I have a friend who calls me an alien. She means it as a compliment. It’s a signal that I often don’t approach the subject at hand in a conventional manner. I’m ok with that assessment. After all, who wants to be known for thinking inside the box?
In the curatorial or art historical disciplines, experience often brings a narrowing of interest and increasing specialization. As I grow in the field, my approach to art history echoes the ethos of the Amon Carter—that is, I firmly believe in drawing connections from past to present and present to past, expanding the story art tells. A narrative of American art extends to today; living artists have a lot to learn from their predecessors and our visitors gain a more complete understanding of the art of the past by these juxtapositions.
So, you can imagine my nerdish glee when we had the opportunity to place two works of art in dialogue with each other—communicating across centuries.
Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34 (2016) graces our Atrium space. Dawe strung thousands of individual strands of sewing thread across the expanse of the large room, forming an intricate network of connective fibers, drawing our notice to the architecture that surrounds us and exciting our visual cortices with a splendid kaleidoscopic display that coalesces and dissolves as we navigate space. His evanescent phenomenon is light made palpably material, the thinnest of substances tying together architecture, rays of sun, and atmospheric transformations.
Plexus no.34 at the Amon Carter
On the landing next to Plexus no. 34, you’ll now find Henry Kirke Brown’s Filatrice (1850). At first blush, this classicized bronze figure has a solemnity and solidity that seems in contrast to the weightlessness of the Dawe. But in fact they are connected in rather poetic fashion, I think. Or at least, to an alien the juxtaposition elicits delight.
Brown, Filatrice, 1850, bronze
Filatrice is an Italian word for a spinner of thread. In ancient mythology, three sister goddesses called the Fates were considered the weavers of the thread of life, determining the destiny, longevity, and manner of people’s lives. Brown’s sculpture harkens back to these classical deities. The columnar form of his spinner, clothed in her ancient Greek peplos gown, conveys all the gravity of history. And yet, far from ponderous, connecting her distaff to her spindle, you’ll find the thinnest and lightest of metal threads, enticing in its delicacy.
As fate would have it, here Filatrice stands, a spinner of thread, right beside Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34, an installation by a living artist whose work is based on the vibrant effects of more than eighty miles of assembled sewing thread. Spinning string is the joint avocation of Filatrice and Dawe; forging connections is the mandate of Dawe and at the center of my curatorial enterprise. I’m glad that I had some part in pulling these strands together.
This is part II of a blog series. Read part I.
As you know from a previous blog post, Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, recently travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC).
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Florence flood, which destroyed masses of art and cultural material, this year’s conference theme was Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation. Many of the talks addressed the effects of past, present, and future disasters on collections and cultural property. Much focus was placed on the need for effective risk assessment and emergency response strategies. This emphasis reiterated the importance of keeping our emergency plans at the Carter up to date.
Between the two of us, Jodie and I attended a large variety of presentations. These included talks about collections emergency procedures in various institutions and treatment protocols for a myriad of situations. Other more scientific-based talks were also interesting, covering many technologies used to identify or document works of art—including Reflectance Transformation Imaging and X-ray fluorescence. One presentation even discussed the precise dating of ancient Egyptian manuscripts using Micro-Raman spectroscopy!
A presentation about separating photographs stuck to glass or to each other.
There were many receptions organized throughout the length of the conference at key cultural institutions in Montreal. This included the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, and the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec. Naturally, such events were accompanied with behind-the-scenes tours, which are always a treat.
The reading room at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec.
The staff at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec showing us some of the prizes in their collection.
During the closing ceremony, Jodie was awarded the AIC Publication Award for her technical study on Charles M. Russell’s watercolors. This award recognizes excellence in writing about conservation topics. What an achievement for both her and the Carter! If you wish to read her essay, the book Charles M. Russell: Watercolors 1887–1926 is available at the museum store.
Jodie with her publication award.
Chris Pichler, owner of Nazraeli Press, has been publishing fine photography books since 1989 and during that long career has produced well over 400 titles. Nazraeli continues to be a standard-setting influence in photobook publishing—even in today’s burgeoning arena of photobook publishers.
In late 2008, Pichler hatched the idea for a new series of books, building on an earlier project he started in 2000, One Picture Book, a series of small books that provided an affordable means to acquire original photo prints by important photographers. The new series, Six By Six, would focus on production quality, feature larger books—each with an exhibition-quality signed original photo print—and culminate in six slipcased sets of six books each. The project would be be complete with thirty-six books, and only one-hundred copies of each book would be produced. In an interview with me in 2012, Pichler shared his goals:
“I wanted to see how far we could ‘push’ the quality of offset-printed photobooks … The goals were to put together the most beautifully produced set of books that I could, by artists who I consider to be among the most interesting and influential photographers working today, without resorting to exotic papers and binding materials that would get in the way of the work being presented; and at the same time, to offer collectors of photography books a format and a value not available anywhere else.”
Last week, the Amon Carter’s research library received the final set of books in the Six By Six series. As one of only two public institutions in Texas that have committed to acquiring a complete set, we salute Nazraeli Press (and ourselves) for finishing this amazing seven-year journey. We received the first set in 2010 and the final one in 2016. The library will have the entire set (minus the original prints, which need to stay in storage for protection) in the reading room for a limited time. We invite you to stop in and take a look. Contact us at email@example.com to confirm the books are still on view.
Here is a full list of all titles (most recent at the top).
A selection of Six By Six books
A singular experience awaits visitors to the Amon Carter. Dallas-based artist Gabriel Dawe has finished installing his piece Plexus no. 34—a work composed of eighty miles of multicolored sewing thread strung back and forth, west wall to east wall, across the museum’s Atrium space. Fastened to hooks high in the upper reaches of the room’s two western corners, the thread then descends across the Atrium’s expanse, cascading in broadening beams of variegated color to converge on the opposite wall.
The twin rays of thread shimmer as you move beneath them, they glow in the sun streaming through the windows fifty-five feet above the floor, they brighten and dim as light changes throughout the day. Plexus no. 34 is a wonder.
Plexus no. 34 in the museum’s Atrium
I’m excited to announce that the Publications Department has been working with Dawe and the museum’s curator, Maggie Adler, to create a limited-edition, loose-leaf artist book featuring Plexus no. 34 from its inception to its final installation. The publications staff expanded their endeavors to create this unique publication, setting up a book-art workspace in their shared area to create what will be the only publication of its kind on Dawe’s sculptures in thread.
Gabriel Dawe (center) visits the Publications Department with his assistant, Shelby Cunningham (left), and curator Maggie Adler
Lorraine Bond, the portfolio’s designer, in the book-art workspace
Only 200 copies of the publication will be produced, each one numbered and signed by the artist. The book will have two archival reproductions tipped-in to its pages—one of the artist’s digital rendering of Plexus no. 34, the other of the final installed work. A special page with the artist’s actual thread stitched into it is also included, and the portfolio is enveloped in a folded case bound with a removable band adorned with a tassel of thread.
The mockup of the museum’s forthcoming limited-edition portfolio Embodied Light, featuring Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34; only 200 copies are being produced
Those interested in purchasing a copy of Embodied Light should email firstname.lastname@example.org. The 28-page portfolio is available in September and retails for $125 (plus tax and shipping/handling); members enjoy a twenty percent discount.
--Stacey Kelly, Paper Conservation Fellow
Last month, the paper conservators at the Amon Carter travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Conservation Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC). The meeting featured numerous talks covering multiple disciplines in conservation, including books and paper, photographic materials, paintings, textiles, objects, and so on. There were also hands-on workshops focusing on new conservation techniques, networking receptions, discussion groups, exhibitions, and various other activities related to the historical and cultural areas of Montreal.
Conservation techniques are constantly evolving with the development of new technologies and materials. Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, had the chance to attend a workshop on the application of rigid Gellan gels used for conservation treatment. Gellan gel is a nontoxic biopolymer produced naturally by a microorganism. In conservation, the gel is formed in sheets of varying thickness and sizes for controlled wet treatments. The gel, when placed over paper, pulls soluble degradation products out via osmosis. Compared to other treatment methods, it is a gentle process that minimizes changes in the surface of the paper.
During the workshop, we made several batches of Gellan gel in different concentrations. We also tested gels with different additives like alkali and reductive bleach on aged and discolored paper samples provided by the organizers. Take a look at the pictures below to see the Gellan gels in action.
Luckily, I won a bag of Gellan gum in a drawing at the end of the workshop! Needless to say, we are excited to practice some of the techniques we learned at the workshop in our own lab.
Above: An excited Jodie watching the preparation of Gellan gel.
Above: Mixing the different ingredients needed for a batch of Gellan gel.
Above: Placing a sheet of Gellan gel on a discolored sample.
Above: Removing the Gellan gel after "washing" a discolored sample.
Above: A sheet of Gellan gel showing the discoloration removed from the paper sample after 15 minutes.
Above: Discolored used sheets of Gellan gel.
Above: Gellan gum for the Amon Carter's lab!
Q&A with Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo
Richard Misrach is among the most highly regarded American photographers of his generation. Guillermo Galindo is a renowned experimental composer whose work pushes beyond the conventional boundaries of music. Together, they forged a unique partnership for the exhibition Border Cantos—artist as documentarian, photographing and collecting lost items of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border; and composer as sonic interpreter, crafting sound-generating devices from the gathered items and giving them musical voices. The two artists kindly fielded a few questions about the exhibition they co-organized.
Richard Misrach, Wall (post and wire mesh), Douglas, Arizona, 2014, inkjet print, © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA
Richard, I imagine you watching some of Guillermo’s music videos and thinking, “I need to get in touch with this guy.” How did this collaborative concept take shape? In 2011, I participated in a pop-up magazine event consisting of a dozen artists, writers, and musicians who were invited to make short presentations of new work on stage before a crowd of 3,000 people. Guillermo and the writer Daniel Alarcon contributed a musical composition by Guillermo made from objects he had recovered from the Texas/Mexico border. I was making an unrelated presentation, but a few years earlier on the California/Mexico border had discovered human effigies dressed in discarded migrant clothing and had photographed them. I was stunned by the similarities of our projects and subsequently invited Guillermo and Daniel to my studio, where I had gathered large-scale prints of my effigy images. We knew next to nothing of each other’s work, but I invited them to collaborate. Eventually, Daniel had to drop out due to other commitments, but Guillermo and I jumped in and never looked back.
Items discarded, lost, and forgotten by people trying to cross into a more promising land. What compelled you to photograph such things? One sees clothing, backpacks, religious items, water bottles, and so forth all along the border. These objects are often referred to as trash, but they are not trash. As Guillermo points out, these items embody, and are the testimony of, the long dangerous travails of those who dared to make the passage.
As Guillermo was unable to travel to the border because of work and family obligations, and I was there a lot, I took on not only photographing but gathering items. That act of working together--of inspiring each other and of helping each other--became a potent symbol of the whole project. We were not only making photographs and music in response to the divide, but our collaborative process represents an alternative model—bridging, not walling up the border.
It’s easy to think, These images are from far away and have nothing to do with me. Are there universal implications for the human condition in these photographs? Who in America is not a descendant of immigrants? Who in America does not interact daily with those who are from other cultures and nations? The border presents complex, difficult issues that will challenge America's national sovereignty for decades to come. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whether here legally or illegally, are a vital part of our workforce, daily lives, and culture.
The wall appears in most of your images in this series. In some, it seems that it would take little more than a child’s ability to scramble over sections. Did you move back and forth between countries while you worked? The wall is an empty political symbol. The cliché is, build a 12-foot wall, and they will build a 13-foot ladder. There is a video online of two teenage girls climbing the wall in under eighteen seconds on their first attempt without the aid of a ladder! People go over, around, and even under it. The current walls cost $4-12 million a mile to construct. [Donald] Trump's proposal to add 1,000 miles of new wall, mostly through Texas, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. That taxpayer money would be better spent fighting terrorism and improving education and healthcare. And yes, there are areas where the border wall just ends and I was able to walk around and photograph from the other side.
The U.S.-Mexico border is highly militarized and increasingly monitored by drones. Did working with the knowledge you were being watched influence your creative approach or the images you made? I was always pretty self-conscious photographing. Often I would get to a remote area via Border Patrol access roads. I would inevitably set off ground sensors, but it would often be hours before the BP showed up. Usually, they were pretty civil, sometimes showing me pictures on their iPhones or suggesting where I might get a better shot. Once a woman agent with a large rifle came out of nowhere to stand sentry while I worked, worried that I might be vulnerable to nearby cartel activity. Other times, they could be hostile, check my car and camera bag for heroin, threaten that the cartel would steal my camera, etc.
In the end, however—perhaps because I have been photographing in the American west for over 40 years—I just worked in the painstaking way I always have, mostly with a camera on a tripod. At times, I felt the need to work fast, and I found that my iPhone made a huge difference. Probably a third of the images in the book and many in the exhibit were made with an iPhone, among them images in the 32-foot-long artifact grid and the target-practice shots.
It must have been at times intensely emotional photographing these subjects. Is there a particular moment that stands out in your memory? In Hidalgo County in 2014 I photographed fields of mostly children's items. These were undoubtedly left behind by some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children from Central America, which got a lot of media attention. But really, I have to shut off my emotions while I’m working. For me, the emotional impact usually hits after I am home, going through the pictures.
How do you describe Guillermo’s music? I will paraphrase Guillermo, who has said that conventional instruments allow the musician to impose their will on them. But the instruments he makes from migrant shoes and water bottles or Border Patrol shotgun shells dictate the sound and play the musician, so to speak. The sounds hardly resemble conventional music. On the one hand, they perhaps evoke the primal notion of how and where music first evolved, and on the other, they suggest the struggle and suffering of the people trying to cross the border.
Do you have a favorite work by him in this exhibition? Why? I think the 4 hour and 20 minute Sonic Border is the most powerful work in the whole exhibit. It is played on eight instruments fabricated from migrant artifacts and border patrol objects. Each instrument has a speaker next to it, through which its recorded sounds are played. The long piece is comprised of a series of vignettes of sounds, sometimes a single instrument, sometimes a symphony of all eight at once. The sound can be grating and harsh or lyrical and harmonious. Obviously the normal visitor can't be expected to stay for the full piece—part of the challenge to the listener is to consider the impossible duration—but I encourage people to stay for a while. The longer they stay the more rewarding the experience. The remarkable sounds coaxed from these instruments uncannily and poignantly evoke the border passage.
Guillermo Galindo, Efigie, 2014, immigrant clothing, wood axis, strings, courtesy the artist
When—and how—did you begin creating musical instruments from found objects, Guillermo? My first instrument was an electro-mechanical device called MAIZ (corn) that I made in 2006, and it was built with personal objects from my daily life. It was then that I started calling my instruments “cyber-totemic sonic devices.” In 2011, I came up with the idea of using immigrants’ personal items instead of my own.
You use the term “visual music.” How do you define it? There are two intersecting answers to this question: By visual music I mean music that either evokes particular images, or that has a particular connection with a universe or closely related ideas.
My conception of “visual music” comes from what we call “program music,” which is the idea that music can transmit extra musical narratives by inviting the audience to associate the sounds or the mood of a certain composition with a set of moods, circumstances, or even a specific set of images or a story through memory and collective cultural associations. Romantic composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and, later, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Claude Debussy experimented with the idea of program music. They wrote program music to evoke the feel and sublime message of particular stories, paintings, or poems. Later, program music morphed into what we know today as “film music.”
My other idea of visual music comes from music notation or the translations of otherwise “abstract symbols” in a page into actual music. Traditional Western music notation has evolved to the point that, in some cases, the performer reading and translating a musical score must navigate the limits between traditional music code and the interpretation of concepts through visual elements purposely placed in different parts of the page. Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century scores by authors such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Brian Eno use visual language similar to the one that painting, photography, and other visual arts use to convey their message.
You are a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, so you have the unique perspective of being from both sides of the border. How did this influence your creative approach for this project? There is a special “there is not here, here” moment when that “foreign” country where you have lived for many years finally becomes your home. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the intersection, trapped between two countries. We are finally able to see both their similarities and their contradictions. Richard and I found that neutral zone, a place with no walls where the exchange of ideas and dialogue can flow back and forth.
You built the sonic devices in this show. How did the structure of conventional instruments inform your creations? Human beings have been creating instruments for hundreds of thousands of years. There is extremely valuable information about musical instruments that we have gathered regarding acoustics, purpose, design, modes of playing, and quality of sound. My instrument building came from the knowledge and valuable concepts of many cultures.
You can almost hear the vast emptiness in some of Richard’s images. What part does silence play in your compositions? Silence is the essence of emptiness, the negative space that defines the figure in the visual arts. In Richard’s photographs, this is the landscape where living things exist or existed. In the case of music, silence is the empty space where sounds will soon be. Silence underlines the unsaid and the unknown. Both in music and in speech, silence is the space between sounds, the necessary pause to stop and reflect. Richard’s photographs provide the space to be filled with sound and to amplify their silence.
You recreated an effigy for the exhibition, one of several scarecrows in emigrant’s clothing that Richard found in an isolated canyon along the border with California. What do you suppose these figures are meant to symbolize or do? Neither Richard nor I know exactly what these figures symbolize. Perhaps it is better to leave it that way. But the position of the arms in these figures reminds me of the position one adopts when being searched. They also remind me of that technique one uses when confronting a dangerous animal in which one raises the arms in order to seem bigger.
How did the unknown experiences of those who lost these items, the “invisible victims of migration” you have called them, figure into your compositions and constructions? Each object tells an imaginary story. My instrument fabrication is something between forensic archeology and animistic spirituality. Each object is evidence of presence. Each instrument tells the story of the person it belonged to.
How do you characterize Richard’s photographs? For me, Richard’s photographs are huge symphonic landscapes of form, texture, and light. They entail a unique beauty that provides a comfortable space for environmental awareness and socio-political dialogue.
Do you have a favorite image by him in this exhibition? Why? There are several: I like the photograph Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona, where the undulating wall appears and disappears behind the hills as incomplete melodic contours. I was inspired by the desolation of his photograph Agua #16, Carrizo Creek, California for my composition “Skeletal Remains” and the score I call “lone tank.” I also chose his image (post and wire mesh fence) Douglas, Arizona to be in the Sonic Border room of the exhibit because it has this feeling of an uncertain, endless horizon in which anything can happen. The movement of the photograph drives us into that foggy place where everything tends to disappear.
I'm Rachel Panella, the newest staff member in the Library and Archives. I started as Technical Services Librarian and Archivist in late March. So what exactly does a Technical Services Librarian and Archivist do here? Well, one of my first big tasks is to tackle the backlog of books that we have here in the library. These are books that have been acquired by the library, but have not yet been cataloged and processed. I work with describing these new materials and making them available to the public in the library's catalog.
Another aspect of my job is interlibrary loan. I coordinate both the lending and borrowing of books to and from libraries across the country. With 150,000+ holdings here at the library, we frequently send out books to other libraries. In the last year, the library had over 200 loans to 80 libraries and museums around the world. This interactive chart details the institutions that borrowed materials from us.
One of the most exciting aspects of my job is the variety. I am in a unique position because I work with both digital and analog materials in both the library and archives. I have talked a lot about my work in the library, but I have the privilege of getting to work with archival materials as well. I will be assisting our archivist with providing access to both special collections and institutional archives. My chief digital project is the Roman Bronze Works Archive. If you don't know anything about the Roman Bronze Works Archive, it is a collection of the business records of the Roman Bronze Works Foundry, an influential art foundry most active in the early twentieth century. It is comprised of approximately 77 linear feet of ledgers, architectural drawings, client cards and other materials. My position was not only to photograph the client cards, customer cards, and ledgers, but to work with the metadata so that these materials could be easily found in our content management system. Now I will take my experience and I hope to apply it to other collections.
I am very happy to be part of this team and to dive in to my new role at the Amon Carter. If you have any questions, please feel free to visit the library or email me at email@example.com.
Above: Example Roman Bronze Works Client Card
One of the many awesome things I get to do as the paper conservation fellow is to visit conservation labs around the country. There is so much to learn when touring other conservation labs. Space is always a limiting factor in an institution, and looking at how other conservators maximize their space, as well as the equipment and tools they choose to incorporate, is always informative.
This month, my colleague Jodie and I got a chance to snoop around several conservation labs in Austin, including Carrabba Conservation, the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, and the Harry Ransom Centre (HRC). Each lab represented a different facet in the conservation field: private practice, an educational institution, and a cultural institution.
In each of these places, we were given the grand tour (much like what I gave you on my last blog post but slightly more. . . . technical). Each institution had their current projects set out so we could see what they were up to. The most fascinating thing was how open all the conservators were with sharing their knowledge and experience, and how willing they were to collaborate, often asking us for our opinions. There is always more than one way to treat an object, and it is refreshing to hear other treatment ideas, methods, and materials.
In private practice, conservators work on a large number of objects at a time. Here at Carrabba Conservation, you can see a print being washed to remove degradation products and discoloration.
The book conservation lab at the School of Information at The University of Texas is used for students who take courses in conservation, preventive conservation, and material science. They also have a paper conservation lab on site.
Examples of different book bindings for students taking courses in book conservation.
The paper conservation lab also has a reference collection of photographs to help students identify different photographic processes.
The bulk of our time was spent at the HRC, known for its world-class collection that ranges from the first photograph to a Gutenberg Bible to storyboards from the 1929 film Gone with the Wind. Coinciding with our visit was the special exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West, which was a treat as the Amon Carter recently acquired a pastel drawing by Reaugh, and research conducted by HRC’s exhibitions conservator Kenneth Grant (in collaboration with the exhibition) was valuable in providing insight to our example by the artist. Naturally, we spent a great deal of time learning everything we could from him.
Exhibitions conservator Kenneth Grant giving us a guided tour of the Frank Reaugh special exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center.
Our very own Frank Reaugh. Double Mountain from Salt Fork, 1930s, pastel on board, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 2015.1
The versatility of the HRC’s collection is reflected in their conservation department. Not only do they have a designated lab for paper conservation, they have one for photographs and one for books, too. Their labs house seven conservators and two conservation interns who were extremely welcoming, engaging in tabletop discussions of different tips and tricks they’ve picked up over the years.
When two conservators get together, they talk about bugs! Left: Jodie Utter, our Paper Conservator; Right: Mary Baughman, Book Conservator at the Harry Ransom Center
All in all it was such a great experience to meet so many knowledgeable individuals in the conservation field. Unfortunately, we spent all our time in the labs and did not get a chance to try all the amazing food I heard so much about in Austin. Time to plan a second “work trip”!
Last weekend, the museum screened John Ford’s epic 1940 drama Grapes of Wrath starring a young Henry Fonda. On April 10, visitors can see They Died With Their Boots On, the 1941 western directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn. These free films are being shown in conjunction with American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, currently on view in the museum’s special exhibition galleries. With the museum awash in movie magic, it seems a good time to highlight some of the film-related treasures from the museum’s Karl Struss Archive.
Karl Struss (1886–1981), [Filming Ben-Hur], Rome, 1924-25
Struss was a cinematographer in Hollywood for 50-plus years, starting in 1919. He filmed some of the great movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age and won the first Academy Award in 1929 for his work on Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The museum’s photography collection has thousands of prints and negatives from Struss’s work on various movie sets and publicity shoots. Here are some great stills from the set of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [The Circus Maximus — Chariot Race Set], Rome, 1924-25
The chariot race in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur remains, even by today’s standards, a thrilling action sequence and was essentially recreated for the 1959 version starring Charleton Heston. Struss’s snapshots on set often reveal the behind-the-scenes magic of movie making—as is the case in [The Circus Maximus], which shows a set crew tending to an automobile being used to film the racing chariots.
Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [Rome Set — Front], Rome, 1924-25
Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [Rome Set — Back], Rome, 1924-25
These are just a few of the myriad images housed in the museum’s Struss Archive. The museum’s library has more items from his archive on view, including an original program from the first Academy Award ceremony and the institute’s formal letter to Struss announcing his award. The Library, which offers support to researchers at all levels, is open to visitors Wednesday through Saturday and other times by appointment.
Hello! It’s Stacey, the paper conservation fellow at the Amon Carter, here to give you more insight into what a conservator does.
I have recently learned that my sister has been going around describing my job as similar to that of Diane Kruger’s character in the Disney film National Treasure. Naturally, I decided not to correct her. I rather like the idea of myself finding clues on precious artifacts, discovering treasure, and outsmarting the bad guys. I will, however, draw the line at dripping lemon juice all over works on paper! But really, conservation is awesome, and it’s nice that my sister views it in such an adventurous light. Unfortunately, I’m going to burst that bubble right now and show you a part of our job that is far from glamorous: pest management.
In National Treasure, Diane Kruger plays Dr. Abigail Chase, an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC
Pest management is essential in a museum because pests can cause serious damage to works of art. As you probably know from your own experience, it’s impossible to keep your house (or in our case, building) completely free of them. Because of this, we do our best to monitor the “ecosystem” inside the Amon Carter. This involves the placement of insect traps around the building to allow us to identify which bugs are getting in, to know how many there are, to better understand their distribution patterns, to recognize trends, and to preempt any risk of infestation. So, every month I push my little cart around the museum, armed with garbage bags and a handy notebook, leaving no corner in the museum unexamined. In each of these locations, I observe and record my findings and take appropriate action when needed.
Here I am inspecting one of the tent traps placed around the museum.
There are some insects that we keep an increased look out for based on the nature of our collection (photographs, works on paper, and paintings); these include silverfish, powder-post beetles, and cockroaches.
These reference cards help us identify insects; they were created by museumpests.net and given to us by Mary Baughman, Book Conservator at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.
We also have strict measures to monitor artworks that enter and exit the museum. Each item is quarantined and thoroughly examined to make sure no insects are present before it can join the rest of the artwork in the museum.
Magnified image of a dead carpet beetle found in an artwork entering the museum.
Live pests are every conservator’s nightmare. If such situations occur, the offending object is immediately isolated, double-bagged, and put in a freezer (less than 20°F) for as long as required to eradicate the pests (including their eggs). Dead insects also present a risk, acting as food for other pests. In such instances, the artwork is isolated and cleaned using suction. It is then monitored to ensure no other insect activity unfolds--eggs may be present after all! Once we are satisfied no further risk exists, the work is allowed to join the collection.
So there you have it, a small (and perhaps less glamorous!) part of a conservator’s day-to-day job in a museum. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.