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Preservation, Conservation, and Restoration (Yes, They're Different!) at the Car and Carriage Museum

Preservation, Conservation, and Restoration (Yes, They're Different!) at the Car and Carriage Museum
January 16, 2020 By: Kim Cady, Assistant Curator, Car and Carriage Museum

Preservation, Conservation, and Restoration (Yes, They're Different!) at the Car and Carriage Museum

When walking through the Car and Carriage Museum, you might have noticed that the vehicles are all elevated on jack stands. (If you haven’t, you will now). For those of you who wonder why, I can assure you we are not mechanics working tirelessly on carburetors and engines. The reason we slightly raise the vehicles off the ground is to prevent wear and flat spots on the original rubber of the Frick’s carriages and on the restored tires of our automobile collection.

Measures like these are known as preventive conservation, aims to prevent deterioration before it begins. Preventive conservation is accomplished through many strategies, including: proper storage and exhibition in a controlled climate, temperature and humidity level monitoring, dust mitigation, and pest management. These indirect methods can increase the longevity of the object, preventing the need for more serious conservation interventions that could alter the appearance or structural makeup of the artifact.

Just like our fine and decorative art collections, the collection of vehicles at the Car and Carriage Museum occasionally requires care beyond the routine preventive methods described above. Sometimes objects enter the collection with issues that require time, sufficient funds, and careful attention to address. When objects are being prepared for exhibition, it’s often a good time to bring in the expertise of a conservator to help stabilize, reverse, or cosmetically improve existing damage.

Textile conservator Christine Maurhoff Radeshak repairing the apron of the c. 1906 Folger and Drummond Outing Wagon prior to its display in The Hunt for a Seat exhibition.

The goal of conservation is to prevent further deterioration and to preserve the original structure of an object as much as possible. Although these treatments sometimes modify the appearance of the object, they ultimately preserve its integrity. Conservators approach their work using current best practices and materials, with professional standards requiring that any treatment be reversible if better methods or materials are discovered through future research.

The increase in temporary exhibitions following the recent gallery expansion at the Car and Carriage Museum has necessitated the use of conservation experts to prepare vehicles for exhibition. In spring 2019 three of the Frick’s carriages received textile conservation before the opening of The Hunt for a Seat: Sporting Carriages in the Early Twentieth Century. Tears in both the Chubb Phaeton carriage by Brewster and Company and the Folger and Drummond Outing Wagon required repair and stabilization to prevent further damage. Textile conservator Christine Maurhoff Radeshak used non-invasive techniques to mend and reinforce the fabric of the carriages. Likewise, the Albany Cutter sleigh required extensive repairs to the upholstery before going on exhibit for the first time the cutter since its acquisition in 2003.

Circa 1906 Folger and Drummond Outing Wagon prior to conservation.

Circa 1906 Folger and Drummond Outing Wagon after conservation couching, a method used to stave off fraying and stabilize the fabric. Note that in museum collections preserving the original material is a primary goal of conservation.

Late 19th-century Albany Cutter sleigh with upholstery damage prior to conservation.

Albany Cutter seat after nylon support layers were added to the upholstery of the seat running board. 

Although trained staff use great care to ensure the safety of the collections, occasionally accidents happen. Many of the vehicles in the collection are over 100 years old and can suffer damage through everyday activities such as simply moving an object within the gallery. One such incident occurred when relocating the c. 1903 Brewster and Company Country Omnibus. The vehicle suffered damage when the original rubber tire separated from the iron felloes. Staff sought the expertise of Brian Howard Conservation Studios for the repair of the tire. Brian Howard and associates are responsible for the conservation of many historic vehicles including an 1864 Wood Brothers Barouche carriage that once belonged to President Abraham Lincoln. Curators and conservation staff discussed the best option for repair of the wheel, whether to preserve the original rubber through conservation efforts or use modern materials to create a new, restored tire. To maintain the authenticity of the object, the original rubber was saved and reattached using conservation appropriate adhesive techniques.

Damaged rubber on c. 1903 Brewster and Company Country Omnibus

Repaired Omnibus wheel after conservation.

If an object suffers a great deal of loss or no longer functions as it once did, whether due to past alterations or deterioration, museums may decide to use restoration methods to return an object to its previous state. Unlike conservation, restoration alters the structure of the object, changes its history, and is often irreversible.

Many of the automobiles at the Frick Car and Carriage Museum are examples of restoration. The automobile collectors who previously owned some of these vehicles chose restoration as a means to return the vehicles both to their original function and beauty. Although restorers aim for historical accuracy—choosing appropriate parts, paint colors, and accessories—the modified vehicle becomes a representation of a vehicle from that period rather than an original. In some instances, the only remaining original component may be the chassis. Restoration isn’t all bad though, as it provides us with an opportunity to see a vehicle that might otherwise be lost to history, especially those with low production numbers such as the Frick’s Penn 30 or Keystone Six-Sixty, both rare vehicles manufactured in Western Pennsylvania.

Penn Motor Car Company, Pittsburgh, PA. Penn 30 Touring, 1911. Frick Art & Historical Center, 1999.1.7. Gift of the estate of G. Whitney Snyder.    

Munch-Allen Motor Car Company, Dubois, PA. Keystone Six-Sixty Roadster, 1909. Frick Art & Historical Center, 1999.1.3. Gift of the estate of G. Whitney Snyder.

In 2018, restoration was used to brighten the brass on the 1909 Stanley Steamer Roadster. Over time, the 109-year-old Roadster lost the luster on many of its brass components. Brass polishing can be controversial—since each time a component is polished a bit of the surface is abraded. However, looking at a historic vehicle with dulled brass has a huge impact on the visitor experience. Again, we reached out to historic vehicle specialist Brian Howard Conservation Studios for proper treatment. The vehicle spent several months in the conservation studio where each of the numerous brass components were removed, cleaned, and given a protecting lacquer coating. The lacquer coating (reversible, of course) protects the brass from oxidizing and ensures that it does not require regular polishing to remain bright.

Tarnished steam whistle on 1909 Stanley Model R Roadster steam car.

Kerosene lamp and bulb horn in the process of cleaning and lacquer treatment.

Visitors may notice that the Car and Carriage Museum features many Brass Era vehicles with brass components that have tarnished, and may wonder why other vehicles have not received this restoration treatment. The treatment that the Stanley received is both time consuming and costly; other vehicles may receive treatment in the future, although some may be left with the patinated brass, which illustrates the age and history of the object.

1909 Stanley Model R Roadster being treated at Brian Howard Conservation Studios.

Museums balance the use of preservation, conservation, and restoration to save, exhibit, and interpret objects for the public. Each method serves the purpose of protecting artifacts for the enjoyment and education of current and future museum visitors. Whether a sculpture by Rodin or a Rolls Royce, museums take great care to ensure the safety of their collections. Simple non-invasive methods of cleaning and monitoring can go a long way in the protection and increased longevity of artifacts.

Interested in learning more about the Frick’s transportation collection? Free, docent-led tours of the Car and Carriage Museum are available Tuesdays at 1 and 3 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. If you prefer to explore on your own, admission to the Car and Carriage Museum is always free.
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