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!

Mahalo!

Nick and Nicole

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.