Art Conservator Q&A with Julie Lauffenburger

Julie Lauffenburger, Interim Director of Conservation and Technical Research shares her passion for conservation, curating the Gold in the Ancient Americas exhibition and her journey to the Walters Art Museum.

Conservator Julie Lauffenburger in the Conservation Lab with a textile for an upcoming exhibition.

Why are you so passionate about preserving art?

I am a bit of a history nerd. Just ask my children—always a historic site wrapped into a family vacation! Preserving art to me is about preserving the legacy of human creativity: what makes us human and what is universal about all of us wherever we live. I have always been fascinated by material culture and have always wanted to travel and see the world; preserving art ensures that material culture from around the world will be there for future generations to discover. It makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger.

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Conserving an Ottoman Helmet

Recently, while re-installing one of the exhibition cases of Islamic arms and armor, conservators noticed bright green corrosion around the copper rivets on one of the helmets. What was causing this corrosion, and could it be stopped?

Helmet engraved with floral patterns, before conservation treatment. Sixteenth century Ottoman Turkish or Persian. Walters Art Museum 51.1, acquired by Henry Walters, 1911.

Recently, while re-installing one of the exhibition cases of Islamic arms and armor, conservators noticed bright green corrosion around the copper rivets on one of the helmets. What was causing this corrosion, and could it be stopped?

Detail of corrosion on copper rivets, before conservation treatment.

The helmet engraved with floral patterns (WAM 51.1) was made sometime in the 16th century in Turkey or Persia (modern day Iran), and was purchased in 1911 by Henry Walters. A circular mark cut into the proper right side of the helmet indicates that it was once part of the Imperial Arsenal of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul.

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Rediscovering Color on an Ancient Relief

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

Roman (Artist) | Attendant of Mithras with Signs of the Zodiac | 1st-2nd century | Gift of Mr. Max Falk, 1984

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

The fragment was probably carved sometime in the first century A.D.  It is part of one side of a much larger carved marble relief that likely depicted the Persian creation god Mithras flanked by his two attendants and torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, surrounded by depictions of the twelve signs of the zodiac. This fragment shows one of the attendants holding his torch downward and parts of the zodiac signs for Capricorn, Sagittarius, and Scorpio.

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Revealing the Splendor of Gilded Lacquer

The Walters recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to perform the cleaning and treatment of several objects from the Doris Duke Collection of Southeast Asian Art. This collection, comprised of a variety of beautiful and unique pieces, has been in storage for some time, and many pieces require treatment. Conservator Stephanie Hulman, who is working on the pieces in the museum recently, shared some insight into the scope of the project and the work she is doing. Visitors can see her on the 1st floor of the museum, in the Special Exhibition Gallery, on weekday afternoons.

A large portion of Stephanie’s work involves a process called consolidation, which is a technique conservators use to re-adhere flaking media. Many of the pieces in the Duke collection have gilded lacquer surfaces, which can lift and flake in an improper environment. Conservators can carefully consolidate the lacquer layers, stabilizing them to ensure that the piece will remain in excellent condition for many years to come. In addition to consolidation, Stephanie and other conservators are cleaning some of the dust that has accumulated while the pieces were in storage, using carefully selected solvents and chemicals that will remove the dirt without harming the art underneath. One of the pieces, a Miniature Shrine, has been cleaned and can be seen in the gallery now in its full splendor, its gilded surface gleaming brightly.

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Conserving a 16th Century Feathered Triptych

A triptych depicting St. Jerome and the Four Evangelists embellished with hummingbird feathers was acquired by Henry Walters in 1914, and has never been on display at the Walters. The object is currently undergoing analysis and cleaning of the decorative hummingbird feathers in the conservation lab.

Saturday, May 17, at the Conservation Window, Geneva Griswold, the Objects Lab’s intern, presented a triptych depicting St. Jerome and the Four Evangelists embellished with hummingbird feathers. Visitors to the window were the first members of the public to see this stunning piece of the collection. Future Conservation Window viewings of this piece will be posted in this article.

St Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (Detail)
St Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (Detail)

Saint Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (61.104) was acquired by Henry Walters in 1914, and has never been on display at the Walters. The object is currently undergoing analysis and cleaning of the decorative hummingbird feathers in the conservation lab. The triptych is a fusion of Christian iconography and Aztec featherworking techniques, which was an adaptation encouraged by the mendicant orders during the early Spanish colonial period (1519 -1600 AD) in Mexico.

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