteer Liane Ikemoto. “;By May it'll be up to 15 a day. There's a LOT to do.”;

And there are lots of varying artifacts, each requiring a different technique. This day they range from a simple, ancient Hawaiian gourd to a spread of kapa to Prince Kuhio's Masonic apron to revolutionary Robert Wilcox's military shell jacket.

The apron, which could be satin, is showing its age, with some unraveling and thin spots. “;It will be on display, but there's some physical damage,”; said Hee. “;The waist band is lost, the elasticized ties have lost their rubber. The weft is gone in the satin.”;

To stabilize the apron, frayed silk mesh is hand-stitched behind the holes. The silk has a very fine weave, and the stitches are near-microscopic. On the other hand, the polyester cloth backing won't fray when it's cut with heat.

“;There's a whole body of conservational science that has grown up over the last couple of decades that promotes reversibility in conservation,”; said Hee. “;Whatever you do, can you undo it?”;

Inherently fragile fabrics are a tough issue because they're meant to be draped and hung. Often this means a supporting backing stitched or glued into place with a PH-neutral adhesive.

Holes in the kapa are being patched with Japan tissue and wheatstarch paste, with blotters of small glass plates and tiny sandbags of lead shot liberated from the gun owners in Hee's family. “;The kapa is really slowing us down, but it's beautifully decorated,”; said Ikemoto.

The gourd, a natural material, is actually suffering from earnest conservation attempts of a century ago. Chan is scrubbing it with distilled water, long-handled Q-tips and microspatulas, taking off a layer of darkening shellac that was enthusiastically slathered on by Victorian conservators. “;These days, they'd have used polyurethane, and we'd never get it off,”; said Chan.

One flake of ancient shellac at a time, the gourd is emerging from its shell. Wilcox's jacket, however, looks like it was made yesterday. “;Just needs a bit of Tetrachloroethylene, or dry-cleaning fluid,”; said Hee.

Some of the bright, brass buttons are tarnished, from long-ago skin oils, and they'll be cleaned. One button is missing, however, and it will not be replaced.

And that encapsulates the ongoing judgment call of all conservators - to clean and stabilize, or to repair, replace or rebuild. “;Wear and tear is part of the history of artifacts,”; said Hee. “;You don't want to wipe away history.”;