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August 25, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg Opens New Dedicated Conservation Analytical Lab

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has opened a new conservation analytical laboratory furnished by supporters and overseen by the institution’s first on-staff materials analyst.

Located in the DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building on Colonial Williamsburg’s Bruton Heights campus, the lab was furnished with cabinetry by LOC Scientific of Buford, Georgia, and houses a suite of advanced analytical instruments that help to inform collections and conservation efforts within the Foundation.

The lab’s analytical equipment was acquired beginning in 2007 and includes a handheld x-ray fluorescence spectrometer, an infrared micro-spectrometer and a fluorescence microscope. Each was a gift supported entirely or in part by Clinton and Mary Turner Gilliland of Menlo Park, California and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Turner-Gilliland Family Fund.

Additionally, in May Claudette and Stephen Tallon of Williamsburg contributed a gift to support the space’s remodeling and provide further equipment and supplies. Claudette is a Foundation volunteer who serves in both Collections and Conservation, and at the St. George Tucker House, an original 18th-century structure in the Historic Area.

“Our analytic capability has made a giant leap forward with these instruments and this lab,” said Ron Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president for collections, conservation and museums and Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator. “We’re incredibly grateful to the Gillilands, the Tallons and the other donors who so generously outfitted the lab, as well as to LOC Scientific for furnishing its tables and cabinetry.”

High demand – in particular from the public-safety sector – has reduced the cost of advanced diagnostic tools like spectrometers and sophisticated microscopes, and has placed them within the reach of donor-supported nonprofits like Colonial Williamsburg.

Technological advancements, meanwhile, have made them smaller, some enough so to fit on a bench top and others – like the lab’s x-ray fluorescence spectrometer – the size and shape of a Star Trek phaser.

These instruments can still require a high degree of expertise to operate at their fullest potential, however. That lays a heavy burden on conservators charged with the care of specific collection items, but who may only need analytical work done a few times a year. Each time, they must re- familiarize themselves with the complex devices, said David Blanchfield, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of conservation.

So in January, Colonial Williamsburg’s conservation department established a permanent position for a materials analyst and associate conservator of painted objects. Kirsten Travers Moffitt was hired for the job and is now responsible for overseeing the lab and operating and maintaining its equipment.

“If there is a question left unanswered by one instrument, it can often be answered by another,” Blanchfield said. “To have all this equipment in one space, combined with Kirsten’s expertise is a huge benefit for us.”

Since receiving her graduate degree in 2011 from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, Moffitt has worked at the Foundation as both a conservator and an analyst, splitting her time between completing the Carolina Room project at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and conducting architectural paint analysis with the Architectural and Archaeological Research Department.

Moffitt’s current responsibilities include analyzing Foundation materials so that conservators, curators and researchers may better understand their composition, condition, history and authenticity. In some cases, findings can delineate Revolutionary-period elements from later alterations and shed light on how they appeared two and a half centuries ago.

In the short time since the lab’s establishment, Moffitt has performed pigment analysis for the paper, archaeological materials and furniture labs; metal identification for the objects lab; and numerous paint analyses for architectural research and architectural resources.

The new lab greatly enhances the Foundation’s ability to analyze painted surfaces. For this work, a small sample from a painting, a finished piece of furniture or an architectural element is ensconced in a cube of clear resin. The cube is then ground down to reveal a cross section of multiple paint layers.

A view through the fluorescence microscope magnifies these layers to reveal thin, smooth coats of refined 19th- and 20th-century paints or thick Colonial-era layers with coarse granules of hand-ground pigment.

Pinpoint analysis of paint with the infrared micro-spectrometer can identify organic ingredients like oils, while testing with the x-ray fluorescence spectrometer identifies inorganic materials including pigments. Colonial Williamsburg’s conservators can use this information to re-engineer period paints, or formulate customized treatments that will only remove outer coats to expose those from the target period.

“If you want to expose a specific layer, you need to understand the composition of all the layers in order to safely remove them but leave the original undisturbed,” Moffitt said. “Analysis gives us a roadmap to see what’s below the surface.”

The results may show, for example, that a building’s white base layer was not exterior paint, but primer, and that a weathered, second layer instead shows the building’s original color.

Such findings informed many Historic Area structures’ current appearance, such as the reddish-brown of the Peyton Randolph House and the tan of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

The lab’s instruments are just as useful in analysis of metal items like those in Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive copper alloy, iron and silver collections, and in the understanding and preservation of decorated surfaces, such as those on furniture, paper and metal objects, as well as paintings.

“The establishment of this lab, and the choice of Kirsten to staff it, ushers in a new era of increased efficiency for the conservation department and serves to further broaden the understanding of our collections and their place in our country’s history,” Blanchfield said.

Media Contact:
Joe Straw