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.