Conservation Work: An Acadian Memento Mori

As New Brunswick’s provincial museum, the New Brunswick Museum not only works with in its own collections but also provides support to other museums across the province. For example, a memento mori— or death memorial—owned by the Musée Acadien de Caraquet was in need of restoration for exhibit at the Musée acadien de l’Université de Moncton. NBM Conservator Dee Stubbs-Lee was able to provide the necessary conservation treatment for the artifact to go on display as part of the upcoming exhibition Always Loved, Never Forgotten: Death and Mourning in Acadia.

Little is known about the memento mori except that it is in memory of an Anna Duguay, wife of Alf. LeBoutillier, who died on June 8, 1910 at the age of 26. The memorial depicts a graveyard scene with a large wax cross, a smaller cross, and a casket enclosed under a glass dome. Furthermore, the memento mori is embellished with a hairwork garland, which appears to be made using the hair of at least 14 individuals.

“If you look carefully you can see the hair is not all from one individual: there are a number of different colours and textures of hair,” said Stubbs-Lee. “As I was examining it for my condition report, I noticed that there are a number of little tiny numbered squares of paper. It’s possible each number refers to a different individual.”

Memento Mori 1Memento Mori 2Memento Mori 3Memento Mori 4Clockwise from top left: the memento mori after treatment without dome; the memento mori after treatment with dome; detail of  paper banner providing information on Anna Duguay; detail of hairwork.

The first challenge presented by the memento mori fell to NBM Conservator Claire Titus: transporting the artifact to the NBM Collections and Research Centre in Saint John without damaging it. The memorial was best kept upright with the glass dome in place to provide protection for the wax cross and hairwork. However, the glass itself also had to be protected from breakage and from contacting the artwork inside. Titus thus transported the memento mori in a large Rubbermaid container with acid free cushioning materials in order to absorb vibration caused by movement.

Once the artifact arrived in the Conservation Lab in the NBM Collections and Research Centre, Stubbs-Lee took over the work of the conservation treatment. Various elements of the memento mori were in need of treatment: the glass needed to be cleaned, the textile element washed, the crevices vacuumed of mould and insects, the paper stabilized, and the cracked wax filled and stabilized. All of this had to be done with minimal contact to the fragile hairwork, which was in relatively good condition despite being slightly chewed by insects in some places, but brittle with age.

A treatment proposal was developed and approved by the Musée Acadien de Caraquet before proceeding. First, Stubbs-Lee cleaned the glass dome with vinegar and then used a surgical scalpel to remove hardened dirt. She then dry-cleaned and removed a layer of purple chenille yarn that encircled the graveyard scene. It was extremely dusty and been infested with mould and insects.

Memento Mori 5Memento Mori 6Left to right: NBM Conservator Dee Stubbs-Lee dry-cleans the chenille in the crevasse with vacuum and dental tools; adult carpet beetle carcass and larval casing found during examination and cleaning.

The chenille was then wet cleaned. Before submerging the fabric in water, Stubbs-Lee conducted a spot test with warm distilled water in an eye dropper to make sure that the purple dye would not run. Then it was immersed in a bath of warm distilled water and a mild conservation detergent. Distilled water is used in conservation treatment because it contains fewer impurities, such as metal particles, which can damage an artifact over time. After being washed, the chenille was pinned out and dried.

Memento Mori 7Memento Mori 8Left to right: the chenille submerged in distilled water and a conservation detergent; the chenille pinned out so that it would not shrink while drying.

A number of fragments of paper inscribed with parts of names were found within the artifact. Unfortunately, missing sections and poor condition of the paper meant these could not be restored, but they were carefully documented and retained for research.

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Photo: inscribed paper fragments being examined under the microscope.

Stubbs-Lee then went about stabilizing cracks in the large wax cross. Some time since its construction, the memento mori had been exposed to extreme fluctuations of temperature: heat, which partially melted the wax, and cold, which likely contributed to the cracking.

“In conservation we try to use materials similar to the original because it reacts the same way to the environment”, said Stubbs-Lee. The exact composition of the original wax was unknown, so one of Stubbs-Lee’s aims was to fill in the cracks with a material that was stable but slightly softer than the original wax. This way, that any future damage would be absorbed by the new materials, not the original artifact.

“Whenever I put a fill in an artwork—in this case the wax—you want to make sure that the adhesive or the material that you put in there is more vulnerable than the original,” she said. “That way, if something is going to let go then it’s going to be the new material, not the original material adjacent to the repair. Stronger adhesives, for example, are not always better.”

Stubbs-Lee used dental tools to fill the primary crack with surgical cotton, a sheet of sterilized cotton manufactured for medical applications, but useful for a variety of applications in the conservation lab. The cotton filling will be easy to remove in future, if necessary.

“One of the guiding ethical principles of conservation work is the idea that everything you do to alter an artifact should be permanently reversible in the future,” she said.

Stubbs-Lee then covered the cotton with a layer of orthodontic wax, gently pressed into place using tweezers. The wax was covered with a layer of silicone covered Mylar (a clear polyester film) and then touched with a warm tacking iron on low heat to make it flow into the crack.

“I had to warm the wax just enough to slightly melt it and have it flow evenly into the area I was filling, being very careful to not also melt the adjacent original wax of the artifact,” she said. “The silicone coated Mylar will not stick to the wax, and creates a totally smooth surface for molding the wax. I then used a variety of small tools and my fingers to shape the wax into the same profile as the original artifact.”

Memento Mori 10Memento Mori 11 and 12Clockwise from left: Detail showing a large crack in the wax cross before conservation; positioning surgical cotton fill in the large gap; softening wax infill using tacking iron on low setting.

As a final part of conservation treatment, Stubbs-Lee made recommendations for future care and handling of the memento mori, including recommendations about light and temperature.

“A key part of conservation work is the cleaning and repair of pieces. That is an important part of what we do,” she said. “It’s often what attracts conservators to the field — but conservation is really much more holistic than that. A lot of our job is predicting all the factors that put an artifact at risk of damage and figuring out what we can do to make those things less likely to happen.”

The conserved memento mori can be seen at the Musée acadien de l’Université de Moncton from October 7, 2015 to April 17, 2016.

 

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The NBM Quilt Collection: Stories from the 18th Century to Contemporary New Brunswick

Quilts tell stories, especially those of their makers. The New Brunswick Museum is fortunate enough to have a collection of these stories stretching from the twenty first century all the way back to the 1700s.

The NBM acquired its first piece of bedding in 1927 and has since acquired 411 quilts among other bedding items. Back when the NBM quilt collection was in its infancy, quilts were generally seen as quaint home furnishings: records of the colonial era or pioneering spirit. A tradition in New Brunswick that a woman prepare a dozen practical quilts and a 13th elaborate quilt for her trousseau meant that quilts were common household items.

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The oldest quilt in the NBM Collection. Maker Unknown, 1770-1800    (found in Campobello, Charlotte County, New Brunswick). The John Corey Domestic Textiles Collection, 2003. Hand-sewn and hand-quilted wool whole cloth with wool batting.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that quilts were viewed with newfound importance, as a revival in quilt making corresponded with the feminist movement.

“Now we look at quilts in a far broader way […] as one of the ways that we hear women’s voices from the past,” said Peter Larocque, NBM Curator, New Brunswick Cultural History and Art.

“As quilts are examined more and more, we’re able to gain access to how women lived, how they worked, how they communicated. So those quilts have become more than just objects, they’ve become statements.”

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A crazy quilt by Violette Emily Dibblee and Carlysle Eulalie Hopkins, Saint John New Brunswick 1886-1888. Gift of V. Hazel Dibblee, 1952.
Violette Emily Casey married Beverley Newton Howard Dibblee on 29 March 1886 in Saint John, New Brunswick. This unusual quilt incorporates portraits of “Vie” and “Bev” in the form of photographic images printed on silk.

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Quilt by Celia Elizabeth Lapointe and William Edward Lapointe, St. Marys, York County, New Brunswick, 1940-1950. Gift of Susan Steen, in memory of Celia Elizabeth Whitlock Lapointe and William Edward Lapointe, 2009.
This quilt was a joint project of husband and wife. He did the drawings onto the pieces and she embroidered them and made them into a quilt. Cartoon characters featured include (left to right) Popeye and “Der Inspector” from the Katzenjammer Kids.

Many of the NBM’s quilts were donations of John J. Corey, a historical consultant from Butternut Ridge, Havelock, who developed a specialization and interest in textiles. Corey not only collected historical quilts, but also designed quilts and had them produced. For example, the below quilt on the left is a historic quilt by Tressa Annie Thorne, while the quilt on the right was designed by Corey and appliquéd by Retta Lucy Hicks based in the earlier quilt.

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Left: Tulips Quilt by Tressa Annie Thorne, 1920-1930. John Corey Domestic Textiles Collection, 2003.
Right : Tulips Quilt , appliquéd by Retta Lucy Hicks after Tressa Annie Thorne. Quilted by Middle Sackville Baptist Ladies’ Aid, 1970-1985. Gift of John J. Corey, 2013.

While the NBM has a superb collection of historical quilts, it’s also working to keep the collection up to date with contemporary New Brunswick quilting. Late member of the Marco Polo Quilters Guild Kathy Coffin approached the NBM about adding a contemporary quilt to the museum collection every two years through the guild’s biannual show. Coffin designed and sold a block based on the provincial flower and used the funds from the pattern to purchase the first piece for the biennial, juried New Brunswick Contemporary Quilt Award.

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The First three winners of the New Brunswick Contemporary Quilt Award.
 Left: Railways in a Northern Land by Donna K. Young, Fredericton, NB, 2004. Marco Polo Quilters’ Guild New Brunswick Contemporary Quilt Award, 2011.
Centre: When Compasses Collide by Juanita Allain, Riverview, NB, 2002-2006. After Sheila Wintle. New Brunswick Contemporary Quilt Award, purchased with funds provided by The Marco Polo Quilters Guild, Donna K. Young Marilyn Peabody, Maggie Coffin Prowse and the Fundy Sewing Guild, 2013.
 Right: Baltimore Bouquet by Gail Fearon, New Line, NB, 2011. After Mimi Dietrich. New Brunswick Contemporary Quilt Award, purchased with funds provided by Juanita Allain, Marilyn Peabody, the Woodstock Quilt Guild and John J. Corey, 2015.

The most recent winner of the award was Baltimore Bouquet by Gail Fearon of New Line, New Brunswick. This quilt is based on a mid-19th century style of quilt that incorporated a sampling of different blocks. Called Baltimore Album quilts, they became extremely fashionable along the eastern seaboard. This quilt is an especially valuable addition to the NBM collection since there are no historic examples of Baltimore Album quilts represented in the collection.

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Baltimore Bouquet on display at the NBM with (left to right) Gail Fearon, award recipient; Carolyn Wishart, President of the Marco Polo Quilters’ Guild; Peter J. Larocque, NBM Curator, New Brunswick Cultural History and Art.

 

NBM BiotaNB 2015 Finds: Identifying and Preserving Mushrooms

One of the New Brunswick Museum’s major annual events, the 7th annual NBM BiotaNB, has drawn to a close. Every year, researchers from across Canada and the United States join NBM scientists in one of New Brunswick’s 10 largest Protected Natural Areas (PNAs) to study the area’s biodiversity for a two-week period. BiotaNB targets each PNA for two years in a row: the first year’s event takes place in early summer and the second year’s event takes place in mid-August.

This was the NBM’s first year braving the mosquitoes and adventurous terrain in the Nepisiguit PNA and among the researchers’ many interesting discoveries was a variety of mushrooms.

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Sometimes mushrooms can be a little too interesting. Above, Amanda Bremner, Curatorial Assistant for Botany and Mycology, holds a mushroom belonging to the genus Amanita. This specimen was found in Mount Carleton Provincial Park, near Nepisiguit PNA. It is among the most poisonous mushrooms in the world: and while most poisonous mushrooms will only make you sick, this one can actually be deadly. Touching it won’t hurt a person, but ingesting it will kill an individual within three days.

IMG_0129 Coprinus - sp

Finding mushrooms in the field is one thing: it’s a whole other challenge to determine a mushroom’s species. Pictured above is a mushroom belonging to the genus Coprinus. To help determine its species, part of the mushroom cap was placed on a slide in hopes that it will leave a spore print on the glass. This Coprinus has left an excellent print, meaning that the spores are mature: they can be measured to help determine the species of the mushroom. The colour of the spores can also be used to help identify the species. This makes one realise how a single find can take up hours of a researcher’s day to examine.

Spore prints can also be made at home on paper. Because one can’t know whether a spore print will be dark or light, put half of a mushroom cap on white paper and the other half on black construction paper so that at least one side of the spore print will be visible. Keep the mushroom on paper in a cool, covered place overnight (eg. in a plastic container in the shade) and you should have a spore print in the morning.

IMG_0116 Russula - sp
Amanda has a number of other tricks up her sleeve to help determine a mushroom’s species. Above is a mushroom of the genus Russula. This specimen has a sticky cap, which helps narrow down the possibilities of its species.

The colour of the cap can also be a helpful clue. Because different people might use various words to describe the same colour, Amanda compared the colour of the mushroom cap against the colours in a book to ensure that her description of the colour is the same as other researchers would use.

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Chemicals can also be used to determine the species of a mushroom. One by one, the above chemicals were added to small pieces of the Russula in a well plate. Each of the chemicals made some species of mushrooms turn colour, while other species remained unchanged. Depending on which chemicals make the Russula turn colour, the species of the mushroom can be narrowed down.

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It is evident that, one piece of Russula has begun to turn red, while another has turned a dark green and a third is beginning to turn a deep brown. This helps narrow down the groups of species to which the Russula could belong. Unfortunately, though, these results didn’t reveal the exact species of the mushroom.

IMG_0111 drying rack Cantharellus

Finally, mushrooms were placed in a drying rack overnight for preservation in the NBM Collections and Research Centre. Pictured above is a mushroom of the genus Cantharellus after a night in the drying rack, ready to be added to the NBM Collection!