New Art at the Peabody

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Johnny Yates, lalá, 2021

We are pleased to announce that the Peabody has installed an interactive artwork by Jonny Yates (aka Jonny White Bull).  Jonny is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and lives in McLaughlin, South Dakota. He is a talented jewelry maker, stylist, and chef, known for his own version of burger dogs, nachos with homemade chips, and other delicacies.

The piece, titled lalá, or grandfather, in the Lakota language, is a reference to Jonny’s ancestor Sitting Bull, who is depicted here. Jonny is the consummate “maker,” who loves creating carved and painted bone jewelry, drawings, and three-dimensional pieces made from cardboard, milk jugs, and other found materials.

Jonny invites everyone to spin his kinetic artwork and reflect on your own ancestors. You can find lalá in the Hornblower Gallery on the first floor of the Peabody.

CONTEMPORARY ART AT THE PEABODY

Jonny Yate’s piece joins a small but growing collection of contemporary Native art at the Peabody. When possible, the Peabody has purchased and commissioned artwork from Native artists with the support of donors and members of the Peabody Advisory Community. Artists with work in the collection include Dominique Toya, Maxine Toya, Bessie Yepa, Jeremy Frey, and Jason Garcia. These artists highlight some of the unique relationships that have developed between the Peabody and Native artists over the years. As an example, the Andover community has been fortunate to have several visits by Pueblo potters Dominique, Maxine, and Mia Toya over the years. During these visits, the Toyas share traditional pottery methods with students in Thayer Zaeder’s ceramics classes. They are very talented artists and quite passionate educators. You can read more about their most recent visit here.

Contemporary art in the Peabody Collection. From upper left: Jason Garcia, Jeremy Frey, Maxine Toya, Dominique Toya, and Bessie Yepa.

THE INSTALL

Hanging Jonny’s kinetic artwork presented a unique challenge; how could we make the piece available for a hands-on experience for students and visitors while keeping it safely installed. Research institutions, such as the Peabody, do not normally put collections on display, so we carefully considered our options. We chose to use cleats to secure the piece to the wall and a makeshift security clip to keep the piece from sliding out of the cleat. In place of a detailed narrative of the installation process, here are a series of photos of how we chose to approach the process. We hope you come by sometime and experience it for yourself.

lalá arrived hanging in a travel case
Access to the back was necessary for adding hanging hardware. The piece was safely removed before cutting a hole in the travel case, it was then re-hung.
Cleats were installed on the back top and bottom.
A receiving cleat was anchored to the drywall to secure the artwork.
Security clip (screw and washer) ensures that the artwork won’t slip off the receiving cleat while being spun.

Rehousing a vessel with salt damage

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

In January, the HVAC system in one of our collection storage areas malfunctioned. Repair work required that the system was turned off for several days. During this time, we monitored the objects for any changes. One vessel caught our eye.

Thanks to Marla’s experience with the collection, she noticed that previously documented spalling due to salt efflorescence was likely developing further (see figure). A quick look at older photographs confirmed that the damage had indeed progressed. The vessel was stored on open shelving and an inspection of the area around the object determined that no fragments had fallen completely off. We decided to rehouse the vessel in a box to buffer it against changes in environment during the current or future failure of the HVAC system.

Figure 1. Rehoused vessel in open box

Since I’ve encountered salt efflorescence a few times, I thought I’d add a bit more information. Porous materials, like bone, ceramic and stone, can absorb salt from various sources. Once inside, salts can be dissolved by moisture in the air through a process called deliquescence. Eventually, the water evaporates and the salt recrystallizes. In very porous objects, the salt crystals form on the surface. In objects where the surface is less porous than the underlying body, recrystallized salt can generate massive forces than can spall or pit the surface (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). In worst case scenarios objects can disintegrate.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, salts can enter porous objects through groundwater or seawater in buried or submerged contexts (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 page 1). They are a major source of salt in archaeological collections such as ours. In the case of ceramics, food and water stored in objects during their pre-burial use life can also leave salt residues (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2). Salts can be introduced to ceramics during manufacture through additives that modify the clay body and through water (Source: Minnesota Historical Society Page 2, Source: Digital Fire). Even clay itself can be salty. When I lived in Arizona, I can remember hearing a potter discuss that they would check their clay by tasting it to make sure it wasn’t too salty.

After ceramic objects are recovered during excavation, salts can continue to be added in archaeological labs and museums. Hydrochloric acid has been used to remove calcium carbonate, an insoluble salt that adheres to ceramics during burial that impedes analysis. An unintended result of this process creates calcium chloride, a soluble salt, which is absorbed into the ceramic matrix (Source: The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works- Studies in Conservation Page 172, Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 06/05 Page 2). I would be highly doubtful of repairs that were done years ago. Without detailed treatment records, who knows what glues were used and what contaminants they might introduce.

Figure 2. Spalling due to efflorescence

Deliquescence and evaporation of soluble salts can be greatly diminished by keeping the storage environment below 60% relative humidity and by reducing humidity and temperature fluctuations (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3). However, there is a continued danger of efflorescence. Display cases and storage shelving made from wood have the potential to release acetic acids. This volatile organic compound has the potential to interact with soluble salts leading to precipitation even in controlled storage environments (Source: ICOM Committee for Conservation Page 640).

There may not be quick or inexpensive solutions to mitigate efflorescence. Our current plans for renovation of Peabody collections spaces call for the replacement of wood drawers and cabinets, but this is expensive. In regards to removing salt from objects, the traditional method is through a desalination wash or soak, wherein the object is immersed in distilled or deionized water until the salt level is reduced. This is a complicated process and shouldn’t be done without involving a conservator. Desalination risks removing important residues and compounds that can reduce the usefulness of the objects for future analysis and weaken the object (Source: NPS Conserv O Gram 05/06 Page 3).

Here at the Peabody we’ve taken steps to remove salt through dry brushing, environmental controls, and monitoring. In the future, we have plans to improve our storage space so that these issues will no longer be a concern.

Out of the basement and into the basement

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

RSP to Home
4 months of working in my basement and now, I’m back in the Peabody basement.

After four months of working from home, the Peabody is in its third week of a return to almost normal collections work. The two inventory specialists, Emily and myself, are working alternating weeks at the Peabody in order to continue our inventory work. With one week completed, it feels good to be back working toward our goal of a complete inventory of the collection. While working remotely will be an ongoing reality, I would like to share some of what I have been up to at home thus far.

With everything shutting down in March, Marla was quick to come up with projects that could be completed remotely. Her post in April outlined collections materials that were less sensitive and therefore reasonable to take home. I started with photographing site records from Peru and then moved to digitizing vacuum treatment paperwork related to Integrated Pest Management of the collections. We all contributed to finalizing the digitization of the original ledger books, our institution’s version of accession books. Now we have a searchable document with 75,000 records!

Work from home stuff copy
Everything I’ve worked on from home

My favorite project has been photographing and editing photographic slides held in the collection. They include images documenting past exhibits and openings at the Robert S. Peabody Museum and photographs of the collections. The most interesting slides by far have been of Copeland Marks’s travels in Guatemala and South Korea. Mr. Marks was a textile collector who focused on the traditional clothing of ethnic Maya people living in the Guatemalan highlands. Some of his textiles became part of our collection at the Peabody. He would later write several cookbooks on cuisine covering locales ranging from the Mediterranean to South America. The slides I was working with document his travels in Guatemala spanning the 1960s through the 1980s. The subjects in the photographs cover everyday life, the dramatic volcanic landscape of the highlands and ceremonial life- all of which have been a great escape from the realities of coronavirus lockdown.

00.3.1585 copy
00.3.1585- People of San Pedro La Laguna.

It is anybody’s guess when life will return to normal. For the foreseeable future work at the Peabody will be interspersed with the strange blur of working from home with frustratingly cute interruptions from kids and dirty dishes. Until then I have to thank Marla for keeping us safely working from home during these crazy times.

lunch for 2
Oh yeah, I can’t forget my other work from home duty- silly lunches for the kids.

Happy Holidays from the Peabody!

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool and Marla Taylor

In November Marla and Ryan approached me (John) with an idea for an illustrated holiday card. They wanted a family portrait-style image of the Peabody staff. I jumped on the opportunity thinking that hand-drawn portraits would be a unique twist on the usual offering. However, I didn’t realize how difficult the likenesses would be. After many hours of sketching, digital coloring and editing and much consternation, we have a card! Emma worked her magic to make a very polished finished product. It was a fun challenge, though my kids think I look super weird.

John
Me…sort of

From my perspective (Marla), holidays at the Peabody are not complete without a meal to celebrate our volunteers.  These wonderful people give several hours of their time, each week, to help us out.  They do everything from label file folders to inventory drawers to inspect artifacts for evidence of pests.  Our amazing volunteers – Quinn, Susan, and Richard – are a gift we get to share all year round.  (and the spread of homemade food isn’t too shabby either!)

potluck
I was too busy eating to take a picture of our actual spread. Enjoy this clipart!

Wild Ride No More

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Cups and Coaster
The collections environment before and after rehousing in archival boxes

Back in March I wrote a blog post summarizing efforts to rid collections objects of mold and salt uncovered during inventory and rehousing. We identified and isolated affected objects and cleaned them by dry brushing and vacuuming. The cleaned objects were rehoused in archival boxes that included a sachet of silica gel. The purpose of the gel is to reduce relative humidity (RH), thereby robbing mold and salt of the environmental conditions necessary for their growth. To better understand what the environment is like inside the boxes, we are monitoring their temperature and relative humidity with two data loggers. One is placed inside a box without silica gel and one is placed inside a box with silica gel. These conditions will be compared against a data logger that is recording general conditions in the basement not far from where these test boxes are located. We will be watching these data loggers over the coming year, but we already have some interesting results.

Temp and RH graph for John August 2019
Environmental Stats for April

First, the boxes are working well as a buffer against relative humidity cycles. The graph above shows RH and temperature for the month of April; the basement is shown in red and the boxes with and without silica are blue and yellow, respectively. In April the RH in the basement was quite volatile. However, the RH inside the boxes is remarkably tranquil in comparison. The boxes are exhibiting small daily shifts of 1 or 2%, which is acceptable. Keeping RH from shifting dramatically is an important factor in collections care. Organic materials such as basketry, bone, and wood are hygroscopic, meaning that they can absorb and release moisture in the air. Rapid and large changes in RH can cause organic materials to swell and contract leading to damage such as cracking or delamination. It is best to keep collections from experiencing RH shifts exceeding 10% over a given month and on that count the boxes are doing a great job. As they are found, the most sensitive organic collections are being moved to another part of the museum that has a better environment.

Layerd Storage
Layered Storage

The National Park Service recommends creating a layered approach to collections storage. Every enclosure within museum storage can act as an environmental buffer. The first enclosure is the building itself. It may seem pretty obvious, but keeping collections inside a building greatly reduces the effects of environmental factors. The same is true of every subsequent layer of enclosed storage. Here at the Peabody Institute we have wooden storage bays that, when closed, serve as another layer. The archival boxes act as a final layer.

 

Interestingly, the basement seems to be effective at buffering daily temperature cycles. The temperature in the basement has been hovering around 70 between February and June leaving little for the boxes to mediate.

Sachet
Silica Gel Sachets

The second finding of note is that the sachets of silica gel were spent faster than anticipated. As mentioned above sachets of silica gel were placed in the boxes with cleaned objects. The gel, in solid pebble-like form, starts out orange and as it absorbs water it changes to a deep blue. The expectation was that the gel would keep the RH at a reduced and steady level. The graph above shows that the silica gel was keeping relative humidity lower than that of the box without gel, but it is only a matter of a few percentage points. Most likely the boxes are not well enough sealed for the silica gel to more significantly moderate RH levels. The silica was active from mid-February until mid-April (see star on graph) when RH graphs inside both boxes started to match almost perfectly. A visual inspection in June indicated that the gel was spent. We replaced the silica in mid-June and it was spent within two weeks given the higher RH levels generally in the basement.

 

Our data shows that the boxes are acting as a significant buffer against potentially damaging cycles of increasing and decreasing RH levels. For now, we are forgoing replacing spent silica gel. Later in the fall we’ll see how the archival boxes work with our dehumidifiers at keeping mold and salt inducing RH at bay.

Uninvited Guests

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Mold_Salt 1
Meet Mold and Salt

In early February we wrapped up inventorying and rehousing collections that originated in Missouri. The work was followed by two weeks of cleaning, and as a result we’ve completed one of the regions held in the collection. So you may be wondering what we were cleaning. During the inventory, we encountered bone and antler objects covered with salt crystals and patchy dormant mold. The objects were cleaned before they were stored inside their new boxes to remove salt and minimize the risk of mold spreading to unaffected objects.

Where did the mold and salt come from and why are they a problem?

Mold spores are found everywhere in the environment. When the humidity is high, those spores germinate resulting in mold. Because it is a living organism, mold is classified in the museum world as an agent of biological deterioration. It eats organic matter, in this case the dust resting on the outer surface of bone or the bone itself, and secretes waste that can stain or damage the surface that it is growing on. Mold can appear to be dormant, but when the conditions are right mold will generate spores that are easily borne on the wind, allowing it to spread quickly.

Mold_Salt 2
Agents of deterioration

Salts on the other hand are considered chemical agents of deterioration. They are brought into museum collections on the objects themselves.  Dissolved salts present in groundwater can be absorbed by porous objects, such as bone, while they are buried underground. After the water evaporates the salts are left behind. Excessively humid conditions can dissolve soluble salts, allowing them to move through porous objects. When they arrive at the surface they form crystals. If the crystals form below the surface they can exert enough force to cause damaging cracks and spalling.

Mold and salt thrive in damp environments where the Relative Humidity (RH) is above 65%. The institute’s storage area is located in the basement, which does not have a controlled climate, so mold and salt are an unfortunate reality. Currently, the RH in the basement is somewhere below 15% (15% is as low as our monitoring equipment can read). RH levels this low shouldn’t support active mold and salt growth, so what we found is inactive, but it is hard to say when and for how long the growth of mold and salt was last active.

At the Peabody we are committed to maintaining the longevity of this very important research collection and salt and mold pose a risk to its scientific viability. Damage to the surface of artifacts caused by mold and salt can negatively impact the research value of the collection.

How do we prevent mold and salt?

While we don’t have an HVAC system maintaining the environment in basement storage, we have adopted a few practices that will mitigate and prevent future growth of mold and salt. First, we use dehumidifiers during times of high humidity that typically arise during the summer. Second, we are moving the artifacts currently stored in open drawers and rehousing them in closed archival boxes. The enclosed space of a box helps create a buffer that protects the contents from rapid shifts in RH that lead to mold and salt growth. The boxes will also keep future mold growth from spreading; something that was not possible with open-drawer storage.

Mold_Salt 3
Vacuum defeats Mold and Salt

In addition to the rehousing, we have implemented a cleaning program. When mold and salt are identified we isolate the effected object to keep spores from spreading. We clean the affected artifacts with a dry brush and vacuum. After we clean we use sachets of silica gel to absorb excess moisture, thereby providing another buffer against cycles of RH increases and decreases. In six months we’ll check on the status of the bone to see if the mold and salt are staying away.

A New Face in the Basement

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Hi there! My name is John and I am the new Inventory Specialist at the Robert S. Peabody Institute. As Inventory Specialist my primary task is to work on the ongoing inventory and rehousing project. The project’s goals are to fully understand the collections that are held at the Institute and move them from their old wooden drawers into archival boxes. Armed with the more precise knowledge of what is in the Peabody, the institute can ensure their continued care and share them with students and the public for years to come.

This position is a dream job for me. It brings together my interest in archaeology, museums and collections care, and who doesn’t love spending time underground!

John inside a pit during excavations
Yep, this is me in a bell pit during an excavation in Arizona!

Before moving to Massachusetts in 2013, I worked for almost a decade as an archaeologist in the Pacific Northwest and Arizona. After relocating to New England I enrolled in the MFA program at Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. During my time as a graduate student I found that I kept coming back to archaeology and the history of museum collections as a subject for my artwork.

_mg_9080 copy
Artwork from my thesis project

While I was in graduate school I also pursued a certificate in Museum Studies. I gravitated towards collections care and since graduating I’ve worked in collections at the Fitchburg Art Museum and Historic New England. ­

In a round-about way I’ve come back to archaeology, though it’s been following me for the past 5 years. During my time here I’ve been inventorying objects from Missouri. There have been some surprising finds, which has been great. You never know what you’re going to find here at the Peabody.