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Old Art Crumbling And Falling Apart? The Carnegie Museum Of Art Has A Guy For That

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
Michael Belman Stands in his workshop at the Carnegie Museum of Art. He is trying to figure out the best way to preserve the object before him, so he made a model of it.

If you have ever wondered how the Carnegie Museum of Art keeps it’s collection looking so good, the answer is Michael Belman.

Belman is the Objects Conservator for the museum. He evaluates proposed new purchases and checks items coming and going from the collection on loan.

But the biggest part of what he does is repair, restore and preserves three-dimensional fine art. Just keeping objects in the gallery dusted is an important first step. He talked to 90.5 WESA's Mark Nootbaar about his process. 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NOOTBAAR: Where does the process of protecting the artwork start?

BELMAN: Our first line of defense is the trained individuals in the galleries who dust the works.  Dust is abrasive, it holds moisture. And then we have an outdoor sculpture collection so we’re continually washing and then applying protective wax coatings to outdoor bronze. We’re painting outdoor sculpture.

NOOTBAAR: There is a silver tea service set in your workshop. How do you care for metals like silver, which can tarnish? 

BELMAN: We try to polish Silver as little as possible. When you polish silver you actually remove a layer of metal. So what I’ll use is powdered calcium carbonate. The specific hardness number of calcium carbonate is basically similar to that of silver tarnish. So we’re specifically targeting silver tarnish and trying to impact the metal as little as possible.

NOOTBAAR: When an object comes into the workshop, how do you start?

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A plaster cast used as a model for a larger stone sculpture sits in Belman's workshop ready to be processed.

BELMAN: I start with a visual inspection on all sides. If it’s a painted or coated object, I might take almost microscopic samples and I’ll imbed those samples in a clear polyester resin and I’ll slice the resin cube in half to reveal the layers of the painted surface. Ideally you’ll have the substrate, you’ll have preparatory layers and paint layers and any coatings.  You’ll see dirt layers and then if something was over painted you’ll see over paint layers.

NOOTBAAR: I understand this large brown object (top photo) on the other work bench has been a bit of a riddle for you?

BELMAN: It's a ritualistic object used by the Bamana culture in Mali, West Africa called a Boli and it’s disintegrating.  In addition to the surface spalling and flaking off, it’s really just held together by jagged chunks that if you apply any pressure to any of these jagged chunks you can see them moving and shifting. The Boli starts with a wood frame covered in fabric or gauze and then layers of a mixture are added over time. This mixture consists of plant fiber, mud, dung, blood, urine and then also millet, which is a staple food for that culture. I initially was considering literally spray consolidating the piece to drive the solvent as deep into the pores of this material as I could get it.  I consulted the conservation community on the appropriateness of treating a ceremonial object because definitely conservators are sensitive to the ritual nature of an object. And the community was critical of that.  Some people said don’t do anything, which I don’t actually really agree with. I feel like if we don’t do anything the object could be destroyed.  So I toned back my treatment plan really to do more consolidation by hand and just on the surface.

Belman has built a model of the Boli using his own mixture of porridge, beer honey and mud to test his plan of attack. Curators have not yet decided when the original would be put on display.

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