You see their work in visitor centers scattered across the nation—18th-century paintings by our nation’s early masters, mahogany desks where historic speeches were penned, early
photographs of abolitionists, and authentic uniforms from Civil War soldiers. Meet the
talented people who preserve the age-old artifacts that tell America’s stories.
By Scott Kirkwood
A few miles west of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, just off a service road that winds past several fast-food restaurants, an auto-parts store, and a church, you’ll find a nondescript, low-slung building where a handful of talented people preserve hundreds of artifacts that bring history to life in our national parks. Workers at the Harpers Ferry Conservation Center in Charles Town, West Virginia, mend and preserve historic flags, chairs, desks, paintings, photographs, and every other physical manifestation of our nation’s history that you can imagine. With more than 120 million items spread out across its 394 properties, the Park Service's holdings are second only to the Smithsonian's, which include a whopping 137 million. This is the workbench where these iconic objects are preserved for years to come. Turn the page and meet a few of the people who do the painstaking, time-consuming work that few of us ever see.
Theresa Voellinger had plans to work as a printmaker and painter, but when she completed her undergraduate degree at Binghamton University in New York, she struggled to plot out a career. Life as an artist wasn’t ideal, and graphic design didn’t work out, but she soon heard about the field of art conservation, and the combination of art and science intrigued her. Three years of graduate school at Buffalo State College gave her the skills she needed to be a paper and photography conservator, and a fellowship at the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego set her on a course. Then she discovered the Park Service.
“I didn’t realize the vast amount of museum collections in the National Park Service—a lot of people don’t,” she says. “People see the parks for their natural beauty, and they go into the visitor center, and they don’t realize how many more artifacts we have beyond the few objects we put on exhibit. Once I looked into a career here, I became fascinated with the opportunity to work with so many fabulous collections that a lot of people don’t realize exist, like the collections at Teddy Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill, all the Native American objects, and letters from Civil War soldiers.” Voellinger even admits to getting so caught up in the work that she sometimes finds herself reading the decades-old journals, then remembering she’s got a job to do.
There aren’t any instruction manuals for how to treat an 18th-century portrait, a hundred-year-old photograph, or a letter from Robert E. Lee. And there are no second chances. “As a conservator, you’re a little bit of a forensic scientist,” she says. “Every treatment is its own life; you have to learn as much as you can before you take any action, then watch the results every step of the way. I love the analytical side—the problem solving, figuring out how to treat a document or a painting without doing any damage to it.”
Voellinger spends about half the year on the road, visiting the parks to review their collections in person, suggesting better storage options, and estimating the cost and types of treatment required of artifacts in different collections.
“My visit to Kalaupapa in Hawaii affected me the most,” she says. “The park has a powerful collection that’s just starting to come together to tell the story of the Native Hawaiian culture and the presence of people with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. Many of the materials were created by the people themselves, because their eyesight was failing or they’d lost part of their fingers. I remember looking at a collection of white tools and wondering about them, until an interpreter at the park told me that a man had painted a wall of his garage black and painted all of his tools white, so he could see them against the dark background. The stories behind the objects say so much about the people who lived there.”
Many people who work in museum conservation have years of schooling and several degrees, but Larry Bowers entered the field as an accomplished violin maker. Since joining the Park Service in 1984, he’s learned everything he needs to know through apprenticeships at Harpers Ferry Center, ongoing training courses with the Smithsonian, and years of simply learning by doing.
Because of the size of the objects he’s often working on, and the costs associated with transporting furniture and maintaining humidity and temperature levels, the work often requires traveling to sites. That means leaving the wood shop behind and transporting as many tools as possible to the parks. Bowers spent much of October working on wooden artifacts in the main house at Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut, a site that commemorates J. Alden Weir and other American impressionist painters from the turn of the 19th century. The Park Service acquired the house in October 1990 and hopes to open the artist studios to the public in late 2011; the house itself won’t be open for some time yet.
“We’re always striking a balance between conservation and restoration,” says Bowers, “but the ideal is to maintain the integrity of the piece. For furniture, that means we don’t strip the finish, because it’s integral to its historical value. We also try to do whatever we can in a manner that can be reversed in the future, should some new technique or reason be required to return it to the state it was in before we touched it.”
That means layers of linseed oil and cigar smoke are removed, but the original finish is never touched. Holes are filled with epoxy, and the tone of the wood is matched. Cracks are stabilized, so no further damage comes to the object. Missing table legs might be replaced, but they’re clearly labeled as new materials so future historians won’t mistake them as original. Special water-soluble glue made of horse and cattle hooves is used so that any work can be reversed.
Much of Bowers’ time is consumed with the painstaking work of cleaning up years of detritus that has accumulated on a piece, which means he goes through a lot of cotton swabs. But it’s worth it.
“I really enjoy working with wood, and I get to handle a lot of artifacts that really are meaningful,” he says. “Years ago, I was working on the propeller from the very first Wright Brothers airplane. More recently, I was in Atlanta surveying Martin Luther King Jr.’s artifacts in the King Center, which is owned by the family, and I saw some of the items that were with Dr. King when he was assassinated: his traveling case with his notebook, his shaving kit with the shaving cream he used that day, bits of his hair… that’s a very moving, emotional thing. I’ve worked on White House furniture, Robert E. Lee’s field desk, and smaller items like a relic from an old mine in the West. All of it gives us a sense of history and a chance to touch a lot of what represents America.”
Inorganic Objects Conservator
David Arnold was 41 when he returned to college to complete schooling that he’d postponed while he served his country in Vietnam. After receiving his M.S. from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 1994, he went on to work at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia and did a stint at the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities. Finally, the Harpers Ferry Center hired him to work on historic military arms of the Fuller Gun Collection, which includes almost every type of shoulder arm ever used by the U.S. military, from Civil War rifles to guns from World War I. That collection is now on exhibit at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Arnold later worked on even more guns at Springfield Armory in Massachusetts before returning to the Harpers Ferry Center.
Arnold has worked primarily on metal objects, including the Anacapa Island Lighthouse at Channel Islands National Park, commercial fishing equipment at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, mining equipment at Keweenaw National Historical Park, and printing presses for Weir Farm National Historic Site. He also worked on a Congreve rocket from Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine that was used during the War of 1812, and still wonders if it generated the “rockets’ red glare” that inspired Francis Scott Key’s anthem.
“I haven’t been here long enough to describe my ‘typical’ work,” he says, “but when I first came, I worked on some equipment from Edison’s lab—a prototype for a record changer made in the first quarter of the 20th century—and as I was cleaning up the piece, [I realized] that it shows us how Edison’s technicians worked. Rather than using computer software to work in three dimensions, they just started throwing stuff together, moving things around, tightening bolts. If it didn’t work out, they’d rework the mechanics, engineer it into something marketable, then scale it down to a smaller size.
“Anytime you get to treat important historic artifacts, it’s a reward in itself,” he says. “It’s a privilege to discover how Edison’s workers operated—we get closer to these objects than anybody, and sometimes we learn things we can then share with curators and collection managers to help tell their stories. The satisfaction we get in completing the treatment of an object must be like the satisfaction that framing carpenters get: They start the week with nothing, then they create a platform, and in three days it’s starting to look like a building; by the time they walk away, they can see what they’ve created.
“I realize that opportunities for working in museum laboratories are limited. I made a good choice when changing careers, and it’s paid off many times over.”
Deby Bellman began working at the Conservation Center in 1987, and she spoke to National Parks magazine a week before retiring, in December 2010. She’d spent 23 years working on “everything that’s got a thread in it,” as she says, including, in recent weeks, a Navajo rug from Death Valley, a folding Civil War camp stool from Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and flags—lots of flags.
Large items, like those flags, aren’t generally sewn back together; instead Bellman adds a matching layer of cloth behind them to give the illusion that the piece is complete when viewed from a distance, without doing any harm to the original. But smaller, more intricate pieces may require hours of time spent hand stitching, so that each thread matches perfectly, meshing the cloth’s pattern in the sections being re-joined.
“I’ve always loved sewing and knitting, always liked to do things with my hands,” says Bellman. “Years ago, I was in a quilting group when the Conservation Center called us about a flag in need of repair—they were looking for people who could just sit and sew. And I ended up with a job. I didn’t have any specific schooling like some of the other conservators here—most of my learning has been on the job, under the guidance of a textile conservator who taught me what she knew.
“When I was younger, I sewed household items, and I even made my wedding gown, because it was cheaper than buying one,” she says. “Now, because so many things are easily available, no one really sews anymore—people just go out and buy their clothes—but when I was growing up we didn’t have the money to go out and buy clothes. Of course, I’ve gotten to the point where I stopped making clothes; when you sew all day at work, you don’t want to go home and do even more.”
Among the things she’ll miss in her retirement is the variety of items that came across her expansive sewing table.
“I love that the work is always different—you never know what’s coming in next. This is the first time I remember ever having an Indian rug in the lab. I remember working on George Washington’s camp tent from the Revolutionary War, and that was a pleasure, because of the history behind it all.
“When you’re working with your hands and doing something that has a clear result at the end of the day, it’s rewarding… to accomplish something and see an actual change, and look back at the fabric from a little camp chair that was ripped in half and to be able to say, ‘After all that work, it looks pretty good.’”
Organic Objects Conservator
Barbara Cumberland began working at the Conservation Center as a college intern while getting a master’s degree in museum science from Texas Tech University. Until then, she had no idea that she might end up in conservation. But when the internship came to an end, she was offered a full-time job in 1988. She’s been with the Park Service ever since.
Cumberland is part of the objects conservation lab staff, working with a potpourri of composite objects that include metal and wood, leather, and even taxidermy animals from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. She’s worked on cannons from Fort Caroline National Memorial in Florida and other military objects, like leather cartridge boxes, scabbards, and holsters, which means she’s a jack of all trades but also a master of some.
“Mammoth Cave is creating an exhibit that will open in the summer of 2011, so we’ve been working on a number of different kinds of objects, including a fiber sandal from the cave, which American Indians used as shelter,” she says. The item’s catalog card identifies the piece as pre-1650, but it could be as much as 900 to 1,000 years old. “Objects like this are difficult to work on, because they’re so brittle and fragile,” says Cumberland. “This work is actually more like basketry than working with
“I’ve always been interested in museums and historic objects—old things,” she says, “so I like getting my hands on a variety of different items, whether it’s the leather seat of a carriage with horsehair stuffing or a brittle silk fan from Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.” Or, every once in a while, even a bald eagle.