Why I’m not a conservator

North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog

If you watch my story about the science of conservation you’ll see that one of the items Jennifer French, a conservator with North Carolina Museum of History, is working on is chair built by Thomas Day. Day was a free man of color who built furniture in Merton, NC, in the antebellum south of the 1840’s. The chair is made of pine and there’s no doubt it is historic and a significant piece of state history. From the ornamental rose and leaf carving at the top of the chair back, to the wood working that created the delicate curves on the chair back, there’s also no doubt it was beautiful piece of furniture when it was made. With the seat completely broken out, it’s also in pretty sad shape now, a shadow of what it was. 

Let me make clear I will give fixing anything my best shot. I can be pretty handy with a hammer, nails and wood glue. I suggest this to Jennifer, who quickly says “Not a chance.”

That’s because conservators, well, conserve. They don’t try to make things new again. They only want to minimize damage and prevent any future problems. My idea about nails and glue might fix the problem, but it would create more damage.

Jennifer proposes to replace the old yarn that was strung together to support the springs at the bottom of the seat cushion with new yarn. Also, she is going to use the myriad of holes that already exist on the frame to hold the new seat cover. It looks like the chair has been recovered multiple times since it was made about 170 years ago. As for the several cracks in the wood frame around the seat, Jennifer wants to look through the research books in the lab to find a wood consolidant that would fill in the cracks and hold the wood together without causing any more damage. 

It turns out some consolidants expand when applied, which could crack the wood even more. Some chemicals also generate heat when applied, which isn’t a good idea when dealing with old wood. It’s also possible, once the proper consolidant is found, that not all of the cracks will be repaired. Jennifer will only fill in the cracks that are essential for keeping the chair intact.

That means I’ll hold onto my nails, hammer and wood glue. Jennifer knows where to find me if I’m needed.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!


Related Resources:

  • Video: Objects Conservation
  • Photo Gallery: Tools of the Trade
  • What's My Story: Object Conservator


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