Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Students conserve centuries-old statues

Wheaton Blackamoor figuresJosephine Johnson ’13 and Lindsay Koso ’15 practice a craft that is most successful when its results are invisible. As art conservators in training, their job is to subtly conserve a piece of art to its original appearance—bringing it back to life without adding to or subtracting from it.

“It’s a funny field that way,” said Koso. “The work that you’re doing is not supposed to be acknowledged. People are not supposed to be able to tell.”

“If someone can tell, you’ve done the wrong thing,” added Johnson.

Continuing conservation efforts that first began in 2011, Johnson and Koso have been working together for months to conserve two Italian blackamoor figures that had stood for years in the Madeleine Clark Wallace Library.

Lindsay Koso ’15

Lindsay Koso ’15

The utilitarian and decorative statues, known as torchieres for their ornate candelabra, were showcased this winter in “100 Years, 100 Objects,” a student-curated exhibition in the Beard and Weil Galleries, marking the 100th anniversary of Wheaton Female Seminary becoming a college. They were included to represent 1923, the year in which the library was built and the year believed to be the first time they were publicly displayed. The statues were put in storage in the 1960s because they could be considered racist due to their exaggerated facial features.

While the best art conservation might be invisible, many older pieces of art would fade into obscurity without it. The intricate craft requires more than an understanding of art. It also takes an understanding of chemistry—including a familiarity with artistic media and pigments and the way materials react with one another. Johnson is majoring in chemistry with art and art history minors, while Koso plans to major in art history and in classics.

Josephine Johnson ’13

Josephine Johnson ’13

They have both been captivated by art since childhood. Growing up, Johnson witnessed the conservation of the “Ara Pacis” altar in Rome, and she was fascinated by its combination of her two loves: art and chemistry. Koso, meanwhile, had always dreamed of becoming an artist, and a high school advisor recommended art conservation as a potential outlet for her creativity.

Today, both students aspire to be professional conservators. They credit the opportunity to explore their ambitions on campus to Leah Niederstadt, assistant professor of museum studies and curator of the Permanent Collection, who hired them specifically to work on the blackamoor figures.

Summer experiences in the field also have been invaluable. In 2012, Johnson helped Koso land a summer internship at Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, where Johnson had interned the year before. Johnson spent the summer of 2012 as a conservation intern for the Smith College Museum of Art.

They spent the fall 2012 semester working on the figures, cleaning the surfaces with a mixture of ethanol and water that they applied with paintbrushes and wiped off with Q-Tips. They also repaired cracks and flaking paint and even carefully stabilized the figures’ hands.

“Working with things that have survived as long as the blackamoor figures have is really amazing,” Koso said.

Created as inanimate representations of servants of African descent, blackamoor figures have existed since the 17th century and were often displayed in stately homes in Europe and North America. Wheaton’s statues were a bequest to President Samuel Valentine Cole from his aunt, Harriet Gibbs-Ross. Although the figures were removed from public display, they remain an important part of Wheaton’s collection, said Niederstadt, who is teaching “Museum Controversies” this spring. Students in the course will be required to view the “100 Objects” exhibition and explore which objects they consider controversial and why.

“All objects embody multiple values and meanings, and these shift over time as objects themselves move through time and space, changing context, function and ownership,” Niederstadt said. “The blackamoor figures can and should be understood within the contexts in which they were created and used before they became part of the collection. It is equally important to understand how they are now used—as objects for teaching and research. This is a very different kind of use than the purpose for which they were created.”

Keith Nordstrom photos