UD art conservation team restores, preserves historic murals
Blanka Kielb of UD's Department of Art Conservation helps to restore the mural at the John Bassett Moore Intermediate School in the Smyrna School District.
A portion of the mural.
Art conservation graduate student Gwen Manthey works on a portion of the mural.
UD's Joyce Hill Stoner, left, discusses the mural restoration project with Deborah D. Wicks, superintendent of the Smyrna School District.


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1:04 p.m., Feb. 1, 2010----Members of University of Delaware's art conservation program are in the process of restoring two very large, historic murals for the Smyrna (Del.) School District. The 12-person team includes current UD undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, two UD alumni, a UD adjunct professor, and two other conservators.

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Dawn V. Rogala, Coremans Fellow in UD's Preservation Studies doctoral program and the project's coordinator, points out that such a “multi-level educational experience” is highly unusual.

Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the Preservation Studies doctoral program, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture and consultant for the Smyrna project, elaborates on the learning opportunities that this undertaking offers. “It is ideal for students at each level to be able to meet and learn from each other,” she said, adding, “The graduate and postgraduate students who are helping to manage the project may have an interest in teaching in the future, and this is a helpful exercise to prepare them for teaching responsibilities. Some of the tasks are challenging but repetitive and provide an excellent opportunity for undergraduate students to increase their hand skills under the supervision of professional conservators and students with more experience.”

These talented individuals are dedicating their Winter Session to restoring and preserving two 14-by-10-foot canvas murals, which continues an ongoing partnership with the Smyrna School District. In 2003, UD students and faculty restored eight other murals for the district. “We are always very pleased if the University of Delaware can be involved with a project that will serve other institutions within the state of Delaware,” says Stoner.

The murals currently being preserved were painted by Willard Borow of Philadelphia in the late 1940s. Each depicts a ship coming into port in colonial Delaware, and the paintings are named for those ships -- one is called Muriel, the other Reba - bearing the names of women who lived in the area at the time the paintings were created.

This is a complex project, as the murals have suffered damage due to dirt build up, structural deterioration and age. The group hoped to complete most of the work on the murals by the end of January, but Rogala points out that they won't truly know the extent of the damage until they finish working on the paintings' surfaces and turn them over to examine the structural undersides.

Treating these murals requires documenting and reporting their current condition, researching their histories and construction, proposing and selecting methods of treatment, stabilizing their structure, cleaning their surfaces and some inpainting.

The students are gaining valuable hands-on experience with each of these steps. Rogala remarks that applying what you've been taught to a real-life project is the best way to truly learn about art conservation. Projects like this offer “a much better sense of what the field is like; it's how you learn about the field,” she says.

In addition, the size of the murals represents another rare opportunity. “It's not often students get to work on such a large-scale project as this. It's interesting to translate the techniques you use on a small painting to something of this scale,” Rogala adds.

Throughout January the conservators spent four days a week working on the murals at John Bassett Moore Intermediate School, some for nine or 10 hours a day. Such a hefty time commitment leads to a more intimate experience, for “as you work on these things, you start to form a connection with the paintings and with the artist -- you travel into the painting as you work on it,” Rogala explains.

The participants are also getting a chance to share what they're learning and what they're doing with Smyrna School District art classes who are visiting the work site. Local media, donors and other interested people have also visited the site. Rogala notes that the school district and those in the surrounding area have been very supportive of the project.

UD's art conservation graduate program, a cooperative effort with the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, is one of only three in the country. Accordingly, it is a very competitive and challenging program.

Stoner explains that you need at least 400 hours of hands-on experience just to be considered for admission and that “students who wish to go into conservation are generally taking additional coursework in chemistry, art history, and studio art -- we require essentially a triple major.”

Article by Shannon Robbins
Photos by Jim Hopkins