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Justin P.

"How important is knowing the ropes? Thoughts on the ethics and practice of conserving ship model rigging." By Davina Kuh Jakobi, Chicago, IL May 31 2017

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I understand (from well known books on the subject) that a high percentage of Victory's external fabric is actually younger than me! Not so long ago, during another of these multi-million re-furbs, large areas of outer hull planking was replaced; suitable timber was both too expensive and hard to get, so a super-duper 'laminate' was used (effectively massive 'ply-wood') at equally high expense. It turns out that needs replacing already! Much of the cordage is of modern synthetic material, supposedly proof against u-v light damage. Anchor cables and shrouds couldn't be found in correct dimensions, so that's all undersized. The mounted anchors and guns are fibre-glass in attempts to relieve the burden on the hull. The lower masts are in fact iron from a much later ship. The list is almost endless.

Unfortunately, this constant replacement of structure allows the ship to distort and indeed 'wilt', even though a lot of work to minimise this is undertaken.

Ultimately it's a lot like grandfathers hammer; 'the shaft has been replaced three times and a new head fitted'.

We still have a magnificent spectacle of an 'icon'. What could we replace it with? A new one?

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6 minutes ago, shipman said:

I understand (from well known books on the subject) that a high percentage of Victory's external fabric is actually younger than me! Not so long ago, during another of these multi-million re-furbs, large areas of outer hull planking was replaced; suitable timber was both too expensive and hard to get, so a super-duper 'laminate' was used (effectively massive 'ply-wood') at equally high expense. It turns out that needs replacing already! Much of the cordage is of modern synthetic material, supposedly proof against u-v light damage. Anchor cables and shrouds couldn't be found in correct dimensions, so that's all undersized. The mounted anchors and guns are fibre-glass in attempts to relieve the burden on the hull. The lower masts are in fact iron from a much later ship. The list is almost endless.

Unfortunately, this constant replacement of structure allows the ship to distort and indeed 'wilt', even though a lot of work to minimise this is undertaken.

Ultimately it's a lot like grandfathers hammer; 'the shaft has been replaced three times and a new head fitted'.

We still have a magnificent spectacle of an 'icon'. What could we replace it with? A new one?

Ha!  It sounds like we already have a new one!  Very interesting background on what it’s been through and made of!  

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Before someone jumps down my throat after my last post, all my comments, plus much more, is well documented and can be found if the trouble is taken to find it. I don't wish to spoil anyone's party by being Mr Miserable, on these issues.

I regret that I've never had the resources to visit 'Victory' in person, but still wouldn't hesitate given the chance.

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Justin,

 

Your last paragraph triggered a response which I hope won't be taken the wrong way - I agree with you regards VICTORY - her British caretakers seem to have a much more historical bent on preserving their museum ships than we do. I hate to say this but - CONSTITUTION, being a commissioned vessel, is subject to budgetary restraints approved by Congress, whether or not her caretakers in Boston desire otherwise. I would suspect that they are forced to accept solutions/materials for her periodic upkeep and repair that may not exactly be what they really desire. (now let's see how many of the gov't bureaucrats chime in to denounce this comment as heretical!!!). All our battleships are in private caretaker hands whose only purpose is the money they can make off tourists - maintaining the ship in a historical appearance is not a priority - at least, that's what I've seen. But, that's another story for another day/forum topic. I will say that USS KIDD (DD-661) is maintained in quite an exemplary fashion, her caretakers restoring her to her WWII appearance which has been no easy task.

 

Were I to be asked to restore a ship model that was in poor or dilapidated condition, I think my first concern would be what materials could I use that would be closest to the historical ship it represents in terms of appearance and longevity. Secondly, do those materials come close to matching the model's original material.

 

Hank

 

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Not at all Hank,  I think I qualified my comments regarding VICTORY and CONSTITUTION with this: “Who knows what it means for a historic ship to still have a commission?”

 

You make an excellent point about active duty duty ships, be they historic or otherwise.  Subject to budgetary restraint.  
 

I myself am a government employed conservator, knowing full well that my rhetoric is more idealistic than it is practical or realistic.   Everything I do is subject to budget and institutional priority.  It’s what we do within those restraints that define our work.

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The US Government publishes extensive requirements vessels seeking Historic Landmark status.  One requirement involves determining the vessel’s period of historic significance and providing a plan for restoring it to that period using historically appropriate materials.  Mystic Seaport’ restoration of Charles W. Morgan is in my opinion an example of this done well.

 

On the other hand, despite the extensive work done on Constitution she does not reflect her appearance during her period of significance (her 1812 battles).  In particular her head structure is the ugly pre Civil War boxed in type instead of her original graceful open head rails.

 

Roger

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10 hours ago, Justin P. said:

From the VICTORY website:

"HMS Victory is currently undergoing a 13 year, £35million conservation project, with experts from fields such as timber preservation, shipbuilding, rigging, conservation, engineering and heritage. This is an exciting time for the ship. The most obvious sign of the project is that her masts have been temporarily removed, and visitors are also able to see first hand some of the work that is being carried out on board to save HMS Victory for future generations to enjoy."   

 

They don't mince words here, they could conceivably throw some new lines and another layer of paint on her but here is where the two things diverge.   The paint will be vetted for interactions with every other element at play and the rigging specially chosen if not completely remade following period appropriate protocols.   It is more than a "replace all the rigging" protocol and likely they still choose to retain as much as they can of the original (if any of the original exists).  

It seems they classify the parts of Victory on a four-point scale reflecting various benchmarks in her history. With respect to her bowsprit, they note: 

  • Present at Launch - No
  • Present at Trafalgar - No
  • Present Pre-1923 - No. Fitted 1936
  • Rarity - Some

They note:  

 

By 1936 it was clear that the Victory’s bowsprit, which dated from 1859, was no longer structurally safe. Experts advised that ‘it would appear to have earned its discharge’ and recommended that it should be replaced by a steel tube.

A section of the removed 1859 bowsprit is exhibited in Storehouse 10, at the foot of the staircase leading to the Fore Topsail Gallery.

 

I believe all the lower sections of Victory's masts are made of steel tube, the same as her bowsprit. Back in 1936, I suppose that was "restoration," rather than "conservation."!

 

poi_2-x-3.jpg

https://www.hms-victory.com/bones/frame?layout=simple&fr=x

 

(Restoration log of HMS Victory website: https://www.hms-victory.com/restoration-log/preserving-history-hms-victory-through-archives )

 

Don't get me started on a rant about the US National Park Service's "policy" that the deterioration of ships and buildings "is part of their history" as an excuse to let priceless artifacts rot away, nor the government's budgeting practices that often require five years or more to get major projects approved. The result is too often a total lack of necessary routine maintenance of floating vessels which must be routinely maintained to avoid catastrophic damage, last minute failed attempts to obtain "emergency stop-gap funding" for repairs, or diversion of such funds to other projects if they are provided at all, and the eventual scrapping of the vessels as ultimately "beyond repair." SS Wapama being an example:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wapama_(steam_schooner)

 

https://councilofamericanmaritimemuseums.org/documentation-projects/steam-schooner-wapama/ (with links to full set of lines and construction drawings suitable for modeling.)

 

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.ca1521.photos?st=gallery (Library of Congress detailed photo set)

 

https://noehill.com/sf/landmarks/nat1973000228.asp

 

https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Lumber-schooner-Wapama-last-of-kind-is-condemned-2371267.php (28 photos prior to scrapping.)

 

 "By 1997, the maritime park's general management plan called for "minimal" measures to slow the Wapama's deterioration, but it added, "The vessel's underlying structural decay will not be addressed." That, essentially, was a death sentence for the ship."

 

 

 

 

Edited by Bob Cleek

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10 hours ago, Justin P. said:

  I wish Ab Hoving were weighing in here, I would love to know what he thinks as a well respected Ship Model conservator at the Rijks - he's around this forum somewhere. 

I was afraid this was going to happen when I first saw this thread and I must say I am rather unwilling to jump in, because I cannot find my way through all these well-educated opinions and propositions. But as there seems to be no escape: here is my 50cents opinion.

 

If I learned one golden rule about restoration/restoring, it must be that there is no golden rule.

Hundreds of historical objects passed my hands in the 23 years of my active career in the Rijksmuseum and even looking back at all the processes of recovering or maintaining original objects I still cannot find a general line in the treatment of all of them. It is an unflinching law that everything that exists will disappear over the years and we can only try to stall that proces. Of course I must have 'repaired' some ship models in a way some of you would call a crime. But hey, what is the point in finding a beautiful but dismantled 17th century hull of a very rare 40-gun man-of-war and leaving it in that state, if such a model is needed in the museum's presentation. Is it allowed to take off the 20th century paint with which it was mistreated and rig it in the way how it to my best knowledge should be done? Of course I did all that and I'm proud I did.

On the other hand I saw many ship models pass my workbench of which the running rigging was deteriorated beyond repair, but which still had a perfect standing rigging. I would be mad if I replaced both parts of the rigging. Whatever is still intact, I keep it that way. Fortunately I am a lazy person and nothing is better for a historical object than falling into the hands of a lazy restorer. But anything that is literally falling to dust has to be replaced. We had models in the depot which we passed on tiptoes because any shock would cause rigging parts to fall off.

There is something I have to add here. Being a conservator in a museum mainly presenting art objects I always tried to fight for my own place between my respected collegues. A ship model in my opinion is not a work of art, although out of admiration we are most willing to judge it so if the build was done in exquisite way. But in reality it is a depiction of something technical. It shows for instance how the rigging was done, which allowed the vessel to sail the oceans. If such parts turn into dust (and I have seen many examples of that, carefully rubbing it between my fingers and ending with nothing but dust) and you want to maintain the intention of the maker, showing a working  rigging, what harm have you done replacing the missing part with material as close as you can get? (The Victory in Portsmouth seems to be 'renewed' for over 90 % so I was told. Should all the rotten pieces have been still there, sooner or later we would have ended up with a pile of debris.)

 

What is always interesting to see is the attitude of the curators. If we lived in a perfect world the curator was to be the one to say yes or no to a restoration or a technique. In practice dealing with objects is something completely different from what an average curator has studied. Doing archives was his training, not dealing with objects. So what happens is that the conservator (or restorer if you like) makes the decisions and carries them out. Next the curator ceremonially cries out about the mistreatment of the object, immediately followed by its placement in the showcase to show it to the public. I experienced this literally with an old figurehead of a knight in armor which was in a terrible state. Me and my co-operator closed the many cracks, re-applied the guilding and paint (after intensive research), added missing wooden bolts and repaired the not-original stand, at the same time suggesting a better solution to present the object. For a short time we were the talk the town and the next thing that happened was the installation of the object as it was in the hall as an eye-catcher. It is still there....

 

The bottom line? There is no golden rule. I applaud every researcher trying to find solutions to maintain old objects that show their age and I am most willing to apply any solution to solve problems without intervening in the object, but I am not a chemist, I only know a lot about ships and their ins and outs and I would be lying if I denied that every object I had in my hands has taught me something. The museum allowed me to have an extensive library both on technical ship-matters and on conservation techniques and I have always loved to find a happy marriage between the two.

If you want one unavoidable rule in this matter it must be a deep love and respect for the object, but I'm sure every participant in this discussion feels that too, with apparently totally different outcomes.

 

 

Edited by Ab Hoving

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Two thoughts,

 

Many of the original iron bolts in the Vasa are being replaced with duplex stainless steel ones.  The material was developed for the North Sea oil and gas business.  While not “historically correct” they will allow Vasa to be enjoyed by visitors for years to come, and when the little green men arrive in their flying saucer, i’m sure they will be able to tell from museum documentation that the stainless bolts are not original.

 

Maybe next time USS Constitution needs an overhaul it should be contracted to Mystic Seaport.

 

Roger

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6 hours ago, Ab Hoving said:

I was afraid this was going to happen when I first saw this thread and I must say I am rather unwilling to jump in, because I cannot find my way through all these well-educated opinions and propositions. But as there seems to be no escape: here is my 50cents opinion.

 

Sorry about dragging you in Ab!   I just thought, and was right, that your insight and experience would lend a certain balance.   No one, that I can think of, is more knowledgable or experienced in these matters than you. This fact is well documented outside MSW.    I particularly appreciate the real-world anecdotes you provide which challenge the purist and idealistic rhetoric that I often spew when given half a chance :).   As you well know, it is extremely difficult to articulate the nuances of restoration/conservation when the too things are so intimately related.   Each object, though presenting familiar problems, often require new and interesting strategies for their repair.    I also agree that everyone (at least in this forum) has their best-intentions in mind when they approach such things.  I

 

think we all need to be aware that the "golden-rule," whatever it is, should be somewhere between "do nothing" and "do everything."      Unfortunately the "do everything" approach is often the easiest, sells well, and comes with greatest aesthetic improvement.  Too often though (in my opinion) at the greatest cost to the object.  Similarly the "do nothing" approach serves no purpose as access diminishes exponentially and the longevity of the object suffers.   I think for my own practice, being dogmatic in every instance keeps me on an even keel, knowing that with every case I will have to deviate from the "ideal."   With every choice, I need that dogma to right my thought process so that I can approach the next challenge re-balanced.   This, I think, prevents bias towards those solutions that are "easier" or superficially "more beautiful."   As you know, there is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from a well executed and beautiful treatment/repair and, for me at least, overtime it can become easy to return to those same decisions/techniques because the result is guaranteed.   I also see my students who often want to repeat the same treatment strategy time and time again because its what they know, what they are comfortable doing and the route with which they likely encounter the least trouble.   Not only must they be trained to repair/conserve/restore an element well, but they must be trained to stop -  think - and decide at each step wether their well developed techniques are appropriate or if another less developed technique is required (despite it being technically more difficult, more complicated, less durable, more fiddly).   

 

No doubt the scenario you related about the running rigging v. the standing rigging is a perfect example.   Ultimately, would those models have been more fully repaired and "more beautiful" if all of the rigging was cohesive, of the same materials, fresh and brand new?  I would guess it would be.   Would a curator be more inclined to request that treatment on all items in order for their exhibition to be that much more attractive/successful?   This is less of a guess for me, I see this tendency everyday.   I was intrigued by your anecdote about the curator who decries what has been done as mistreatment...   My experience is often the opposite, they come to me with visions of grandeur; objectives that can only be achieved through mistreatment of the object!  I find myself often talking them down to something more serviceable than spectacular.   As you say, their training doesn't always prepare the for those decisions.   The devil is in the details, and its the details that are usually first on the chopping block.  

 

Thanks again for your .50 cents - though unwillingly given - I still found it very interesting ;).

 

 

 

 

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5 hours ago, mic-art said:

This was a very interesting and educational thread to read!

 

 

Oh man.   That one is famous.   Honestly though, you should see the outrage that comes out of professional circles over what appears to be perfectly good treatments.   I won't get into the details, but here are a few examples that literally set people's hair on fire!   To anyone but the conservator this is fascinating and beautiful work.   For the conservator, every detail - the brush choice, the gel placement, the hand motion, the dripping - is something to agonize over and criticize.   Not being a paintings conservator, I don't really have an opinion but honestly you should have seen the backlash!!!   I think ultimately though, what makes these so controversial is how viral they've become and how they trivialize or inaccurately depict the work.  There is also a fear in some that too much "behind the curtain" will lead people to start "restoring" their own collections.  Sort of like people pulling their own teeth?   Something, actually quite a lot of things, could go wrong.  

 

 

 

In another, similar situation - these videos often go viral and receive a lot of attention but this persons approach is also widely criticized.  Why?  Again, Im not a paintings conservator so I don't really know but from what Ive read on the matter many of the criticisms are well-founded and extremely detailed.   Its enough to make your head hurt.  

 

 

His approach is so widely panned by professionals that a now very well circulated parody has been created:  

 

 

 

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Thank you for the undeserved praise, Justin. I doubt that there is a consensus on this side of the ocean for what I have done.

 

What I think is interesting in your answer is that you mention curators who want things to be like new. Over here it is most important that the age of the object shows, being restored or not. A restorer is much more criticized for working too clean than for delivering a product that shows its age. Especially with metal objects it is hard not to make them too shiny. I remember a large brass quarter of a dry-dock which had to be restored and was therefore placed a few days in a reservoir with water with a mild cleaning agent. It came out shining like gold and that caused something like a panic under curators. As an experiment we once treated one of the pewter candlestick holders found on Nova Zembla, where they were left by discoverer Willem Barentsz in 1597 when he stranded there on his way to China through the North, with a very mild electric current in a basic bath (we call it electrolyse, but I can't remember the English term for it). It came out quite nice and clean, but panic again...

 

I agree that for students it is important to know that every step they take should be considered over and over again, so you are doing your teachers job perfectly. The proces is to be reconsidered in every phase. Dogma's are good als long as one can deviate from them. I sometimes was jealous at my collegues of the painting restoration workshop one floor below my attic. They have the choice to select a method from a limited number of regular treatments, all tested and scientifically researched. In my field of work every restoration was a new experiment. Every object asked for its own treatment and there were a lot of methods to choose from. Many restorations were pure inventions, which made the work challenging every single day. Never a dull moment.

 

Thanks also for the clips of the painting restorers. To many people the treatments seem extremely rude and messy, but as could be seen, there was no harm done (although I doubt I would have delivered the object as new as these ones. But fortunately I was not a painting restorer ).

It is a beautiful profession and I enjoyed  my existence in the museum every single day.

 

As for the figurehead: we deliberately did not fill all the cracks and kept the guilding a bit 'damaged', as you can see here: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/zoeken/objecten?q=boegbeeld&p=3&ps=12&st=Objects&ii=5#/NG-NM-11549,29

 

Edited by Ab Hoving

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This discussion harks back to a paper that Howard Chapelle wrote decades ago and which is available on the NRG Web-site I think. The miniaturis Lloyd McCaffery also keeps repeating the importance of using durable materials and fasting techniques.

 

There is actually a dilemma, particularly for those working on more modern subjects, that some of the traditional ship modelling materials and techniques do not work very well for modern ships made from iron and steel. Wood may not be suitable and working with e.g. brass and solder can be difficult with very small parts. There are two options either to not build such models, or to use (with caution) materials and techniques that might be frowned upon. I use steel, for instance, even though Chapelle spoke against it, simply, because it is well neigh impossible to turn certain small parts in brass, because brass usually is too soft - and feel guilty. What can I do ?

 

On the subject of conservation vs. restoration: quite some years ago I worked in a small (environmental) consultancy company in Rome, which had another branch working on the conservation of archaeological artefacts. Having always been interested in the subject, I learned quite a bit about the strategies and objectives from chatting to them and when they showed me their work (which included inter alia conserving the frescos in what is perhaps the oldest surviving church at the Forum Romanum, which was then discovered quite recently). One principle was to not assimilate the new materials used, so as to blend in with the rest, but to make it stand out, so that one can clearly distinguish between the historic substance and that added for conservation reason. So this is clearly against the idea of 'restoration' that tries to achieve a unified and possibly aesthetically pleasing appearance. It certainly is a different concept from that applied by earlier generations, that tried to 'restore' the appearance of works of art or artefacts. These are different ethics, though I think from a scientific-technical point of view it would be possible to achieve a restoration with a level of intrusion similar to that of conservation.

 

I would fully agree with the view that a full replacement of rigging is a no-no on models of historic value. With increasing knowledge and technical-scientific means, we can extract more and more information from the remains. Removing them, means that we destroy historic evidence that might be valuable to future generations. Today we may not be in the position to really judge and value that evidence, though we might think otherwise (as did previous generations often, as is evidenced by misguided 'restorations').

 

... and my father always made a joke about a 300 year old table, where the legs and the plate had been replaced from time to time ...

Edited by wefalck

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40 years ago I was fortunate to have a brief but enjoyable period being a general dogsbody in a UK museum with access to all areas. Having an intelligent (?) and curious disposition, I found the staff welcoming and generously happy to share their work.

The museum had a vast collection of disparate objects, nearly all of which required attention of some sort or other.

As always, the staff were thin on the ground, with limited budgets. So, their policy was to assess what needed the most urgent PRESERVATION. Often it was decided that to arrest terminal decline, some intervention was needed. So long ago, they were of the general opinion that such work would be done sympathetically but in a way that the work they did would be clearly obvious to future conservators, who may have the resources to do the job to the standards of their day.

The important mission was to PRESERVE an object and make it available for future research.

A happy time.

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Brilliant ideas often miss their aim in daily practice. When I joined the museum in 1989 it was practice to show restorations in shipmodels, for instance by not painting the newly added parts or using different colors for rope, so any modern changes were visible at once. The backdraw of that system is, that the viewer is still not looking at an object in a state in which it originally was. In fact the only parts of an object he keeps on looking at are the restorer’s corrections. We deliberately abandoned that method and kept precise reports of what was done to the objects instead. The object is for the public, the problems with keeping it in a presentable state is for the scientists.

Total replacement of a rigging might be a no-no, but what if the complete rigging drops on the floor the moment it is touched? Tests to chemically repair the broken fibres in rope show that the result hardly looks like the same rope in better days. In theory some ideas seem so appropriate...untill the harsh reality shows its face.

By the way, it is a remarkable fact that the idea of showing the restorations on the historical objects was never applied in the painting department, the museum’s most prominent workshop. One must be a genius to see what has been restored on our Rembrandts and Vermeers. Still, for technical objects like ship models the method of showing restorations seemed appropriate? In some cases yes, perhaps, in other cases no, rather not.

Every objects asks for its own theoretic and practical solutions.

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Personally and from an aesthetic perspective, I would also prefer a conservation that is almost invisible at least to the untrained eye.

 

You are right in saying that different standards seem to be applied to different objects. Paintings may be different in the sense that the most important aspect is the 'image', which would be seriously distorted, if all the stabilisation and touching up was done in a visible way. Not sure, why this principle is not applied to other objects. In Italy and France it seems to be accepted practice to conservation of architectural structures to replace add materials in a way that is visible. On the other hand, say in gothic cathedrals damaged parts are usually replaced by the same stone from which the original parts were made. However, sometimes a different type of surface treatment is chosen to indicate replacement parts.

 

I think documentation of what was done is a key aspect. There arises then, however, a problem and that is how to permanently link the object and the documentation so that the latter is not lost. Plus, how to preserve and keep readable the documentation for comparable periods of time - but this is a different subject altogether (with which I have been battling professionally for years).

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