Conservation in Paradise

Small Syrian Room. © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
Small Syrian Room. © 2014, Linny Morris, courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

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.

Nick Pedemonti consolidating flaking paint on the ceiling of the small Syrian Room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Nicole Peters, 2014.)
Nick Pedemonti consolidating flaking paint on the ceiling of the small Syrian Room. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Nicole Peters, 2014.)

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.

Nicole Peters applying fill material around the newly attached forearm of a late 19th/early 20th century Krishna sculpture from Rajasthan, India (#41.140). (Photo: Nick Pedemonti, 2014.)
Nicole Peters applying fill material around the newly attached forearm of a late 19th/early 20th century Krishna sculpture from Rajasthan, India (#41.140). (Photo: Nick Pedemonti, 2014.)

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

Profile: Conservation Intern Kathryn Harada

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.)

Kat Harada removes overpaint from a 12th–13th-century tabouret, revealing previous restorations and repairs. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Kat Harada removes overpaint from a 12th–13th-century tabouret, revealing previous restorations and repairs. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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.

12th–13th-century tabouret, during and after treatment. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
12th–13th-century tabouret, during and after treatment. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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.

Kat cleaning the dining room chandelier (47.134). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Kat cleaning the dining room chandelier (47.134). Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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.

This Summer at Aphrodisias: A Roman City


The partial reconstruction of a ceremonial street decorated with high relief sculpture in an architectural setting. The unfinished project will be completed in 2013. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

A little after four in the morning, the silence is broken by the sound of drummers passing nearby, waking the faithful early to eat before beginning the day’s fast. It is Ramadan in south west Turkey. I arrived at the New York University archaeological excavations at Aphrodisias on the ninth of July and the wake-up sequence has started with drummers since the twentieth. The drummers wake the dogs, who howl to each other until the call to prayer echoes across the landscape a little after five, as Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ begins to light the sky. Going back to sleep is hopeless, and so begins another day on an active archaeological site.

Aphrodisias is a well preserved, medium-sized Roman city, known for its wealth of sculpture and extravagantly decorated buildings. To learn more about the site, visit the New York University website. This season marks my twentieth year of participation in the project. Future participation will depend on the work load at Shangri La, but it is likely that this will be my last full season—making for a wistful, nostalgic six weeks.

Quinn Ferris and Volkan Sevinç cleaning an inscription on the shattered marble floor of the Civil Basilica for photography. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

I am the senior field conservator at Aphrodisias, and my primary responsibility is for the care of artifacts from the moment of discovery—through the process of cleaning and stabilization—to a new life in the on-site museum or in a long-term storage depot. I have two student interns this season, Quinn Ferris from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts conservation training program and Volkan Sevinç from Ankara University’s Vocational Training School conservation program. While waiting for newly excavated finds to appear, they patiently nibble away at our backlog of over a thousand coins from previous seasons, which were waiting to be cleaned, and boxes of Late Roman glass tessera wall mosaics.

The season begins somewhat slowly. Archaeologists have opened two big excavations, one in a long decorative pool that was the centerpiece of a colonnaded stoa in the center of the city, known as the South Agora, and another series of trenches along what might be called Aphrodisias’s “Broadway,” a central street connecting the theater with the sacred area near the Temple of Aphrodite. The superimposed layers of soil in both excavations begin with a thick layer of Medieval mud that yields few artifacts of note.

The Hadrianic Bath in 2010 at the end of the season. This year’s work is taking place in the center rooms of the complex, under the limestone arches. (Photo: Ian Cartwright for N.Y.U Aphrodisias Excavations.)

Meanwhile, in addition to looking after recently excavated material, I work with my colleague Trevor Proudfoot, of Cliveden Conservation Workshop, Maidenhead, England, to stabilize and preserve larger structures and their decorative features in situ. Since 2008 we have been working in a large bath building, built during the time of Hadrian (AD 117–138). This season, in addition to relaying shattered floors and revetments, we clear debris from a collapsed hypocaust, an under-floor heating system. Although previously excavated, tons of soil, broken mortar and stones, and other debris remain; with our shade nets up and a long ramp in place, the work resembles a mining operation.

Kent Severson at the start of clearing operations in the hypocaust of the Hadrianic Bath. (Photo: Trevor Proudfoot.)
Excavator Austen Di Pinto (New York University Institute of Fine Arts) measuring the location of one of the Roman portrait statues just before lifting from the trench. (Photo: Ian Cartwright.)

Things don’t heat up in the excavations until August 13, with the discovery of two life-size Roman portrait sculptures that had been used as footing for a Medieval wall. It takes an entire day for me and a team of workmen to extricate them, but by the 16th they are lifted by crane and transported to our workshop for cleaning. The sculptures are deposited, one face up and one face down, at an elevation where rising and falling groundwater leaves behind a hard grey crust. The Late Antique portrait of a very stout man that was face up cannot easily be cleaned in the short time left to us on site, but the High Imperial portrait that was face down cleans up beautifully, revealing exquisite carving and traces of a high polish.

With the end of Ramadan on the 19th of August, the 2012 excavations at Aphrodisias come to an exciting end. Upon hearing that it might be my last full season for some time, my friends and colleagues conspire to throw a surprise dinner and dance party in my honor before we all leave to return to the real world. Saying “so long” to the local workmen with whom I have labored for so many years breaks my heart, but the warmth expressed by my teammates provides necessary closure. Although I will miss archaeological field work dearly, I look forward to the days ahead at Shangri La.

Conserving the Syrian Room

The Syrian Room at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)

The following is a guest post by conservation interns Samantha Skelton and Jessica Ford.

During the summer of 2012, we have had the pleasure of working at Shangri La as interns from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). As part of our three-year master’s program, this internship has given us the opportunity to help preserve a beautiful piece of Doris Duke’s historic home: the Syrian Room. The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (which owns and operates Shangri La) and WUDPAC have partnered for the past eight years to support this summer internship; previous interns completed the conservation of the newly-opened Damascus Room, and the past two summers have brought WUDPAC interns into the Syrian Room to conserve the ceiling and the mirrored doors in the large chamber.

The Syrian Room was installed by Duke and her staff in the late 1970s, during which time extensive campaigns of restoration were carried out on many of the room’s elements.  Duke sought to create an entrancing space which would evoke the feeling of a traditional qa‘a, or reception hall, that could be found in a wealthy eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Damascene home. Brightly colored painted wood paneling, gilded surfaces, an awe-inspiring decorative wooden ceiling and a marble floor and fountain delight the senses and showcase the home’s prosperity and the owner’s fashionable taste. Though Duke created the room from elements taken from several different Damascene homes, she arranged the room in the typical style of a qa‘a, with a lowered entry space (‘ataba) with a fountain,), a raised seating platform (tazar) and a raised ceiling supported by a whitewashed wall inset with decorative windows. The overall feeling of this arrangement is light, airy and inviting, while the color scheme is designed to dazzle the viewer.

Shangri La’s seaside locale and semi-open air design, along with Hawai‘i’s warm, humid, and salty climate, means that its collection of Islamic art will need conservation care from time to time. The painted wooden elements in the room had several persistent condition issues, including flaking paint, subsurface insect damage and structural issues caused by wood’s natural tendency to respond dimensionally to changes in the environment. Our goals this summer included mapping the current condition of each section of the room, to serve as baseline documentation for future comparison, and to address the immediate issue of flaking paint. We slowly worked our way through the room, documenting the decorative panels, cabinets and calligraphic cartouches that adorn the walls, and consolidated (re-adhered) flaking paint where necessary.

Jessica Ford covers the fills. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

As both of us will be specializing in paintings conservation as we continue our education, this summer gave us the opportunity to work on an unorthodox object in our field: an Islamic architectural interior. It also offered us the opportunity to enhance our hand, observational, and problem-solving skills, which will serve us well in the coming years. As the summer comes to a close, we have been very grateful to work in a wonderful cultural institution, to live on this beautiful island, and to contribute to the preservation of a unique example of Syrian interior architecture.

About the Guest Authors: Samantha Skelton and Jessica Ford are students in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Their Shangri La internship ran from June 25-August 17, 2012.

Installing the Damascus Room

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.

View of the newly opened Damascus Room from the southeast corner. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

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.

Georges Asfar in the retrofitted Damascus Room prior to its shipment to Honolulu. (Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.)

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.

Conservator Kent Severson installs a pane of protective glass in the objects vitrine. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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.

Curator Keelan Overton and I arrange original documents and photographs inside the archival exhibit case. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

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.

From the Director

We are delighted to open The Door to Shangri La and welcome you inside. Like many museums and arts centers, we do so much of our work out of the public eye- in part because of our location in the middle of the Pacific, in a residential neighborhood with limited access; and in part because research, collections care, and conservation by their very nature take place “behind the scenes.” We welcome the opportunity the internet provides for us to open our doors to wider audiences, to share our work, and to broaden our horizons. Frequent blog posts will focus on new research, visiting artists and scholars, events onsite and in the community, and the latest surprises revealed by ongoing conservation work.

When Doris Duke first wrote the codicil to her will calling for Shangri La to become a place for the study and understanding of Islamic art, she clearly envisioned the preservation and opening of her home and collections for educational programs. She may not have foreseen the power of the internet to bring Shangri La and its cultural assets to homes, schools, and workplaces around the world, but it is in the spirit of her vision that we launch The Door to Shangri La, expand our website and broaden our partnerships. I hope you enjoy this encounter with Islamic art, visit our blog often, and share this site with friends who may be interested in learning more about our research, conservation, and programs.