In the spring of 2010, Boston College honors student Lauren Zajac visited me at the John J. Burns Library and requested permission to work in the conservation lab as a part of her honors project beginning in the fall. Lauren hoped to engage in a project which could further her pursuit of a career in art conservation. At first I was not certain that I could offer the level of support she would need to complete an honors project. Then, remembering our library initiative to be a learning organization, I considered the possible scope of the project beyond the conservation lab. It quickly became apparent to me that I have colleagues in the library system well qualified to assist Lauren as she worked on her paper. Within Boston College I collaborate with other departments and I felt those relationships could be very helpful to bring Lauren’s project to fruition. Additionally, during my years in the field of conservation I have come to know experts who would be able to help as well. Based on these realizations, I told Lauren that she would be welcome to conduct honors work in the conservation lab.
Dr. Gregory McMahon, a scientist in the Integrated Sciences Clean Room and Nanofabrication Facility (the Clean Room) had visited the conservation lab earlier that spring and had indicated that he would be interested in working with me on a collaborative project. He later demonstrated the electron microscope to Diana Larsen of the McMullen Museum, Andrew Kuhn, Book Builder of Boston intern, and me. When I approached him about Lauren’s request, he was immediately enthusiastic and suggested we get Diana Larsen on board as well. Diana already had regularly worked with me on exhibitions, so she was willing to engage in this project.
Greg, Diana and I decided that Lauren should focus on a damaged portrait bust of the Marquis de la Fayette, possibly by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) now in the custody of the McMullen Museum. This would afford her the opportunity to conduct an art history investigation, learn about conservation issues, and execute material analysis.
Dr. McMahon acted as Lauren’s official advisor and helped her conduct materials analysis in the Clean Room. He also enlisted the help of Dr. Natasha Erdman, from electron microscope manufacturer JEOL USA, to conduct additional testing. Diana Larsen, at the McMullen Museum, graciously allowed Lauren access to the records pertaining to the bust. Ms. Larsen quickly involved more outside museum experts in the project, including Anne Poulet, director of the Frick Collection, and Arthur Beale, former Chief Conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts. Both of these experts have deep knowledge Houdon’s work.
Lauren also received research assistance from Boston College librarians. Adeane Bregman, Art Librarian, was very helpful in unearthing art reference materials. Enid Karr, Reference Librarian/Science Bibliographer, already familiar with the electron microscope, helped Lauren locate pertinent science periodicals. And Justine Sundaram, Reference Librarian, helped with materials at the Burns Library. All had valuable advice for her paper. By coming to the libraries for help, Lauren received more than just one advisor: we became a resource team.
I took Lauren and Diana on a field trip to the Boston Athenaeum to view that institution’s Houdon La Fayette portrait bust. While at the Athenaeum, we consulted with Associate Curator of Paintings and Sculpture Hina Hirayama regarding eighteenth and nineteenth century sculpture techniques. Lauren was permitted to use rare materials for research from the Athenaeum’s collection on that trip, as well. Later, while investigating a possible White House connection to the portrait bust, we visited the Kennedy Library and were helped by Archivist Stephen Plotkin.
On April 13, 2011, Lauren gave a presentation about her project at Harvard University’s Weissman Preservation Center. She was one of four conservation interns selected to give a paper this year for the New England Conservation Association. She was the only undergraduate chosen and had the distinction of being the first Boston College student to talk before this professional conservation group. Her talk was well received and she confidently answered the many questions posed by conservators from key institutions such as Harvard University, Smith College, and Historic New England.
Afterwards, many conservators came up to me to congratulate me on having such a fine intern. They also expressed envy that I was able to collaborate with other departments in the project, readily understanding that it made the project more exciting for Lauren and gave me an opportunity to learn along with her. The conservators also were interested in the ease with which the collaboration occurred.
Lauren’s intern presentation and her honors project, An SEM and Microanalysis Examination of a Marquis de Lafayette Terracotta Portrait Bust, were wonderful personal accomplishments for her and had the added value of bringing renown and attention to Boston College collections, the libraries, and the Clean Room. Upon graduation, she will be working full time as a research assistant at New York University. Our reputation is shining brighter because of her determination and talent.
Barbara Adams Hebard
Conservator, John J. Burns Library