Mr. Clean of the museum world

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

Energetic and funny, with silver earrings in each ear and a carefully shaved head, Scott Carroll looks more like a hip Mr. Clean than the state of Alaska's new conservator.

In a way, he is Mr. Clean. As the only conservator for the state, Carroll, 37, is responsible for the priceless artifacts in Alaska's museums and historical libraries. Although the Alaska State Museum, where Carroll works, is climate- and humidity-controlled, cleanliness and cautious handling are the best care for Alaska's 5,000-year-old baskets, weavings, historic documents and works of art.

"I'm responsible for the care of the collection, but everyone participates," Carroll said. "The collection here has been very well cared for."

Carroll is an expert on preservation and restoration. When the museum wants to display an artifact, he works with the curator of the show and the designer of the exhibit to ensure the object is not damaged in the process. That goes far beyond careful handling.

Carroll knows that some types of wood give off gases that can damage artifacts. The glues in plywood can also release destructive chemicals. In a confined display case over a period of years, precious artifacts can be harmed irreparably if the wrong materials are used.

"All pines off-gas acids," he said. "Oaks off-gas acetic and tannic acid. They're bad over the long run."

Light is another enemy. He points to one museum display case with a woven Tlingit bag made of red wool.

"A lot of the dyes used in Native American art are sensitive to light," he said. "See how this is placed so a shadow falls on it? Otherwise, it would fade. And fading is not reversible. If somebody drops a pot, I can put it back together again - maybe so you can't even tell it was broken. But nothing can be done about fading."

 

Carroll repairs and restores historical objects, specializing in ethnographic and archeological objects. But he knows a few tricks for working on other types of artifacts, such as paper.

In the labs and offices in the basement of the Alaska State Museum, he's working on a restoration project with curator India Spartz of the State Historical Library. They have the original artwork from 1927 for the Alaska Territorial flag contest. They have dozens of drawings by children from across the territory, done with fountain pens, crayons, watercolors and poster paints.

"We have Benny Benson's original (Alaska flag design)," he said. "Last Friday we discovered another entry of his," Carroll said. "He actually had three entries that made it to the finals."

Carroll's talents with historic artifacts aided in that discovery, 74 years after the contest.

"They wanted the contest to be fair, and when the entries came in they put a big piece of tape on the back to cover the name and the place where it came from," he said. "Over the years, the information on the entrants was lost and we need to remove the tape."

Carroll knows a process that allows them to carefully remove the tape without damaging the drawing.

"We're taking care of these on the level of a Rembrandt etching," he said.

Spartz said Alaska is probably the only state in the country that has the original flag designs. As she and Carroll sorted through a pile of signed drawings, Carroll was shocked by one.

"Robert Niel DeArmond. Sitka. Age 15. Hey, I'm living in his house," he said. "This has got to go in the exhibit. He's probably the only one who is still alive, and I'm living in his house."

Spartz appreciates his enthusiasm, and she personally knows DeArmond, a noted Alaska historian who lived in Juneau for many years before retiring to his original home town of Sitka. But as curator of the exhibit, it's her call what does and doesn't go in the exhibit. In the museum world, curators and conservators have a well-established relationship. Unfortunately, it has a history of being contentious.

Carroll comes to Juneau from the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He said at large museums, in fact at most museums, the conservator battles the designers and curators on the museum's staff. The conservator is charged with safeguarding the collections. The curators want to take the objects from their safe, climate-controlled storage cases and display them, handling the objects and exposing them to light and potential damage.

"Everybody here really cares about the artifacts. Some places, exhibitors are really looking for the splash," Carroll said. "I was often the bad guy at the Smithsonian. I got along pretty well with the exhibits department, but there were people who did not want us at the meetings."

Alaska State Museum curators Mark Daughetee and Paul Gardinier know the situation all too well, and they're delighted to be working with a team player such as Carroll.

"More and more the conservator is being pulled in at the onset of the design," Gardinier said.

"It used to be bucking tides," said Daughetee. "You want it in the dark, I want people to see it. There is a lot more collaboration than in the past. By and large, people come to museums to see the collections. We're here to show the collections, and to preserve them in perpetuity. We're the balance."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com



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