The first year of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) begins with a block on Preventive Conservation taught by Dr. Joelle Wickens. This specialty addresses an object’s environment and aims to prevent or reduce degradation of entire collections and therefore is a fitting introduction to our graduate program. Preventive conservation is relevant to all conservation specialties. The concepts discussed are crucial to an ethical understanding of interventive treatment approaches. What began as a preventive conservation project became a valuable lesson in fully understanding the historical context of the objects we conserve and not just their physical characteristics.
One of my projects in the class began as a straightforward re-housing assignment—creating a protective box for an object in the Winterthur Library—but quickly evolved into interesting discussions about more than just the object and its materials, pushing me to think more deeply about my work as a conservation graduate student.
The object I chose to re-house is a double-sided, pin-backed George Washington ribbon and button, consisting of a silk ribbon and a metal-backed celluloid button. I was immediately drawn to this object because of my previous experience with Washington-related artifacts as well as a desire to work with a variety of materials. The ribbon was in need of a better housing to safely display the fragile components. After a discussion with Laura Parrish, librarian in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, to which the ribbon belongs, we determined that the ideal housing would be minimal in size and would display the “In Memoriam” side. Laura generously offered to help research the cultural context of the ribbon, such as who would have worn such a ribbon and why. Our joint research and the entire project, in fact, proved to be an invaluable experience in approaching and discussing complex artifacts.
My new housing for the ribbon consisted of a modified sink mat with front and back covers so that both sides could be accessed, with the pin nestled into a protective foam-lined insert. A piece of Mylar was placed behind the ribbon to support it between the mat boards while providing verso visibility.
The materials used to create the sink mount were carefully chosen so as not to interact with the materials of the ribbon and button. As mentioned, silk and metal-backed celluloid were identified as the primary materials of the object, both through visual examination and by researching the manufacturer. An inscription on the verso of the button tells us it was made by Whitehead & Hoag, the largest advertising novelty manufacturer in the 1890s through the 1910s and the first company to produce pin-back buttons (Gold 1987). The company’s patent history confirms silk and celluloid were the primary materials used. My housing therefore included a rare earth magnet (the strongest type of permanent magnets) to hold in place the metal-backed celluloid button and sink cutouts in the acid-free, buffered mat board that were lined with acid-free Tyvek to prevent dye-bleed from the silk.
With Laura’s help, I soon learned more about the ribbon than just its material makeup. The ribbon was made for the Patriotic Order Sons of America, an organization founded in 1847 by Dr. Reynell Coates of Philadelphia. The order was formed during fractured political times in the United States and adhered to an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and pro–native-born American platform. Learning this, I could not help but think of anti-immigration sentiments felt widely in today’s political landscape.
This particular ribbon was issued by the order’s Washington Camp No. 47, based in Penn’s Grove, New Jersey, and would have been worn for a variety of public functions. The red, white, and blue side would have been displayed when the organization participated in national or local events such as marching in parades. The black “In Memoriam” side would have been worn at the funeral of one of its members.
The image on the button reflects the pride of the P.O.S. of A. in helping the Valley Forge Centennial and Memorial Association raise money to preserve the house used by George Washington as headquarters during encampment at Valley Forge. The button portrays a common legend about George Washington kneeling in prayer beneath an oak tree during the winter encampment at Valley Forge.
An early form of what is now a ubiquitous object may be of interest to those studying American manufacturing or novelties, but this particular ribbon also has a cultural context that is still relevant today. Partnering with Laura in researching the ribbon, I realized my initial approach was entirely materialistic and that I did not consider the other stories this ribbon had to tell. My preventive conservation assignment presented me with additional ways of seeing an object. Is it ethical to treat an object without knowing all of its contextual information? Conversely, is it ethical to consider such information when it may oppose my own moral beliefs? These questions have become constants as I continue to work with a variety of artifacts in my first year of study.
In writing this blog post, I struggled with how to discuss the ribbon’s connection considering today’s political environment and discussions surrounding immigration. In an engaging lunchtime conversation with interdepartmental museum professionals, what became clear is that being able to ask and discuss these questions may be just as, or even more, important than answering them. May the conversation continue…
Post by Joanna Hurd, Graduate Student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation
Gold, Anita. 1987. “You Can Make More Than Pin Money With The Right Button.” Chicago Tribune.
Hake, Ted. n.d. Whitehead and Hoag Company History. Accessed 10 1, 2017. http://www.tedhake.com/viewuserdefinedpage.aspx?pn=whco.
Trotter, G. 2007. Valley Forge Issue. Arago. Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C.