Reversing the Clock

Taking care of the nation’s treasures requires art, history and even molecular science

Treasures from the past need preserving. Too many families who have put their old photographs in a cardboard box in the attic or folded their antique linens and left them in the basement know the heartbreak of seeing how the passage of time takes its toll. Photographs can crack or their colors fade; a wedding dress made from lace and silk and passed down by a beloved aunt may deteriorate, crumbling to dust when touched. At the Smithsonian, conservators and conservation scientists strive to ensure that the nation's treasures, the millions of objects placed in our care, remain in the best possible condition.

Many of these experts work at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE), where they study classical artistic media like oil paints on canvas but also more modern materials such as metals and alloys. They learn how those substances react—and change—in various environments and what to do about it. Founded in 1963, SCMRE today unites science, biology, chemistry and physics, and the arts. With aesthetic sensibilities and a strong background in art history, center staffers investigate not only the composition of objects but their history too. Looking at a wooden chair, for example, they can determine whether it was made by hand or machine and if the wood was initially split or sawed. Examining the wood more closely, on the cellular level, they can tell the species of tree, its age and even where it grew. As SCMRE works with both the Smithsonian museums and others all over the world, it is discovering better ways to protect and restore everything from paintings and sculpture to ceremonial masks and spacecraft. Recently, SCMRE experts started visiting some of the museums in the Smithsonian Affiliations program. They are advising local curators as well as the public on how to preserve items ranging from high-school yearbooks to the rarest works of art.

SCMRE collaborated closely with the National Museum of Natural History to restore a 19th-century Hawaiian outrigger canoe, the oldest-known craft of its type. In the years since Hawaii's Queen Kapi'olani presented the canoe to the Smithsonian, in 1887, the boat's wood had deteriorated. A SCMRE team, including a senior furniture conservator, restored the bow, stern and an outrigger boom and replaced the original coconut-fiber lashings. Wherever possible they used materials that were both handmade and native to Hawaii. They were assisted by a Hawaiian volunteer and consulted with canoe historians in the islands, e-mailing questions and digital photographs and receiving valuable help in reply.

Attending to more modern objects presents its own challenges. Before the December 2003 opening of the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, SCMRE helped restore several aircraft and spacecraft, including an early 20th-century wooden sport glider that required the restoration of its varnish, and a Gorgon II-A guided air-to-air missile built between 1943 and 1946. The missile's transparent nose cone had been painted over, obscuring the camera that had been installed to help guide it. A chemist worked with a paintings conservator to develop the best solution for removing the nose cone's paint without damaging the plastic underneath. In so doing, SCMRE scientists have allowed researchers and now visitors to see the missile in its entirety, including the camera that marks it as perhaps the earliest example of television's use in a missile.

In an era marked by narrow specialization, SCMRE's conservators and conservation scientists remain refreshingly broad-minded—as they need to be, given that they are entrusted with so wide a variety of objects, from the most personal keepsakes to the largest machines. With skill and dedication they contend daily with time's inevitable wear. And again and again they don't just slow time, they reverse it.

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