African American Museum of Iowa Category

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African American Museum of Iowa Grand Re-Opening

Friday, January 16, 2009

Today was the grand re-opening of the African American Museum of Iowa. A feat to be commended and celebrated. Since the June flooding, they have mucked out their building and restored it sufficiently to have staff back in the building, the beginnings of a museum store, and an exhibit installed. While doing all of the this, they also continued all their statewide programming and facilitated flood recovery work of the damaged collections. There’s much to be done but they have a great start.

Here are some photos of the grand re-opening along side the same area the day we entered the building to inspect for flood damage. The re-opening photos were provided by the AAMI.

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Good Preservation Practices Save Photos

Monday, January 12, 2009

These photographs were found among the documents from the African American Museum that were returned from the freeze dryer. This is one example of many envelopes full of photographs. These photographs were interleaved with sheets of archival paper which were adhered to the photographs when they were immersed by the flood. At a glance it looked like there was little hope of removing the paper from the pictures without damaging them. 

We took a couple of examples to the University of Iowa Photo Department where we were advised to try and wet the photos again to remove the paper. When we returned to the Conservation lab I put one of the photos in a bath of water with photoflo and left it there for about ten minutes. When I came back the paper had floated off and the photo had sunk to the bottom of the tray. As you can see, some of the emulsion adhered to the interleaving but the pictures are mostly intact.

I then let the photos drain vertically for a few minutes to get most of the water off so there wouldn’t be droplets and puddles on them when they were set out to dry. I set them out on our drying rack and let them dry overnight. In the morning I found them to be warped and curling which was to be expected after the aqueous treatment. I put the photos in between sheets of silicon release paper and put them in the dry mount press under medium heat. I left them for about 15 minutes and they came out almost perfectly flat. I then left them under weight for 24 hours and they are now perfectly flat.

If there had been no interleaving, these photographs would have been cemented together, never to be separated and none of this would have been possible. Thanks to the good preservation practices of this museum this photo collection will be salvaged.

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Up Close and Personal

Friday, January 2, 2009

I like to wear these magnifying glasses to demonstrate how fashion forward we are at the University of Iowa Conservation Lab. Aside from being extremely attractive they are actually quite helpful in situations like this one. The infamous gourd drum which took roughly 40 hours to complete has hair attached around the edge of the stretched leather on the top which was caked in mud. After all the drum had been through, the hair was barely holding on so it wasn’t going to stand up to any normal saliva swabbing. I had to take a very small brush and a bit of water to try to brush the mud out of the hairs without releasing any of them. The magnifying glasses helped me to see what I was doing so I didn’t damage anything. Once I had brushed out most of the mud I went around the edges with a swab and saliva to get to the gourd and leather underneath and in between hairs.

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Cleaning Gourd Drum

Wednesday, December 17, 2008¬

This gourd drum, an artifact from the African American Museum is a dried and hollowed gourd, the top has been sliced away to create an opening which has leather stretched across it. Two sticks intersect inside the gourd with the ends protruding from the sides, through the leather as you can see in the picture below. It is also wrapped with cord and there is a wooden handle attached through a hole carved in the bottom.

The cleaning of this particular item is complicated by the fact that there is still hair attached to the stretched leather
of the drum. It is mostly around the edges and was plastered down by the mud and silt that covered the entire artifact. I have been using a variety of techniques to remove the mud from the body of the gourd including a Poly Vinyl Alcohol sponge for the cursory cleaning and then cotton swabs and saliva for spot cleaning.  The hair that remains attached to the leather is proving very tricky to clean. On the stretched leather I have been using cotton swabs and saliva but the hair is barely attached and must be cleaned with extreme care, for this I have been using a very fine brush with small amounts of water. The hair detaches so easily that anything more abrasive will remove it.


The mud is so thick that this method is very time consuming, I have to go over the same areas repeatedly. I cannot however work on the same area for too long because when the area becomes too saturated the leather softens and the hairs release more easily. I’ve been rotating and working on different areas for shorter periods of time.

There will be some residual staining but the drum will be stabilized to the point that it will be safe to handle, and suitable for exhibit display. As of today I have spent roughly 30 hours on the gourd drum and I estimate that it will require at least 10 more hours if not longer.

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Making A Difference With Baskets

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The African American Museum has a collection of baskets that were sent to us after being damaged in the flood.¬†In¬†September we¬†were sent to the Campbell Center in Mt. Carroll, IL for training in cleaning and preserving these baskets. This is an example of one of the baskets I cleaned. This particular basket is actually a tray with seven smaller “cup like” baskets nested into it. This picture shows two of the cups, the one on the right has been cleaned, the one on the left has not. This particular basket took roughly 40 hours to clean using swabs and saliva.

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Buttons, Buttons, Who’s Got the Buttons

Friday, October 17, 2008

This small metal box is full of buttons of all shapes and sizes that are from Mason’s Dry Cleaners that was owned by Elmer Smith Jr. in Cedar Rapids. These buttons, and the box they are housed in, were painstakingly cleaned by one of our volunteers, Diana Henry. She sorted the buttons by material and worked with Gary Frost to determine the best method of cleaning for each. This is among the items that will be returned to the African American Museum on Feb. 3, 2009.

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Sandals Almost as Good as New

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

These Sandals are one of two pairs from the African American Museum. They were both caked with mud and sludge. We chose to clean these sandals because they were in better condition than the other pair, which had some warping and cracking.

For these I used a PVOH sponge to do an initial cleaning and then went in to do the detailing with swabs and saliva. According to Susan Kuecker they look better than they did before the flood!

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Feather Fans

Friday, October 10, 2008

Three feather and wicker fans were salvaged from the African American Museum, all three were moldy and covered with a thick layer of muck. We knew they would take a very long time to clean so as part of the museum’s triage we were told to save two of the three. I began working on the first fan at the Campbell Center in Mt. Carroll, IL under the instruction of Conservator Helen Alten.

Cleaning feathers is a tricky business, each feather needs to be brushed out individually without disturbing those surrounding it. These fans were constructed with a wicker handle and
fan, with feathers woven in around the perimeter.

There were multiple layers of feathers and those on top were downy so we had to fluff them up again. I went around and separated out each feather with a piece of blotter paper to support it and brushed it out with water, trying to keep the original shape. They were then left to air dry. They turned out surprisingly well considering their original condition. Combined, the two fans took about 15 hours to complete.

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Basket Cleaning

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We march on with cleaning baskets. This consumes most of my time at the lab now, as we are trying to finish cleaning the baskets before November 11th. I think we might cut it close. Sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop, as it seems there is always more dirt coming off. Is it flood gunk? Is it dust from before? I can’t tell, really, but it all comes off on the swabs. With this basket, cleaning the interior poses a problem, since the opening is too small to see anything inside. I brushed out, gently, what muck there seemed to be, and then vacuumed inside with the homemade attachment. I have spent a considerable amount of time on this particular basket, and will almost be sad to finish it. Almost.

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George Washington Carver Woven Mat Cleaned

Monday, October 6, 2008

Among the artifacts from the African American Museum were two mats woven by George Washington Carver. The mat pictured was cleaned in about 15 hours by myself using saliva and swabs. I began work on the other but it was so fragile and brittle that I decided to send it to Helen Alten, our objects conservator.