Today, depictions of the latest and greatest technological advancements can be found everywhere, from screen printed T-shirts to modern works of art. Evidence of our continued fascination with new inventions and technologies is documented in artwork worldwide from the earliest artistic expressions, and the advent of ballooning in the 18th century was no exception. Although by today’s standards, balloons don’t seem like the latest and greatest technology, ballooning opened the skies to humankind and with this came artwork showing off the trendiest new technology--the balloon.
The Clouds in a Bag exhibit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, displays many early renditions of ballooning, including balloon-inspired dinnerware, decorative boxes, prints, fans, and other ephemera.
One charming gem of the collection is a dance card box complete with an ivory card reading “Kiss me darling.” The wooden box was colorfully painted with two balloons over countryside landscapes. It is also one of my favorite pieces in the exhibit!
In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, balls and dances were places where people socialized and danced ( think Little Women, Gone with the Wind, or a Venetian ball). Each lady had a dance card and gentlemen would “sign up” for a specific dance with her by writing his name on her dance card. This way, the lady would have a list of gentlemen to dance with in a specific order over the course of the evening. Some dance cards were very elaborate and others were simple. The dance card for this case is made of two panels of thinly-sawn ivory held together with a copper alloy pin.
The dance card fits into the interior of the box and there is even a slot to store a writing utensil.
The box is made from thin wooden panels joined at the corners. The interior lips of the box are fitted with silver and were originally connected with a hinge, which has since broken. The exterior was decorated by the artist with a ground layer and paint layer, then finished with a layer of natural varnish.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conserve the dance card box for the exhibit . Conservation doesn’t just entail hands-on work. It encompasses examination, documentation, material testing, scientific analysis, treatment, condition assessment, ethical considerations, and curatorial input. Each object has a unique history, method of manufacture, and condition. Therefore, a conservator’s approach is catered to the specific needs of the piece, and my work on this artifact was no exception
Documentation and proposing a treatment
Conservation is also a collaborative process. At the beginning of the treatment process, conservators typically have a discussion with the curator about the goals of the treatment and anything specific to the object that may impact the conservation process. With this object, the curator wanted to preserve the appearance of age while reducing the visibility of the damages.
I started my examination of the object with before-treatment photographs and documentation of the the pre-treatment condition in a report. The examination informed the treatment proposal, which outlined the steps I intended to take to conserve the object.
For this particular box, there were local areas of unstable paint and scattered losses to the paint, varnish, and ground layers. Additionally, the losses detracted from the overall design and distracted the viewer from the artist’s intent. Considering the box is approximately 200 years old, it is in great condition. The damages were likely caused by environmental fluctuations and the natural aging of the materials: Wood can expand and contract as it absorbs or loses moisture from the air. As paint ages, it becomes brittle which, combined with dimensional changes in the wood, can lead to cracks in the paint or detachment of the paint from the wood.
The goals of the treatment were:
- To stabilize the vulnerable paint layers to prevent further loss
- To reduce the visibility of the losses with inpainting to reconstruct the lost or damaged parts of the painting
To stabilize the paint layers, I needed to pick a suitable adhesive. The dance card box’s materials, as well as solubility testing of the ground, paint, and varnish layers, helped guide me in selecting the adhesive. For this project, I chose Isinglass, an adhesive made from the swim bladder of a sturgeon. This adhesive works well with natural materials like the ones found on the dance card box. Using a fine brush, I applied the adhesive to losses and cracks several times in order to stabilize the paint layers. Then, I carefully removed all excess adhesive. Once the paint was consolidated and stabilized, I prepared for one of my favorite treatment steps, inpainting.
For objects where the aesthetics are an important part of the piece, inpainting can be appropriate. Inpainting helps reduce the visibility of losses. When the losses are inpainted, the object conveys the artist’s intent as the damage is no longer visually distracting. For the dance card box, inpainting was deemed appropriate because the losses to the paint hampered the reading of the design.
First, I applied a barrier layer to each of the losses to prevent any inpainting material from permanently affecting the object. Each damaged section was inpainted with watercolor paints to reduce the losses’ visibility, and I only inpainted in areas of loss so as not to cover the original design elements. During the treatment, I consulted with curator Tom Crouch to ensure that the level and amount of inpainting was appropriate as well as to assess that aesthetically, the object looked “whole”.
After the treatment was complete, I documented the after treatment condition and treatment steps for future reference and research. This documentation will allow for conservators in the future to know what I used and how to selectively remove my materials if the need arises. With any treatment, conservators aim to use materials that are inherently stable and can be removed safely from the object without causing any alteration to the original artifact. Conservation materials have a useable life-span and once that lifespan is reached, it is important to be able to remove the materials that were added to the object.
With my conservation work complete, the dance card box is now stable The paint losses are no longer distracting to the viewer and the images appear as they were originally intended by the artist.
An unexpected bonus to this project was performing infrared (IR) photography of the box. To accomplish this task, light sources emitting infrared wavelengths were used to illuminate the object, and a modified digital camera was used to capture the image. IR photography is widely used in conservation and is most famously known for identifying the presence of underdrawings or preparatory sketches on paintings. In the case of the dance card box, small hints of the artist’s preliminary sketches were found! You can see them below.
This treatment was incredibly rewarding! I loved looking at the landscapes on the box and nearly every day I found something new. My favorite “surprise” detail is the little fisherman on the bank of a river and the enormous plant right next to him!