A docent cranes her neck to ask me, and I reply, “Hot and sweaty.” For the past four weeks I have been working up on scaffolding in the foyer of Shangri La. This is the first room that guests see, and it can be an overwhelming surprise of spaces and patterns. I am not sure how long it takes visitors to look up, but above, there is a whole other beauty: a carved, painted, and gilded wooden ceiling.
As the end of my eight-week summer internship is rapidly approaching, I find myself surprised and pleased about the journey an 18th -century mosaic from Isfahan, Iran, has taken me. As a coming third-year graduate scholar at the UCLA/Getty conservation program studying conservation of archaeological and ethnographic materials, I have spent nearly two months researching, documenting, analyzing, and ultimately treating the “Schuenemann’s gate,” a mosaic tile panel located on the dining room lanai at Shangri La, Doris Duke’s historic home.
As we finish up our last week here at Shangri La, we can’t help but to reflect on the amazing experiences we have had over the past eight weeks. Spending an entire summer surrounded by exquisite Islamic art and architecture on the southern coast of Oahu proved to be quite an experience. As part of our ongoing art conservation training at Buffalo State University and Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and in conjunction with the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, we were able to participate in a project to help preserve another part of Doris Duke’s historic home: the Syrian Room ceiling. The project involved thoroughly documenting the ceiling’s condition as well as the inch-by-inch consolidation of loose and flaking paint and decoration. Much of the degradation observed on the ceiling is likely a result of its close proximity to the salty waters of the Pacific.
Although Shangri La’s oceanside locale is visually stunning, the physical and chemical effects from salt-laden aerosols incurred by the art and architecture on site are not as breathtaking. Salt-filled air from the Pacific Ocean passes through the open corridors of the home: corroding metals, penetrating painted surfaces, and otherwise accelerating the degradation processes of a myriad of materials. The preservation of the site as a whole requires constant upkeep by conservation, curatorial, and maintenance personnel.
Given these aggressive environmental conditions (salt, water, heat- oh my!) and the current state of the ceiling, the required treatment was addressed using an “archaeological site approach.” Essentially, this site needs help, and it will not spend its life in a dim-lit, temperature and RH-controlled environment, so a more intense intervention is required. With syringes and paintbrushes in hand, we injected and wicked adhesive into every crevice and cupped paint flake necessary to prevent further flaking and cracking to ensure the stability of the surface as a whole. The project took us approximately one month to complete.
Shangri La conservator Kent Severson, ensured us that for the remaining four weeks of our internship, there was no shortage of objects to work on. The greatly anticipated opening of the Mughal Suite initiated our first project: the treatment of two Krishna sculptures. Both sculptures required the removal of corroded iron dowels and the reattachment of appendages with stainless steel dowels and polyester resin. Collectively, this summer we have been given the chance to work on sculptures and architectural elements made from schist, marble, stone, ivory, gold, and mother of pearl. The internship here at Shangri La provided a great opportunity to work with a truly unique collection made from vastly different materials and techniques.
We have learned a great deal this summer about Shangri La, Doris Duke, and the conservation of the collection, and we have also learned a great deal about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture and hospitality. It is with a heavy heart we bid adieu to our Shangri La ohana, we will miss you dearly!
Nick and Nicole
In this blog entry, Kathryn Harada shares a bit about her experience as a conservation intern at Shangri La. Since April 2012, Kat has helped us to care for our collection of Islamic Art, while gaining experience that will help prepare her for a graduate program in conservation. Kat graduated from Smith College in 2008 with degrees in art history and Italian. She worked in the conservation lab at Smith College Museum of Art and interned at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ furniture conservation lab before moving to Honolulu to apprentice in a furniture restoration studio. (To learn more about training opportunities at Shangri La visit our website.)
Working as a conservation intern at Shangri La has been an amazing opportunity to gain experience in the conservation of a variety of materials and objects. My projects have ranged from helping to prepare the marble jali screens for their restoration and reinstallation; to cleaning a gold ewer (57.5) dated to the early first millennium BC; to conserving a variety of glass, jade, metal, and ceramic objects.
Earlier this year, I completed a conservation treatment for a 12th–13th-century tabouret (48.297) on view in the Mihrab Room. This object had undergone extensive restoration, probably to ready it for sale in the art market of the 1940s. There were several plaster-of-Paris fills bridging the gaps between fragments of ceramic. The detailed painting that camouflaged the fill areas with the original ceramic had discolored over time. The adhesive holding all the pieces together had also begun to deteriorate. Over the course of several months, I set to work removing the old paint and as much of the old adhesive as possible. I re-shaped some areas of fill, and I finished by touching in some color to blend the fills with the ceramic.
Currently, I am working on a series of objects that are being considered for display in the Mughal Suite. Among these objects, there is a group of ceremonial daggers and swords, from which my next project will be pulled. These are complicated objects, consisting of several different materials—e.g., jade, hard stones, wood, textiles, and various metals—each with its own set of conservation challenges.
One of my other responsibilities as a conservation intern is to assist with the weekly cleaning and maintenance of the objects on display. Shangri La’s proximity to the ocean, the lovely Hawaiian breezes, and the open architectural design of the house work together to guarantee that the objects get a daily dose of salt and dirt that could be potentially harmful to their longevity. I am learning so much about preventative conservation from this weekly maintenance routine.
I am so fortunate to be a part of keeping Doris Duke’s vision alive and helping to make sure that her collection can continue to inspire and educate those who come to see it. My experience working here will provide a strong foundation as I continue to pursue a career in art conservation.
The turmoil in Syria has been much in the news lately. With the opening of our Damascus Room, we hope to make visitors aware of this nation’s rich cultural heritage by letting them experience the world of 18th- and 19th-century Damascus.
During the later years of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), when this room’s paneling was originally created, Damascus was a bustling and cosmopolitan trading center. Well-to-do residents entertained their guests in reception rooms generally known by the Arabic word qa‘a (hall) that featured elaborate ‘ajami woodwork (in which a raised surface of animal glue and gypsum was painted and then further embellished with metal leaf and/or mirrors) and luxury trade items such as textiles, glassware, ceramics and metalwork.
Shangri La’s Damascene interior was acquired from the Damascus- and Beirut-based firm Asfar & Sarkis (with whom Duke had been working since the 1930s) in 1953. The interior was then retrofitted by the al-Khayyat workshop of Damascus so that it would fit in the former “Spanish Room” at Shangri La. Doris Duke began installing the room in 1955, and it continued to serve as a guest room for nearly 40 years.
Over time, the temperature and ocean breezes, which make Shangri La such a pleasant place to visit, take their toll on buildings and objects. Thanks to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), the Damascus Room has undergone extensive conservation work, which identified and addressed areas of loss and damage. Now that treatment of the room is complete, we’ve decided to make it a part of our regular public tours. In fact, we’re proud to be one of only a handful of institutions that exhibit—and allow visitors to walk into—Syrian interiors of this type.
In planning and installing this exhibit, one of the biggest challenges we faced was working with the historic vitrines. How were we going to install shelving without drilling holes through the original wood? And how were we going to protect the delicate objects on display in the east vitrine? Luckily our team came up with some innovative solutions: We used velvet-covered boards to support both ends of the glass shelves, and we slid multiple panels of glass (rather than a single large panel) into the object vitrine.
Improvisation was indeed the name of the game. Conservator Kent Severson and consulting textile conservator Ann Svenson devised a method of hanging textiles inside the vitrines. They also suspended our photos and interpretive labels from the glass shelves using dabs of silicone and monofilament thread (dental floss was even considered, albeit briefly).
We all did our best to work with the room’s changing light, and its variable temperature and airflow. We hope that the resulting exhibit, which features archival displays (facsimiles and originals), as well as a range of textiles and objects that reflect both Doris Duke’s collecting interests and the domestic practices of late-Ottoman Damascus, will give you a taste of this elegant and fascinating world.