An Author Takes on a Project

This is the second post in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program

From my fellowship application: As the author of the Captain Jane Thorn historical maritime fiction series, I have two main goals: the first is, of course, to entertain the reader; the second is to introduce the reader to the world of the 1820s and the reality of maritime trade. I strive to base the books on actual people and events, including the documented voyages of trading vessels, as a way to make history come alive…

My aim with this project is twofold: in the first instance, I will be building a resource for my own use as I continue the book series; secondly, I will be creating a resource that both makes the log data available to all researchers, and brings together other resources at the Winterthur that add depth and color to the log data. For example, the log of a barkentine’s trip to China will include transcripts of the logs, plotted map coordinates, images of the logbooks themselves, images of a barkentine, images of the captain if available, and so on. This database will be created through Google Earth and may be made available publicly through Winterthur. Thus, materials in the archives (primarily the Joseph Downs Collection of Printed Ephemera) may become not only available online, but will include context.

A number of researchers have taken on the task of transcribing ship’s log data in the past. Most well-known is the Maury data. Lt. Matthew Maury, first superintendent of the US Naval Observatory (1842 to 1861), worked on abstracting old logbooks to create atlases and charts intended to improve shipping routes. His greatest contribution was a logbook template, used widely by printers around the country, that arranged entries in accordance with rules that enable standardized selection and abstraction of the data. The proposed project will build on the standards set for both the Maury data and other digitization projects such as Old Weather, but will include additional resources and information that makes the data more useful for writers and humanities researchers.

A cool thing I found in the Collection:

The fact was, you had a pretty good chance of dying at sea in 1804. For the average seaman, that meant having your personal possessions auctioned off to the rest of the crew. It strikes me how little “Nelson” left behind.

Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020

Pamela Wik-Grimm writes historical maritime fiction based on her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. She holds a USCG captain’s license and is active as a commercial and recreational sailor.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sailing into Winterthur

The first in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program

I discovered a few years ago that the only thing more fun than reading a good book is writing one. You get to tell the kinds of stories you enjoy and follow your characters around almost as an extension of yourself. When I sit down to write, I gravitate to the world of merchant trade during the age of sail, as I am a sailing captain myself. In my modern world, I teach keelboating and run sailing charters, but my protagonist, Captain Jane Thorn, takes her schooner out into the wider world and makes money for the family business off smart deals and her wits. 

As an author, it is important to me that my readers learn something interesting about the history of the time, especially about women in that world. So off I went on a research journey through maritime libraries on the east coast, eventually landing at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library as the online catalog indicated that the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera contained a number of ship’s journals and merchant family papers. And it was a gold mine! The two days I spent feverishly transcribing and poring over two-hundred-year-old documents gave me the core of the voyage that takes Captain Jane and her schooner to Cuba, St. Petersburg (Russia), and home to New York.

While I was working with the awesome library staff at Winterthur, they suggested I might look into the Maker/Creator Fellowship Program and come back with a larger project in mind. Two books later, I decided it was time. I knew what I needed as an historical fiction author, and thought there might be a larger audience for the material―I’ll talk more about the project in another post. It was a terrific process to put together the fellowship application with the enthusiastic support of the program director. Working up and reworking the project goals and approach was itself a challenge, I must say! But the final proposal was specific enough to give me a defined plan while leaving room for things to evolve as I gained a better sense of the available materials. 

As I reached the end of the research phase of the project, I had to force myself to focus as there are at least a hundred other exciting projects buried in the Winterthur Archives!

A cool thing I found in the collection:

One of the earliest challenges of the young United States was the control of its borders basically, its coasts (and of course the leaky border with Canada to the north). The regulation of trade across those borders was of paramount importance and hotly disputed (see War of 1812) for years to come. One method of keeping track of things was the issuing of licenses for coastal trade, fishing, and so on. Just like today, 19th-century captains had to have their papers in order if they were stopped by Customs officers!

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
COL 245 Shipping records, 1708-1892, bulk 1790-1820

Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020

Pamela Wik-Grimm writes historical maritime fiction based on her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. She holds a USCG captain’s license and is active as a commercial and recreational sailor.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Winterthur Acquires Rare Painting by Robert S. Duncanson

Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, Robert S. Duncanson

A rare painting by Robert S. Duncanson, an African American artist identified by antebellum critics as the “best landscape painter in the West,” is now part of the Winterthur collection.

A special study day, Discovering Duncanson, will be held on December 6, 2019, featuring prominent scholars Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Martha Jones, Ph.D., John Hopkins University.

Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted by Duncanson circa 1851–53. The picture shows a panoramic view with a stream, pasture, and mountains inspired by the southern Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. It is an outstanding composition in pristine condition for its age and equals or surpasses many examples of the mid-19th century American school of landscape painting. This canvas constitutes a crucial addition to the Winterthur collection, which had not included a painting representative of this major movement in American culture. Duncanson’s painting also contributes to Winterthur’s growing collection of needlework, furniture, and other works of art and material culture created by African Americans, thus constructing a more inclusive view of artistic creation in 19th-century America at Winterthur. The painting will be on view in the galleries in early December.

A man with an interesting road to artistic prominence, Robert Seldon Duncanson was born in 1821 in Fayette, New York, the grandson of Charles Duncanson (ca. 1745–1828), a freed enslaved man from Virginia. The family had moved into the Military Tract of Central New York, where the federal government granted land to Revolutionary War veterans, suggesting that Charles may have earned his freedom for his military service. Duncanson’s family later moved to Monroe, Michigan, a thriving commercial town at the western end of Lake Erie. After apprenticing in the family trade of house painting, decorating, and carpentry, he formed his own firm of painters and glaziers in Monroe in 1838 in association with a man named John Gamblin. The firm stopped advertising in 1839 probably because Duncanson had decided to move to Cincinnati.

A city at the crossroad of major East and West transportation routes and on the border between the North and the South, Cincinnati was then becoming a leading economic and cultural center west of the Appalachian Mountains. The bourgeoning city would produce some of the most important artistic and cultural figures of the time, including Hiram Powers, Lilly Martin Spencer, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In spite of Ohio’s Black Laws, pervasive racial discrimination, and racial violence, it was a stronghold of abolitionism and became home to a short-lived but thriving African American community attracted by the opportunities it offered. Within this community, a small middle class emerged. It established churches, schools, and benevolent societies and it included an active group of African American artists. Duncanson’s career is an integral part of the city and its community’s history.

Between 1850 and 1852, Duncanson undertook several sketching trips, traveling up the Ohio River through Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan, and south to Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where he travelled at least to Asheville. One of the earliest known landscapes from this period, A View of Asheville, North Carolina (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), is signed and dated from the year 1850. The following year, Duncanson exhibited another southern composition, The French Broad, North Carolina, at the Western Art-Union gallery, where the work was praised as one of Duncanson’s best pictures. Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted exactly during this period; the canvas stamp on its back was used by the manufacturer only between 1850 and 1853. The painting in its outstanding condition offers a direct encounter with the rising talent of this extraordinary artist.

Register here for a special study day, Discovering Duncanson, on December 6, 2019, with prominent scholars to explore and examine this important and rare artist and his art work.

About the Speakers

Professor Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how black Americans have shaped the story of American democracy. Professor Jones holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a juris doctor degree from the CUNY School of Law. Prior to the start of her academic career, she was a public interest litigator in New York City. Professor Jones is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press in 2018) and All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and a coeditor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Professor Jones is recognized as a public historian who writes frequently for broader audiences at outlets including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today, Public Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Time. She has also curated museum exhibitions including Reframing the Color Line and Proclaiming Emancipation in conjunction with the William L. Clements Library, and collaborations with the Smithsonian’s and collaborations with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, the Southern Poverty Law Center, PBS, Netflix, and Arte (France). Professor Jones currently serves as a president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and on the Organization of American Historians Executive Board.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies race, gender, sexuality, and class in the art of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She received her doctorate in art history from Stanford University, then held an appointment as an assistant professor of art history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University for five years before joining to the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She has been a fellow at the National Portrait Gallery. Her recent publications include “Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings,” in Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, published by Yale University Press; “Family and Fortune in Early African American Life and Representation,” in the exhibition catalog, Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed, from the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York; and “Creating a New Negro Art in America,” in Transition 108, published by the W. E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research and University of Indiana Press. Among other exhibitions she has helped to organize, she co-curated the exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art, which highlighted selections from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of African American art.

Posted in black history month, Conferences, Decorative Arts, museum acquisition, museum collection, Prints, Photos & Drawings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ephemera Writing Contest

“Why did I agree to this,” he wondered, frowning, as he walked down the long hallway toward the parlor. Although he’d never admit it, even to himself, he knew exactly why he’d agreed to fill in last minute for a no-show Santa: the sweetness in the eyes of the woman who’d asked him to do it.

Lila had caught his attention the few other times he’d been inside. He’d always had to force himself to shift his gaze from the warm smile she cast. Her trim figure, always in motion, was flattered by her uniform; the graceful movement, mesmerizing to him. He tried to push the vision out of his head after each encounter as there was no reasonable way for him to get to know her better or contrive to run into her more often.

He paused to glance at his reflection in a large gilt-framed mirror and sighed. “I don’t even look believable.” He was thinner than one would expect a Santa Claus to be, his moustache and hair a little too stiff and long, his boots a dull brown and still crusted with mud from working in the estate’s woods and fields. Reaching the doorway, he hesitated a moment before stepping gingerly onto the expensive rug.

She was already in the room. “Come in!” she said brightly, turning at the sound of movement. Oh that smile! “Don’t worry about the rug. The children will be dropping popcorn and crumbs everywhere, so it will need to be cleaned anyway,” she said cheerfully. He was grateful to her for putting him at ease so quickly, and tried to shrug off wondering how awkward he must have looked for her to know right away what was troubling him. “That chair is for you,” she said pointing to a rustic wooden rocker placed in front of the Christmas tree.

“How stupid of me,” he thought. “Obviously that chair is for me, but here I just stand like a dolt waiting for her to tell me where to sit.”

He glanced around the area, taking in the display of wealth. Tasteful and understated though it was, no detail could be found lacking. The furniture had been moved to the perimeter or maybe some of it had been taken out; he wasn’t familiar with this room. A buffet table on the right wall held arrangements of treats served in silver or crystal bowls and on ornate platters. A gramophone stood waiting to blare holiday standards.

The Christmas tree in the corner was a bit spindly compared with the others placed throughout the mansion, but still dazzling with several kinds of tinsel covering the branches. Under it, a store’s worth of gifts crowded the chair: dolls in carriages, large-scale model trains, tricycles, musical instruments, and sports equipment dwarfed a pile of smaller goods hidden from view inside fancy ribbon-topped boxes.

He turned and settled into the chair in time to see Lila leave. No sooner had she gone than a gaggle of awe-struck children began filling the room. They ranged in age from about four to maybe 10 years old, and it seemed there were too many of them for him to count, all wordlessly looking back and forth from the tree with its towering piles of gifts to the table with its towering piles of sweets.

Lila breezed back into the room and cheerfully instructed the children to line up to visit Santa and select a gift from under the tree, unperturbed by the jostling for position that ensued. Some of the children shoved to the back decided to change course, going for first dibs on the sweets instead. One extremely shy boy clung to the wall, not willing to step into either fray.

The first several children, proud of themselves for having the largest selection of gifts from which to choose, sat on his lap for mere seconds before jumping down to grab their prizes. Those who had been waiting longer had either resigned themselves to a second choice item or spent the time noticing Santa’s inadequate appearance, then spending their turn lending their voices to his internal worries.

As the line dwindled, he glance to his right out of the corner of his eye and saw that the shy boy still kept close company with the wall. When the last child had climbed down from his lap and run off with a gift, he sighed again, glad the afternoon was almost over but wondering what to do about the shy child. He looked around for help, but Lila wasn’t in the room. He smiled at the boy and gestured for him to come over. Eyes wide, the boy edged closer. He looked around for something the boy might like and grabbed the last tricycle.

“This is for you,” he said. The boy took another hesitant step. He smiled broadly, and the boy moved close enough to touch the bike. He leaned back in the rocker, satisfied that his day playing Santa had come to a close. But to his great amazement, the boy suddenly climbed into his lap, rested his head on the white fluffy trim of the Santa suit, and fell asleep.

“John! I’m glad you’re–” Lila stopped, surprised. “I’m sorry, I thought they’d all gone. Let me take him back to his mother,” she continued in a whisper. “I came to let you know we’re having a gathering in the staff lounge. I was hoping you’d join me.”

He looked up from the small boy snuggled in his lap to the woman he thought about for so long now standing in front of him. “Nothing would make me happier.”

Post by Meredith Prince, winner of the Winterthur Yuletide Creative Writing Contest

Posted in Christmas, Library, museum collection, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hiding in Plain Sight

As a registration assistant at Winterthur, I’ve walked down the sixth floor hall countless times and never really thought twice about the Williams Room. Who would believe that I would discover a connection to my family tree in that room?

I regularly inventory the 90,000 objects in the Winterthur collection as part of my job. One day my volunteer, Becky Kolpak, and I were inventorying rooms on the sixth floor. Our process involves confirming the objects in the room match with our records of what is supposed to be in that room. With objects constantly moving for exhibits, studying purposes, or loans, it is important that we check every object’s exact location.

During this morning in particular, we were in the Williams Room, which is used to showcase objects produced in the 17th and early 18th centuries, with a focus on New England furnituremakers. One of the objects is a needlework picture that is inscribed “Christian Williams 1751.”

Becky read it aloud to me, and it sparked me to comment, “My grandmother is a Williams, and we are related to William Williams, who signed the Declaration of Independence.”

Needlework picture by Christian Williams. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1965.3080

 Jokingly I told Becky, “Maybe this Christian Williams is related to me!”

Determined to finish the room before lunch, we continued on. One of the last objects on our list was a corner chair that sits in front of a desk and bookcase. Chairs are typically easy to find numbers on, but this one was proving difficult. We found two different object numbers on the chair, so we grabbed the reference book from the room to search for an answer. We discovered that the chair belonged to William Williams, “The chair is alleged to have been originally owned by William Williams (1731-1811) of Lebanon, Connecticut, and his wife Mary Trumbull, daughter of Gov. John Trumbull.”

Chair in the Williams Room. Museum purchase 1974.0001

I knew that my relative was from Connecticut and married to Mary Trumbull, the sister of the famous painter John Trumbull. Wanting to be absolutely certain, I pull up a picture of my family tree on my phone that my grandmother put together. I quickly find William Williams and confirm that he was married to Mary Trumbull.

Family Tree of author

Surprised by the connection I have just made between my family and Winterthur, I walk over to the chair and study it deeply. The thoughts start to come all at once. My ancestor possibly sat in this chair. My ancestor, who signed the Declaration of Independence, could have sat in this chair, and here I am standing in front of it. What are the odds that this chair from Connecticut would end up here at Winterthur? What are the chances that it is here at Winterthur, and I work at Winterthur? What are the odds that this chair was incorrectly numbered, so we had to do more research on it?

I desperately wanted to know more about this chair and now everything in this room. It is named Williams room after all, so what else could be related to the Williams family? My mind goes to the sampler that read “Christian Williams 1751,” and I ask Becky to look up the sampler’s information. Becky begins to read aloud information on the sampler, “This canvas work picture, dated 1751, was worked by Christian Williams of Norwich, Connecticut, using wool yarns on canvas. Christian (1738–1816) was the eighth child out of eleven, and was named after her grandmother, Christian Stoddard Williams. Her father was the highly respected and influential Reverend Solomon Williams (1701–1776) of Lebanon, who was also the first cousin of the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. Her mother was Mary Porter (1703–1787), also from Lebanon.”

I quickly go back to my family tree on my phone and see that the names match up. William Williams’s parents were Solomon Williams and Mary Porter, so this means that Christian was William’s sister. I move over to the sampler taking in its beauty, trying to take myself back in time. Becky reads through the reference book for anything else that could be related to the Williams family as I take a moment to let my emotions sink in.

Becky quickly finds more to tell me. “The woodwork is from the home of William Williams, built in Lebanon, Connecticut…” She reads another paragraph, “… the room has been installed exactly as it was in the original building, even to the reuse of the original pine floor boards.”

We reread it multiple times to make sure I am understanding this information correctly. The floor and architecture are from William’s house that he grew up in. I hurriedly study the floor and architecture, once again taking in its magnificence and nostalgia.

The Williams Room

I am completely overcome with emotions, almost to the point of tears. Half of me wants to jump up and down and tell everyone I see, “This is my ancestor’s chair!” The other half wants to call every member of my family to tell them the news. Another part of me wants to go back to my office and look through all the files to see what else I can learn about this room and our objects here at Winterthur.

As the days go on, I find the newspaper clipping from September 14, 1984, announcing the sale of William Williams’s house, along with an original photo of the house, in our room files. I find published texts explaining the William Williams connection to the chair being passed down through family members. My co-worker and ancestry guru, Daniela Bono, kindly offers to use her ancestry skills to confirm my family ancestry. Daniela is able to confirm what my grandmother had put together, and we come to understand that William Williams and I are first cousins seven generations removed.

Newspaper clipping from the Williams Room folder from the registration files

This wonderful experience and connection I found here at Winterthur reminded me to not take for granted the history behind each object. Every piece of material culture has a story and a life connected to it, and I was lucky enough that the universe connected me back to a family heirloom. Needless to say, I will never look at the Williams Room the same as I did before. Admittedly, I find myself drawn to walk past the room as often as I can to stop and admire what once was.

Post by Devon Ennis, Registration Assistant, Winterthur

Special thanks to Daniela Bono and Becky Kolpak for helping me with this discovery.


  1. “William Williams.” The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, May 28, 2013.
  2. Mooz, Peter, and Charles F. Montgomery. A Guide to and Outline of the Winterthur Museum Collections of Arts of the American Home: Including American-Made and Imported Objects, and a Study of the American Arts, with a List of Books and Articles for the Study of the Arts in Early America.. Winterthur, DE: The Museum, 1970.
Posted in antiques, Behind-the-Scenes, Decorative Arts, House, museum collection, needlework, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What Does a Museum Scientist Do?

Ever wonder what a museum scientist does? This series of blog posts will shed light on the varied work of museum scientists and how their work impacts museum collections.

The University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum have worked together for 45 years. This partnership has resulted in the graduate-level Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. The goal of this program is to educate and to train conservation professionals. This symbiotic relationship has created additional avenues of research, training, and collaborations for Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware alike, whether it is instrumental analyses or archival access.

The third and final post in our series is from Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García and Dr. Marcie Wiggins, who both work in the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) at Winterthur.

Jocelyn performs dye identification using liquid chromatography, which, used in conjunction with a nondestructive analysis technique (x-ray fluorescence), can shine a light on dyeing practices.

Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García is an assistant professor in the Department of Art Conservation, University of Delaware. She teaches analytical techniques to WUDPAC graduate students alongside Winterthur scientists: “My primary research focuses on the study of textiles dyed with natural dyes, mostly related to the trade between the United Kingdom and United States, but I recently started to study pre-Columbian, archaeological, and Andean textiles. I am working on developing a completely nondestructive methodology for dye analysis.

I also advise graduate students who are specializing in paper, book, archaeological materials, or textiles, and I am the faculty advisor for Terrific Tuesdays, which takes place over the summer at Winterthur

Dr. Marcie Wiggins just completed her doctorate within the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware under Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García. She will soon start a new position as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage: “With Winterthur scientists and Tsinghua University, I have studied the degradation of a common copper-based pigment, verdigris. We used imaging methods to identify pigments used in the Forbidden City and how they might have been manufactured.

Marcie uses an x-ray diffractometer to try to tell different copper pigments apart.

I started on this career track because I knew I wanted to study chemistry but I was also interested in art. Initially I thought I wanted to be a conservator; however, after some years of practical experience, I realized my interests lay more in an analysis and research lab setting.”

You can learn more about the Winterthur and the University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation here:

Post by Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Associate Scientist and Head of the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory, Winterthur, Dr. Jocelyn Alcántara-García, assistant professor in the Department of Art Conservation, University of Delaware, and Dr. Marcie Wiggins.

Posted in Academic Programs, Art Conservation, Behind-the-Scenes, Students & Alumni | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What Does a Museum Scientist Do?

Ever wonder what a museum scientist does? This series of blog posts will shed light on varied work of museum scientists and how their work impacts museum collections.

The Brandywine Valley has a rich chemical heritage, starting with the founding of the DuPont chemical company. Several scientists who retired from local industries have found themselves putting their skills and expertise to excellent use in an unexpected place, a museum!

The second post in our series is from four volunteers working within the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) at Winterthur.

Judy examines a cross-section from a painting by William Williams. Using electron microscopy imaging and energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) she might be able to find out which pigments he used.

Dr. Judy Rudolph retired from W. L. Gore and Associates in 2015: “As I came nearer to retiring from a long career in electron microscopy, I started considering volunteering. A friend of mine mentioned that Winterthur not only had an analytical laboratory but also had a scanning electron microscope with chemical analysis! It was a match made in heaven as I am also an amateur painter!

I now work one day a week in the SRAL. I get to look at samples from paintings, paper, textiles, ceramics, and furniture, and I hope this work will help further the understanding of these wonderful works of art.”

Chris uses a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) to unravel molecular mysteries at Winterthur

Dr. Chris Petersen has been volunteering in the SRAL for 18 years: “After a 30-year career in research at the DuPont company, I found a way to combine a passion for art with science at the SRAL at Winterthur. I can combine chemistry and art with eager students and dedicated colleagues with both science and artistic talent.  I call it an accidental 18-year second career.

Mike uses a fiber optic reflectance spectrophotometer (FORS) to measure the thickness of coatings on Winterthur’s silver collection.

Dr. Mike Crawford retired from DuPont Central Research & Development after a 31-year career. He is also an affiliated professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Delaware while volunteering at SRAL:  “My work at Winterthur currently involves the study of nitrocellulose polymer coatings that reduce tarnishing of silver objects in the museum collection.  An optical measurement has been shown to be a convenient, non-destructive way to measure the thickness of the polymer films. This information is needed to understand and improve protection provided by these coatings.

As a lover of museums in general, and Winterthur in particular, I very much enjoy the opportunity to contribute in a small way to its success. Using my research experience in collaboration with museum staff members to address interesting problems in art conservation is both rewarding and fun!”

Mike uses his expertise from his long career at Agilent to teach conservators in Paris about identifying different types of lacquer.

Dr. Mike Szelewski retired from Agilent Technologies in 2013: “I heard lectures by Winterthur scientists years ago and introduced myself.  As an analytical chemist working at Agilent, these new-to-me application areas were very interesting.  I am interested in improving the sensitivity of the scientific instrumentation used in the SRAL and in using various software tools to provide more complete and useful information.

Together with Getty, we started a database for Asian lacquer, leveraging my experience with databases. Today we have a method for identifying lacquer using py-GC/MS.”

The next post in our series focuses on how the SRAL participates in the education of early career conservators through a partnership with the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware.

Details about current volunteering opportunities at Winterthur can be found here:

Post by: Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Associate Scientist and Head of the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory, Winterthur, with Winterthur Volunteers Dr. Judy Rudolph, Dr. Chris Petersen , Dr. Mike Crawford , and Dr. Mike Szelewski 

Posted in Academic Programs, American Culture Studies, Art Conservation, Behind-the-Scenes, Conservation, Decorative Arts, Students & Alumni, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What does a Museum Scientist do?

Ever wonder what a museum scientist does? This series of blog posts will shed light on the varied work of museum scientists and how their work impacts museum collections.

Within the Department of Conservation at Winterthur we are lucky to have one of only a handful of museum science labs in the entire country. The Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory (SRAL) houses 11 high tech analytical instruments and several microscopes that museum scientists use to identify the materials used in objects of art in nondestructive and minimally invasive ways in order to help conserve objects and help identify how and where they were made. They do this by using instrumentation to identify elements and molecules and matching them to known materials commonly found in works of art, or by conducting experiments to predict how art will change over time in the museum environment. Who knew that science could be applied to art in this way?

The first post in our series is from Dr. Rosie Grayburn and Catherine Matsen, scientists working within the Department of Conservation at Winterthur.

We perform materials analysis on all types of objects from the museum collection using different instrumental techniques available to us in our lab. We work with Winterthur’s conservators and curators to understand the materials present in the objects, so they can better understand how to treat the object, how it has changed over time, how it was made, or possibly, when it was made. This applied field of science is called conservation science.

Scientist Catherine Matsen places a microscopically small sample inside an x-ray diffractometer. This instrument can tell the scientists what minerals are present in a work of art.

No day is the same here in the SRAL! One day we are studying materials and method of manufacture of Winterthur’s Chinese-export lacquered objects attributed to production in Guangzhou (Canton) from the 18th to 19th centuries; the next we are finding new ways of identifying different types of plated silverware. There is an inexhaustible supply of fascinating material questions and problems to explore here at Winterthur. Recently we analyzed all 275+ looking glasses and mirrors in the museum’s collection. Before the early 20th century, most reflective surfaces were made from a tin-mercury amalgam. This material can degrade to liquid mercury thus posing a possible health risk to our colleagues who handle the mirrors. We worked with our preventive conservation colleagues to identify the elements present in the mirrors so that safe handling procedures could be determined for those mirrors containing the amalgam.

Associate Scientist Dr. Rosie Grayburn analyzes the elements present in a looking glass from the Winterthur collection using a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer. She is checking for the presence of tin or silver to indicate how the mirror was made.

We love applying our scientific knowledge to materials found in the museum’s collection: there is always a clear application which makes our work feel truly worthwhile. We are also lucky to work with a very diverse group of people―conservators, curators, students from the renowned Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation and the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, PhD students, other museums, and visiting scholars from around the world.

We are often asked how one trains to become a museum scientist. What we do is subtly different from scientists in industry because we abide by a Code of Ethics, set out by the American Institute of Conservation.  For anyone considering museum science as a career, we always advise studying science to a high level while also learning as much as you can about art, history, and material culture. Conservation science is a small, highly specialized field of science so do consider reaching out to museum professionals for advice and guidance.

Next week we will hear how retired scientists from local industries in and around Wilmington are helping out in the science lab by volunteering their time.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Winterthur scientists, join us on a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Conservation Department on 7/3. Details can be found at

Post by Dr. Rosie Grayburn, Associate Scientist and Head of the Scientific Research and Analytical Laboratory, and Catherine Matsen, Scientist, Winterthur

Posted in Academic Programs, Art Conservation, collection, Conservation, Decorative Arts, museum collection, Students & Alumni | Tagged | Leave a comment


By Hailey Denevere

This blog post was the winning entry for our creative writing contest. The contest focused on the 100th anniversary of the National Prohibition Act, which was ratified in January 1919, and entries had to incorporate ephemera from the Winterthur Library. 

Hearing footsteps, Jimmy quickly slid in the back door of Noah’s speakeasy and locked it behind him. Cautiously eyeing the bags he carried, Elenor asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s the shine,” He flippantly answered.

A worried look washed over Elenor’s face. “That’s not the usual stuff. What happened?”

Sheet music for “Prohibition Blues” 1919 (Col. 240, 14×27.31)

Jimmy’s response was muffled by the sound of Noah’s favorite record, Prohibition Blues.

Taking his usual place behind the bar, Jimmy filled glasses for regulars and dodged his boss’s perturbed glances. Noah finally approached him clearly annoyed, “You’re late!”

Interior of a bar, 1914 (Col. 182, 98×30.14)

“I ran into a snag,” Jimmy retorted.

“This cat Bugsy is coming tonight. I need him to see that our joint is the bee’s knees. I’m very interested in doing business with him.”

“Got it,” Jimmy said twirling a teacup around his finger before filling it with a cocktail.

“Mr. Bugsy, Jimmy will see to all your needs,” Noah graciously offered, doing his best to make a good impression.

“I hear you’re alright kid,” Bugsy grinned. “How long have you been a bar keep?”

“Just a few weeks,” Jimmy said, obviously intimidated by Bugsy’s imposing stature and holstered revolver.

“Let’s see what ya got,” Bugsy laughed flipping his teacup upright. “These teacups make smart cover if anyone on the beat shows up, but I heard your boss is in good with the brass around here.”

“I don’t know what sort of deals my boss has worked out, but lots of cops stop by here on their way home from the station.”

“That’s a pretty good deal kid,” Bugsy grinned.

“What will it be?” Jimmy asked.

“Strongest you’ve got,” Bugsy challenged.

Jimmy reached under the bar and grabbed one of the new bags. With the paper still neatly wrapped around the bottle, he generously filled the cup. Bugsy took a swig and sighed loudly.

“Your boss wasn’t kiddin’…you do have some good shine.”

Noah circled back to his honored guest. “What do you think Mr. Bugsy?”

Bugsy lowered his voice and turned away from Jimmy, speaking to Noah privately, “It’s strong, but I can make stronger at a better price than Sal’s giving you.” Jimmy cleaned the bar in a feeble attempt to hide his eavesdropping. Bugsy raised a brow at him and Noah harshly whispered, “Scram kid.”

Jimmy made an excuse to go to the store room and breathed a sigh of relief when the door shut safely behind him. Elenor cautiously approached him and whispered, “Jimmy, what did you end up getting? Sal doesn’t use bottles like that, and Noah said to go to Sal’s and then head straight here.”

“I got a tip from another bar keep Ellie. Guy said he uses alcohol from the hardware store. I checked it out and he’s right. Double the proof for half the price.”

“Tell me you didn’t!” Elenor gasped in horror.

“No one has to know Ellie. If I keep getting it there, I can pocket the change to help out with ma’s bills.”

“Jimmy it’s tainted,” Elenor flatly stated. “The government puts poison in it, so people don’t drink it.”

“Impossible,” Jimmy dismissed. “They wouldn’t do that. It would be all over the papers if they did.”

“They do Jimmy!” Elenor screamed shaking him. “My uncle died that way. I watched him.”

The color drained from Jimmy’s face. “I just served it to that guy Bugsy that Noah wanted to impress.”

Elenor stared blankly at Jimmy. “What now?” she asked. Before Jimmy could respond, they heard a thud in the next room. They raced out to the bar to find Bugsy lying motionless on the floor.

Lantern slide, ca. 1880-1900 (Col. 229, 83×34.88)

Elenor cried, “Call the cops!”

“No!” Shouted Noah. He turned toward his staff and calmly added, “They’d shut us down. I’ll make a personal call. Jimmy. make the announcement.”

“Attention everyone,” he announced. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing now.”

As the final guests were leaving, two officers slipped in the back door. They stood over Bugsy and quietly spoke to Noah before approaching Jimmy. Elenor rested a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder to steady his shaking.

“Just tell the truth…it’ll be okay.” she assured him.

Looking Jimmy from head to toe, one of the officers asked, “What happened?”

Elenor blurted out, “It was an honest mistake! He had no idea!” Sobbing she added, “He wanted to help his ma pay the bills. She’s been struggling since his old man bit the big one.”

Jimmy glanced at his scuffed shoes, gathering his courage and sheepishly admitted, “It was an accident. I tried to save a few bucks by buying industrial alcohol instead of our usual shine. I didn’t realize it was tainted. I served it to this guy, since I thought it was the strongest stuff in the house, and Noah said he trying to make a business deal with him.”

“A business deal?” one of the officers asked curiously raising an eyebrow at Noah.

“That’s Bugsy O’Shea…he’s been selling shine on Sal’s turf for weeks,” the other added, glaring at Noah skeptically. “Wait here, I have a quick call to make.”

“We’re going to need you to come down to the station to answer a few questions after all,” the first officer said, roughly handcuffing Noah. “Run along home Jimmy. You seem like a good kid who made an honest mistake. Don’t let an accident like this happen ever again.”

When he reached his house, Jimmy walked over to his father’s easy chair and collapsed. His mother handed him a cup of tea and sat beside him.

 “Jimmy, your uncle Sal called and told me what a good job you did getting rid of that cat he asked you to take care of…the one that kept stealing all his meat. He said he’d like to hire you at his butcher shop…that you may be an even better problem solver than your pops was.”

“That’s great ma,” Jimmy smiled. “It seems like things are finally looking up. I told you I had a plan.”

Posted in Ephemera, Library, museum collection, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Giving New Life to a 17th-Century Painting of Christ as the Man of Sorrows

As a fellow in painting conservation in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, I am lucky enough to work on some fascinating projects that allow me the opportunity to collaborate with conservators at other institutions, doing a little detective work. The painting I treated in the fall is a great example of this. It depicts Christ as the Man of Sorrows. It’s painted in the style of a 17th-century Spanish or Spanish Colonial painting and would likely have hung in a church where it would have served as an instrument to connect the faithful with Christ’s suffering. Ten stations of the cross are depicted in the boxes flanking both sides of Christ.  

The painting was originally purchased in Madrid, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War—a time when religious works of art were systematically destroyed. When the painting arrived at Winterthur, the backside was covered in thick, white paste splotches that had been painted over with dark brown and red colors. The owner hypothesized that this was evidence that the painting may have survived shrapnel attack from the Spanish Civil War.  Indeed some of the paste was applied in areas that corresponded to a tear in the canvas or areas of paint loss in the front, but most were applied in areas with no structural damage.  

Regardless of the reasons for applying the white splotches on the back, it was critical for the treatment of this painting that these splotches be removed to return the backside to a smooth surface finish. Since the paste was not present for purely structural reasons, we reached out to the wider conservation community via Facebook to determine if anyone had seen paste splotches like this before. This was done in an effort to ensure that there was not cultural or historical significance attached to these splotches that should deter us from removing them. We heard from colleagues as far as Spain and Peru about traditional pastes used as adhesives, but in the end, all feedback suggested the paste on this particular painting was safe to remove. Additionally, scientific analysis of the paste suggested the binder was not consistent with the historic materials suggested by our international colleagues.  

I have now successfully removed all areas of the paste on the surface by carefully scraping the paste off with a scalpel. With the back surface now smooth, we were able to humidify the painting and subsequently apply vacuum suction under heat to fully flatten and consolidate the painting without fear of having protrusions/areas that stood out from the back, causing bumps in the front. The painting is now ready to be cleaned and stretched onto a new custom made stretcher.  

Post by Tracy Liu, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

Posted in Academic Programs, art collections, Art Conservation, Paintings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment