Mighty (Flighty) Metals

When I think of metals, I think strong. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. The St. Louis Arch. The Capitoline Wolf. These massive artworks are symbols of strength and technological advancement. At first glance, you’d never guess that the preservation of these materials would be one of the biggest challenges in the world of art conservation. But, as we have learned over the course of the past couple of weeks, metals are an incredibly vast and difficult topic!

Walter's Conservator Julie Lauffenburger explains sand casting, a technique used to create these Barye sculptures.

Sanchita Balachandran, conservator at Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, guided our class through an exploration of metal artworks. What are they made of? How are they made? What are their inherent problems? How do we identify and preserve them? In an attempt to answer a few of these questions, we took a trip to the Walters Art Museum. There, conservator Julie Lauffenburger spoke to us excitedly about the use of gold, silver, and copper in the creation of items from the Ancient Americas. Her lecture was incredibly interesting, as Ancient American archaeological metals are quite different from those in the American Decorative Arts collection at Winterthur.

Later that afternoon, we made our way to the New Arts Bronze Foundry, a functional fine art foundry in Baltimore, MD. It was my first time at a bronze foundry, and I was blown away by the complexity (and expense!) of creating a bronze sculpture. The foundry uses the indirect lost wax casting method, a complex process explained by the Getty Museum in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AR_KftDRs4 Sort of sounds like a foreign language, huh? The trip to the foundry was absolutely incredible, providing us with a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes and to get a handle on lost wax casting. Not to mention that it was an absolutely beautiful day outside!

Finishing a bronze at the New Arts Bronze Foundry

Back at Winterthur, Sanchita and Richard (Wolbers) taught us more about thechemistry of metal corrosion, recognizing active and inactive corrosion products, and the considerations for treating these objects. To supplement their lectures, Walters conservator Meg Craft introduced us to electrolytic cleaning methods. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds! We really only skimmed the surface of a vast topic, but metals block was a great introduction to the challenges associated with these mighty, but sometimes flighty, materials. We now move on to Glass, another (typically less problematic) inorganic material. Ta-ta for now!


Posing outside the New Arts Foundry.


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