Ensuring that the interaction between our objects and visitors is safe for all parties is just one issue the staff must consider before opening. That, and certain tables, stands and etageres are, and will be, supporting weight for an extended period of time and may have or develop structural failure as a result.
Fear of ruining priceless antiques does not only occur in museums. It often occurs in the home setting. I was born with the inherent vice of liking old stuff. It came from my mother. Among the furnishings that occupy my mother’s dining room is a set of twelve dining chairs purchased in France. They are very old and their delicate legs are punctuated by equally old wood worm holes. Somewhere in France, there is a whole generation of wood worms that have been nourished by my mother’s chairs. Here’s how the problem is handled in this home setting: we do not sit on the chairs. Christmas dinner is a test of endurance as we scramble through the house searching for chairs that can take the weight of a human.
I can imagine that this scenario could take place in anyone’s home, because people do own fragile pieces and normal use decrees that we sit in chairs and use our furniture. We, as my mother does, sometimes act as if our pieces are museum pieces. In a museum, the furniture is used differently, but there are still dangers to the pieces if the staff expects the objects to last the life of the museum. There is a solution to the problem in a museum setting, and you can try this at home, too. We called in Steven Pine, a furniture conservator from the Houston Museum of Fine Art. Last month, Steve came in for one whole day just to survey twenty-two pieces of furniture I thought might have trouble standing up to the test of time and traffic.
Whenever I stride into the dining room, I am embarrassed to hear the rattle of the silver as the giant sideboard trembles with my every step. I am not a 500 pound gorilla. Imagine a group of, let’s say, six well-meaning tourists walking into the dining room and every step causes the same trembling. After many years, the structure of the piece would weaken and the joints would become loose, and soon, the top might twist and veneers might pop and eventually the piece would self destruct.
Surprisingly, the sideboard, despite its robust appearance, had many problems. All front legs needed tightening, the wood laminate had many cracks, or faults, and veneers were already loosening. Steve reccomended tightening the bolts of the legs, which is something we can do in-house, and also to inject glue into the laminate faults, which is best left to a professional like Steven Pine. He also suggested placing Museum Wax (a non-reactive micro-crystalline wax used to hold objects in place) on the feet of select objects that sit on top of the sideboard and that tended to vibrate due to floor movement. He mentioned strengthening the floor boards, but only as an extreme measure.
Other pieces that I asked Steve to survey were four Empire style pier tables. They are normally topped with marble and have a tendency to be very top heavy. Mr. Mathis placed glass, bronze and stone items on them-making them even top-heavier! Interestingly enough, Steve gave all but one table a clean bill of health. The table which needed, as Steve put it, “intervention”, sits in the front hall at Villa Finale.
The table also had a long-ago infestation of wood worms in all of the legs, which compromises the wood to an unknown degree.
Although the majority of the furniture I had selected was not in any immediate danger, a few suggestions were written for those pieces bearing a lot of weight.
Steve’s recommendation for every piece was just to keep track of it and monitor any movement by photographing the troubled areas. I can do that! He also suggested limiting the tours to five to six people, plus two guides, to discourage visitors from touching objects and bumping in to furnishings.
The next step is to have Steve conserve those pieces he identified as having very serious problems, either here at the museum or in his conservation studio in Houston.