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Monday, May 16 • 5:00pm - 5:30pm
(General Session: Confronting the Unexpected) The Challenges of Conservation of Artifacts from Major Disasters: Titanic, Challenger, Columbia and the World Trade Center

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Unfortunately, there are many disasters that result in large-scale loss of life or are significant due to their cultural impact. Objects that result from these are often preserved to honor the dead and to act as a permanent memorial for the event. For conservators, working on these artifacts is complex as they have unique materials-related challenges and emotional and cultural importance. This paper will examine the conservation approaches taken when working with objects that have been involved in significant disasters. CSI has had the privilege of working on several of these including:
• artifacts from the RMS Titanic shipwreck • pieces from NASA’s space shuttles Challenger and Columbia for a memorial at Kennedy Space Center
• an architectural element or ‘trident’ salvaged from the World Trade Center currently on display at a division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
• the wreck of a US Army B-26 Marauder bomber aircraft which crashed in the Yukon Territory, Canada, in 1942

Treatment of these objects posed unique and significant challenges. In materials terms, all these artifacts were subjected to catastrophic events that resulted in acute and unusual physical damage. For the artifacts from Titanic, Challenger and the Marauder, this was compounded by the effects of long-term submersion in an ocean or lake. Although a valuable body of research exists on the conservation of sunken aircraft and aluminum from maritime archaeological sites, these specific artifacts had, after salvage, been subjected to further extreme or unusual environments that may not only have contributed to further deterioration. For example, the Marauder remained outside near Whitehorse, YK, which has temperature extremes that range from up to 30C/86F to below -50C/-58F.

Limited budgets, the secrecy surrounding some of these projects and the remote or restricted locations where the objects had to be treated made logistics significantly more complex. The security issues of working on an active military base limited treatment options, as the ability to transport materials to the site and monitor ongoing treatments was greatly reduced. As communications were restricted in some cases, the exchange of information with colleagues and subcontractors was very difficult. While these factors complicated the conservation work, they also forced the development of creative solutions to produce successful treatment outcomes.

A further important aspect of working with these unusual objects was understanding the nature of their significant emotional and cultural value. Conservation work on objects that are part of such immense and recent national tragedies as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Columbia and Challenger disasters involves navigating the complex, varied and changing relationships that stakeholders have with the artifacts. The discovery of the Titanic wreck-site in 1985 was momentous but also engendered significant discussion, controversy and litigation concerning the salvage of its artifacts. Although the conservators were not directly involved in these aspects of the project, it remains important that we acknowledge the cultural, ethical and legal sensitivity of such artifacts as these variables can inform our conservation practice.

avatar for Elizabeth Beesley, [PA]

Elizabeth Beesley, [PA]

Conservator, National Air & Space Museum

avatar for Joseph Sembrat

Joseph Sembrat

Senior Conservator, Conservation Solutions, Inc
Joe is a Fellow of AIC and has been immersed in the conservation field for over 20 years providing conservation assessments, design, and implementation of conservation treatments and lecturing on relevant topics in the field. His extensive experience in the treatment of historic materials... Read More →

Justine Posluszny Bello

Vice President of Operations & Senior Conservator, Conservation Solutions, Inc.
Justine joined Conservation Solutions in 2007. She operates as a project lead and Senior Conservator, applying her strong expertise in all aspects of conservation, including condition assessments, conservation treatments, materials testing and analysis, and construction management... Read More →
avatar for Mark Rabinowitz, [Fellow]

Mark Rabinowitz, [Fellow]

Senior Conservator, Conservation Solutions, Inc
Mark is a Fellow of AIC and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. He has treated sculptures, monuments, buildings, murals, mosaics, fountains, space travel, military, and undersea artifacts over the last 25 years. Significant projects include the US Capitol, Cleopatra's Needle... Read More →

Monday May 16, 2016 5:00pm - 5:30pm EDT
Room 210 AB/EF