Preserving Palmer’s Cassone - CSPM
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Preserving Palmer’s Cassone

by Caitlin Sharp, CSPM Registrar

Among Palmer’s Steinway grand piano and Queen’s dress, you might spy a large trunk as part of the Glen Eyrie vignette in the new exhibit, Evidence: Finding the Facts About General William Jackson Palmer. This trunk, called a cassone, was owned by the Palmers and donated to the CSPM by descendants of the Helen Hunt Jackson Family in 2015. A cassone is an Italian chest that features ornate designs and was traditionally given to a bride by her parents as part of her dowry. While we do not know how and when the Palmers acquired it, we have numerous historic photographs of Glen Eyrie which show similar trunks in the residence. This beautifully carved trunk includes two prominent figures on the front as well as feet that are carved to look like dogs.

While museums and individuals strive to preserve artifacts, wood is very susceptible to damage. Changing temperature and humidity fluctuations weaken wood, causing it to expand then contract which often leads to permanent damage resulting in warping and splits. Certain pests, such as woodborers, powderpost beetles, and termites, survive by consuming wood and cause significant losses. Plus, as any individual knows, it is easy to damage wood with just a bit of water. When the cassone arrived at the museum, time and environmental damage had taken its toll. One of the decorative feet was damaged and there were several splits in the wood, water stains, and insect damage. In order to prepare the trunk for exhibit, museum staff consulted with conservator Mark Minor.

 

While museum staff practice preventative conservation and condition report artifacts before during and after exhibit use, major conservation requires the expertise of a trained professional. Luckily, Colorado is the home of Mark Minor, a highly trained artifacts conservator. Mark began his conservation career by training as a furniture maker. In 1986, he was one of seven students selected in the first Furniture Conservation Program at the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution which included an internship at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. During this time, he worked on contract in the Department of Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was later hired as an Assistant Conservator. Mark has had a private conservation practice in Colorado since 1993 and has treated artifacts from the Denver Art Museum, History Colorado, the Museums of New Mexico, and other regional and national museums. In the past few years, Mark has performed conservation work on the Hayes-Davis Carriage and the Ege Clock for the CSPM.

An important facet of conservation work is that every procedure or treatment performed must be reversible. The main aim of conservation work is to preserve the integrity of the original artifact, with improvements to its appearance being only secondary. Conservators perform a range of tasks including: cleaning, repairing damage, re-shaping, and reassembling as well as coloring or toning repairs to blend with the original artifact. Part of this work may also include removing previous inappropriate restorations. As a result, artifacts that are conserved often do not appear “like new.”

For the Palmer cassone, Mark Minor first brush-cleaned and vacuumed the entire piece before using solvent to clean and remove tinted wax that had been applied in the past. A special resin was then injected to help strengthen and stabilize the areas damaged by insects. In order to fix the splits in the wood, Minor utilized a combination of basswood cleats and pieces, as well as two types of glues. Both glues used, hide glue and fish glue, are water soluble, making them easily reversible. The conservation treatment also repaired losses to the front molding by utilizing basswood and a pliable epoxy to better match the rest of the intricate designs. Finally, he reattached and stabilized the foot. As a final step, Mark waxed the entire trunk with a mix of Carnauba wax and beeswax before buffing it. Because this work took over twenty hours, the trunk was brought to Mark’s studio in Howard, Colorado.

The conservation treatment performed on the trunk allows it to look its best for exhibition, but more importantly, it ensures the cassone will be better preserved for years to come. We greatly appreciate the work of Mark Minor for his excellent treatment of this important Palmer artifact, and thank the Jackson Family Trust for generously providing funds for the conservation treatment.

Caitlin Sharpe

CSPM Registrar
719.385.5654 | caitlin.sharpe@coloradosprings.gov