Conserve, Preserve, Observe – Winterthur Week 2

I’m about to wrap up my second week interning with the Curatorial Department at Winterthur Museum, Gardens, and Library. The days have been incredibly varied – one day I uploaded multimedia files to Winterthur’s database so anyone can visually see print works in Winterthur’s collection, another day I helped the Registration Department transport boxes of recently fumigated textiles to their storage space during cataloguing and photographing, and yesterday I visited the “Gray Building” with Josh, the Furniture Curator, to record accession numbers for potential pieces to go on display in the estate in time for an upcoming furniture conference later this year. Some days I spent hours online, and others I was barely at my desk. There is some consistency in long term cataloguing projects, but also variation in unexpected duties and tasks that require venturing to new parts of the property.

I befriended some koi at lunch.

I befriended some koi at lunch.


Part of this week included the chance to go on one of the Conservation tours, which Winterthur offers on the first Wednesday of every month, and allows visitors to glimpse the behind the scenes work involved in caring for objects.

Here are some of the highlights I found especially interesting surrounding Winterthur’s conservational work:

“Inherent Vice”

Every object naturally deteriorates of its own volition, a phenomenon referred to as “inherent vice”. Other elements, including light, handling, and previous use can certainly speed along this process.

For example, every time you polish silver, you remove a small amount – meaning that over time, engravings and maker’s marks can disappear. To combat this process, Winterthur conservators developed a lacquer in the 1980s that they apply to silver, which coats the surface and protects silver from corrosive gases in the open display environment, like sulfur dioxide, which cause tarnish. Agateen Lacquer #27, a cellulose nitrate polymer, is the lacquer of choice, lasting between 20 to 30 years before requiring reapplication.

During the tour we visited the Metals Conservation Lab, where lighting fixtures slated to go in the gallery were receiving a light polishing and new coat of lacquer.

Some of the silver on display in the house.

Some of the silver on display in the house.



Textiles are especially vulnerable to pests, especially carpet beetle larvae and silverfish. Stealthily places sticky traps and regular monitoring help avoid bug infestations when textiles are on display.

New arrivals, including the large gift from the American Textile History Museum I’m helping the Registration Department catalogue, have to be fumigated in a carbon dioxide chamber for three weeks or frozen for one week to kill any potential tag-along critters.

That small dot is a carpet bug.

That small dot is a carpet bug.


During H.F. duPont’s day, estate staff dusted with cotton rags, whereas staff today use microfiber dust cloths, which self-generate static electricity that removes dust. Other tools used include soft-bristle brushes and flashlights to illuminate dust. Conservation staff are each assigned specific floors for dusting, with rotations generally changing on an annual basis.


Further Information:

More information on Lighting-oriented conservation will likely be in a follow-up post.

Here is a link to information on the University of Delaware and Winterthur’s Master’s Program in Art Conservation.

Detailed information about Agateen Lacquer #27 came from this article, “Preserving the Sheen of Winterthur’s Silver”.