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Conserving the Damascus Room

In this sample of the graphic documentation process, purple = old repairs; blue = damages to wood; red = unstable areas in need of consolidation; green = areas of coating, paint, and ‘ajami loss. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Natasha Loeblich and Amelia Bagnall, 2005.

Since its installation in the mid-1950s, the Damascus Room has experienced tremendous stresses, including a dramatic change in climate, resulting in instability. In 2004, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA) partnered with the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), an international leader in conservation training and research, for the conservation of the Damascus Room. The project was conducted in four phases (2004–2008), largely by Winterthur Fellows—graduate students training to become conservators.

Phase I: A Symposium (2004)

In May 2004, an international group of conservators, curators and directors gathered at Shangri La for the symposium Preserving a Sense of Awe: The History and Conservation of Interiors from Ottoman Damascus. The lectures presented at this symposium, as well as the discussions that followed, set the stage for the ensuing conservation program for the Damascus Room. 

Phase II: Documentation and Analysis (2005)

A survey conducted in summer 2005 identified the locations of loose and flaking design materials, losses to the decorative surface and additions or restorations (see full report). In addition, it recorded the room’s condition at a specific point in time, becoming the baseline document for future monitoring. Perhaps most importantly, it revealed details about the room’s construction, including evidence that its paneling was from multiple interiors and that the ceiling seems to have been elongated in its east-west dimension and cut down in its north-south dimension to fit the space at Shangri La.

Using a complete set of color photographs, interns gridded the room and used five color layers to document the location of losses, areas in need of consolidation, areas of wood damage, the location of old repairs, and the location of joints and fasteners. Concurrently, samples were taken from the walls and ceiling, embedded in resin, and cut to reveal a cross section. Examination with a microscope showed how different layers of paint, sometimes in combination with metal leaf, were used to create the decoration. Further analysis using a scanning electron microscope identified the metal as a tin alloy.

Brett Headley injects adhesive beneath lifting gesso as he consolidates painted surfaces on the ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. From Louise Groll, “Consolidation & Documentation Report,” 2007.

Finally, analysis using special dyes that glow in ultraviolet light provided information about the binders used in the paint. This helped conservators to identify the materials that could be safely used in the treatment, as well as those that might be dangerous. Based on this analysis, the Winterthur team began testing consolidation methods and materials.

Phase III: Consolidation (2007)

The goal of Phase III (see full report) was to stabilize the room’s decorative surfaces. This consisted of re-adhering loose paint and strengthening powdery paint through the application of adhesives. Factors that determined the choice of adhesives included the compatibility of the new resin with the original material and the size and nature of the area of instability. Ultimately, three different adhesives were used. Prior to consolidation, the surfaces were dusted with soft brushes and cotton pads moistened with solvents. The adhesive was applied using small brushes or a hypodermic syringe. During consolidation, microscopic analysis revealed a white surface material to be mold. Fibrous material packed between the boards was also identified as bast fiber, flax or hemp.

The steps involved in restoring a segment of three-dimensional ornamentation: a) the loss before filling; b) the new gesso; c) the loss after painting to match the surrounding area. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Lauren Fair and Laura Kubick, 2008.

Phase IV: Compensation (2008)

The final phase of conservation (see full report) involved unifying the appearance of the decorative surfaces by a) filling losses and painting them to match the surrounding areas, or b) masking areas of old, darkened restorations with paint. The materials selected for this compensation were stable, would not react with the original material, and would be easy to remove in the future. Where there were losses to the original built-up gesso, a modern material similar to gesso was used; these areas were then painted with acrylic emulsion paints. Where a more translucent effect was needed, a synthetic resin known for its stability was mixed with pigments to form a glaze.

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