A Benign Spit-Shine

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Hello again, folks! We’re now halfway through our NEH grant timeline. I’m approaching the home stretch of object editing, and will soon begin photographing select items. In the meantime, let’s chat about artifact conservation!

In going through object entries in PastPerfect, I have also been checking our maintenance and conservation notes entered into the system from past conservator reports. Early on in this project, one word in these notes caught my eye: “saliva.” At first, I thought this must be some sort of typo. Then, after finding several more examples, I wondered if it was a faithful documentation of a (surely!) outdated practice. After all, artifact conservation techniques have certainly changed a lot over history. Out of insatiable curiosity, I dug a little deeper.

Object SP82.3.3; Past Perfect records: wooden colander of basswood, made at Hancock Village, MA; museum purchase, 1982. Mechanically cleaned, cleaned with saliva, treated with wax (1996).

I found out that cleaning artifacts with human saliva—known colloquially as a “spit shine,” and scientifically (albeit euphemistically) as “enzymatic cleaning[1]—is a conservation technique that has been used for centuries.[2] However, it also (surprisingly enough) has scientific backing! A 1990 Portuguese study confirmed that the amylase enzyme contained in human saliva makes it, for many delicate surfaces, a more effective cleaning agent than water, while still being gentle enough to use on sensitive materials.[3] The authors won the 2018 chemistry “Ig Nobel” prize for unusual achievements in scientific research for their study.[4] It has also been investigated for use on silver gelatin photographic prints—although with mixed results, and further study needed.[5]

Object 74.6.1; Past Perfect records: split wood basket with a fine weave, made at Sabbathday Lake, ME; donation from 1974. Cleaned with saliva, old PVA glue removed from a previous repair, re-glued with hot hide glue (mid-1990s).
Object 62.4.6; Past Perfect records: hand-carved ash dough trough; on long-term loan since 1962. Cleaned with saliva, waxed with Behlen’s Wax (1996).

As y’all might imagine, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused this practice to be put on hold in some institutions, while others are putting it under closer scrutiny and modifying their procedures to increase sanitation.[6] Synthetic solutions that imitate saliva have also been tested, and appear to be just as effective, but of course are more expensive than…well, than fluids humans naturally produce anyway.

Regardless of what future studies determine, we can understand how important it is to document all past conservation treatments on an artifact! Have you ever seen old glue turn yellow on something? Yep, that’s not what we want. Our standards, knowledge, and available materials change over time, and sometimes it is necessary to undo past work for the longevity of an object.

Object 61.3.327; Past Perfect records: cherry pitter with an oak handle; donation from 1961. Mechanically removed corrosion, cleaned with mineral spirits, wooden handle cleaned with saliva, waxed all surfaces (mid-1990s).

While past conservators at Pleasant Hill have used this technique, I could not find a record of it being used since the mid-1990s, and none of these items are currently on display—so you don’t need to worry about our current exhibits! In general, though, perhaps…don’t lick the artifacts.

[1] Allison Rosenthal, “Spit Cleaning: Conservation’s Dirty Little Secret” (Buffalo Bill Center of the West, July 9, 2015), accessed September 18, 2020, https://centerofthewest.org/2015/07/06/spit-cleaning-conservations-dirty-little-secret/.

[2] Steven Litt, “Little-Known Art-Cleaning Technique Nothing to Spit At,” The Seattle Times (The Seattle Times Company, April 7, 2002), accessed September 18, 2020, https://archive.seattletimes.com/archive/?date=20020407.

[3] Paula M. S. Romão, Adília M. Alarcão, and César A. N. Viana, “Human Saliva as a Cleaning Agent for Dirty Surfaces,” Studies in Conservation 35, no. 3 (August 1990): pp. 153-155, accessed September 18, 2020, https://doi.org/10.2307/1506167.

[4] Emma Stoye, “Art Conservation Using Saliva Wins Chemistry Ig Nobel,” Chemistry World, September 14, 2018, accessed September 18, 2020, https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/art-conservation-using-saliva-wins-chemistry-ig-nobel/3009504.article.

[5] Ruth Oliver, “May I Spit on Your Photograph? A Preliminary Investigation into the Effectiveness of Saliva and a Synthetic Alternative for Surface Cleaning Silver Gelatin Photographs,” in 4th Book, Paper & Photographs Symposium, 2006, pp. 174-193.

[6] Luke Wong, “Coronavirus Puts Damper on Saliva Cleaning Method in Art Galleries and Museums,” ABC News (ABC Central West, June 27, 2020), accessed September 18, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-28/saliva-spit-cleaning-art-gallery-museum-conservator-pandemic/12398824.

Shirred and Swirled

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

In a previous post, I mentioned that sifting through our object records let me find large batches of similar items, and compare and contrast them. When our digital collections go live, you’ll be able to do the same thing – but until then, let’s practice together!

Have you seen any of our Shaker rugs on exhibit before? You may have seen the “GOOD” rug, on display in the East Family Brethren’s Shop, or our “Horse Rugs” (one of which is now on display at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville). However, there are only so many examples of a type of object a museum can show in most exhibits. Sometimes museum curators choose to display an example of an object type that is the most well-known or special; sometimes they choose items that are the most “typical” representation. Either decision involves narrowing down many alternate choices. Using rugs for this exercise, let’s see what information we can gather!

  • What do these rugs have in common with each other?
  • If you’ve seen either (or both!) of our more “famous” rugs, what do these have in common with the ones below? What makes them different?
  • Can you determine one, or several, overarching design themes?
  • What colors are used most frequently? What materials? What is used more rarely?
  • One of these rugs is depicted twice, in two different formats – can you find which one?
“Shaker Shirred Rug,” Charles Goodwin, Index of American Design; Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Can you spot this rug in our photos?
Object 61.3.350; cotton, wool and burlap. Shirring often creates a “shag rug” like texture.
Object 61.4.129; cotton, linen and wool, including knit and jacquard fabric; one of several with organic forms. This one reminds me of a geological formation, like agate or malachite.
Object 62.4.64C; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. The vibrant colors and geometric angles of this rug design are strikingly contemporary.
Object 62.4.61; constructed from a combination of shirring, scaling and braiding.
Object 62.4.64B; cotton, wool and burlap. Constructed in a Maltese cross design, with shirred strips and a braided edge.
Object 61.4.125; cotton, linen, wool and burlap. Organic shapes of shirring stitched onto a “sandwich” backing of lace weave, burlap and a woven rag rug.
Object 61.14.1; cotton and wool. Sewn to a woven rag rug with a corduroy backing. Does this rug look familiar?
Object 61.4.128; cotton and wool. Sewn to woven rag rug with ticking fabric backing. Central design motif is said to resemble an eye. What do you think it looks like?

So, what did you notice? Here’s some context, courtesy of the object notes and descriptions on file:

Many of these rugs are called “dollar” rugs; this is because they are created with scraps of fabric in the size and shape of silver dollar coins. These scraps are then “shirred;” that is, threaded into strips resembling Hawaiian leis, or fuzzy caterpillars. Most are made from scraps of fabric of a variety of materials, many dyed in vibrant earth tones. However, while the phrase “rag rugs” usually evoke either the flat-woven rectangular form or the braided, round or oval form, these have a thick texture and complex forms, either in abstract or figurative designs.

Curses and Serendipity: Artifact Homecomings

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Warning The following post shares the stories of historic artifacts that have, in the past, “disappeared” from Shaker Village and returned in unusual ways. The management of Shaker Village would like our readers to know that we have excellent security and oversight of our artifacts!

Howdy, everyone! Welcome back to another installment of my dispatches from the SVPH archival digitization project.

As many of you know, there is a lot of information we can glean from closely observing an object or artifact; but in most cases, this can’t tell us everything we want to know about it. That’s where our object files come in! When our digital catalog goes live, you will of course see photographs, descriptions, and measurements of the objects. You will also often see:

  • Cross-references to related items (such as library holdings, archival documents, photographs, and even other objects),
  • Examination notes by experts in a relevant field,
  • Publications or exhibits that mentioned or featured the object, and/or
  • Information that accompanied the object on its journey to our institution.
Black and white photograph of white oak basket, taken soon after being accessioned.

While checking over these entries, I have found many interesting and informative notes. I have also found several that are entertaining as all get-out. Guess what? Sometimes an object’s story doesn’t end at our threshold! So far, I’ve found at least two artifacts that have “wandered” a little further from home than they should have.

First is this basket (accession # 67.4.4), which first came to the village as a donation in 1967. Sometime in the 1970s-80s, it, ahem, “walked off.” This note explains how it found its way home in 2003:

“The sender had visited Pleasant Hill 12/18/2003 and told how she had ‘met a 92-year-old lady at a garage sale, who said a man who lived in her house for years; was in possession of this basket which apparently belongs to you—and she asked me if I’d return it to you.”

A roundabout journey, but effective! Of course, it begs the question of how the 92-year-old woman’s tenant acquired the basket in the first place, doesn’t it?

This bench has a 1 ½-inch-thick seat, constructed of a single piece of wood. Impressive!

Second is this bench (accession # 61.4.386), which was part of the initial Pleasant Hill property purchase in 1961—meaning it’s been a fixture of our organization from the beginning. Pre-restoration photos show it living in the Trustee’s Office; post-restoration, it resided in the Carpenter’s Shop (currently our Welcome Center). However, in the mid-1970s, it…you guessed it, “walked off.”

Photograph depicting the bench in the 1839 Trustees’ Office, pre-restoration.

On May 22nd, 2005, between 11:00 and 11:45 AM, it appeared in front of our administrative building with the following note:

“I am returning this to its rightful owner…It was taken by a former employee about 30 years ago. (NOT ME.) It eventually ended up in my possession. Now I give it back and pray that the “Curse” will cease on me and everyone associated with its removal from Shakertown. Thank you.”

For reference, please keep in mind that this bench is 8 ½ feet long. I have no idea how someone left the village with it unnoticed, but as they say, it was a different time. I also wonder what happened to make this person believe the bench was cursed.

Don’t try it at home, kids! I’m not saying a mysterious Shaker-themed curse will befall you if you steal from us, but I’m also not not saying that. Best not to risk it, right?

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories

By Maggie McAdams, Education and Engagement Manager

Do you have a favorite Shaker artifact?  When you think of Pleasant Hill, do any special objects come to mind?  If you could pick one word to describe Pleasant Hill or the Shakers, what word would that be? 

Trying to pick one word or one artifact can be challenging, but it is a fun exercise because it can help to clarify what the Shakers mean to you personally.  Every artifact offers visitors an opportunity to connect with the Pleasant Hill story, and our latest exhibit, Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories, helps to establish these relevant connections. 

Pieces of Pleasant Hill: Objects + Stories highlights Shaker Village’s artifact and archival collection, and encourages visitors to think critically about what, and why, we collect.  Featuring over 20 artifacts, this exhibit will help visitors piece together the Pleasant Hill story by not only exploring the objects left behind, but by considering why they matter.  The Shakers called Pleasant Hill home for over a century, and their diverse individual experiences left us with a collection that is equally varied and diverse. 

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was founded in 1961 to “collect, preserve, and display the records, artifacts, tools, and products of the Shaker community.” Today, Shaker Village actively maintains 34 historic structures, 25 miles of rock walls, 3,000 acres of original Shaker land, and over 7,000 objects and documents!  The Pleasant Hill Shakers have a fascinating story to tell, but how do we, as a museum, tell that story? 

Shaker material culture, particularly Shaker furniture, is often the point of entry into the Shaker story for many visitors.  Pieces of Shaker furniture were the first artifacts to be collected and studied by early 20th century Shaker scholars.  Furniture was so heavily studied and written about that it became the focal point for discussions on the Shakers for much of the 20th century, much to the chagrin of Shaker Mildred Barker, who famously stated, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair.”

Shaker chairs featured in the new exhibit.

While furniture and furniture making were important components of the Shaker experience, there is so much more to the story.  This new exhibit features Shaker furniture along with additional artifacts from the collection to emphasize the importance of analyzing objects to understand their significance to the history of the community.  By digging deeper into these artifacts, and uncovering the personal stories behind them, we can explore the dynamic nature of this community.     

The exhibit will lead visitors through a series of questions that address the artifacts themselves and the scope of the collection as a whole.  Guests will also be encouraged to get involved in the research process to uncover the individuals and stories behind our artifacts.  In doing so, we hope that visitors will understand not only how the artifacts fit into the larger Pleasant Hill story, but also how these stories help build meaningful connections with their own lives. 

Every artifact has a story to tell, you just have to know what questions to ask. 

Join us as we examine the importance of artifacts, and the ways in which we can use them to understand more about life in this community!

This project is supported with funding from the Kentucky Local History Trust Fund (KRS 171.325), a program administered by the Kentucky Historical Society.  For more information, see history.ky.gov/local-history-fund

Past “Perfection,” Depth and Breadth

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Hello again! Welcome to the second installment of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant blog series.

Even before I last checked in with you, I had been diving deep into our object records to make progress on phase one of this project.

Pop quiz time!

Q. What does phase one entail, again?

A. If you read last week’s blog you may remember phase one includes, “Sift[ing] through existing digital records with an editorial eye, checking for consistency, accuracy and potential missing information.”

Here’s a breakdown of my progress so far. I’ve edited 940 objects in a little over seven days of work. I’m no math whiz, but my calculator tells me that I’m averaging roughly 120 object records per day. That’s six online catalog “pages” of 20 records each. With 4,624 object entries currently digitized (not including records for photographs, archival documents and research library publications), that means I’m roughly one-fifth of the way through phase one of this project. If all goes well (knock on wood), I’m projected to complete this phase in early September. Thank you, calculator!

I’m going through our records with specialty museum software called PastPerfect. This software has had lots of updates and features added since it first came out in 1998, but honestly it has a user interface that still looks like it survived Y2K.

museum software, computer software, archive software
PastPerfect Museum Software: a blast from the past.

It may not look sleek, but it’s very thorough! I’m a detail-oriented person, so we get along fine. And this is certainly a meticulous job – some might say tedious, even. So far, even maintaining my “productivity averages,” I’ve done many passes over the same records several times a week, developing consistent syntax and record-keeping, along with teaching myself software tools, tricks and shortcuts as I go.

With this “close looking,” I’ve run across items deep in our collection that even I didn’t know we owned, which you can expect to see examples of in later posts in this series.

printing press, handpress, archive, Shaker handpress, Shaker printing press
Surprise item: hand-powered printing press (archival photo).

I’ve also caught lots of oddball errors. For example, one past software update moved object information into a field called “Species,” referring to Natural History. This meant I’d see objects called “Species: Stove” and the like. Other times I’ve found amusing typos, such as one referring to Shaker Pure Extract of Malt as “Pure Extract of Meat,” which sounds awfully unappetizing!

As I’ve been making my passes through our collection records, I’ve also noticed trends in accessioned (which means “to record in the order of acquisition”) [i] objects. As we add items in batches, often as they are donated or purchased, I get a sense of that collector’s interests. There will be waves of rugs, bottles, baskets, or chairs all at once. It’s fun to speculate about the previous owner’s personality and to notice subtle differences between otherwise similar items.

While our digital catalog’s final form will, of course, keep our donor’s personal information private, soon you too will be able to investigate the depth and breadth of our collections.

[i] The Free Dictionary by Farlex, s.v. “accession,” accessed July 23, 2020, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/accessioned.