American Museum Of Natural History Mural Conservation: by Forrest Filler

A Personal Perspective and a Fantastic Project: The Restoration of the MacKay Murals at the American Museum of Natural History.

by Conservation Foremen, Forrest Filler.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has so many amazing murals, but the William Andrew MacKay murals in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall have always been my favorite. And that’s lucky for me, because in 2008, the murals and I were about to enter into a long term relationship and I would have the great pleasure of working on them. I assisted Gillian Randell, EverGreene’s Chief Conservator, with the conservation feasibility study and ultimately, on the restoration, conservation and reinstallation of the murals. It was a real treat and proved to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

The murals have a very exciting history…it reads something like this: The murals were painted onto coarse jute canvas by a crack team of mural artists under MacKay in 1935 then glued onto the plaster wall.  However, soon after the painting was completed—as early as the 1950s­—problems arose.  The paintings were delaminating from the plaster wall!  Then a series of plastering experts, painting and decorating companies, and famous conservators began offering solutions and preparing reports and proposals to try and help treat the pockets of plaster debris that were collecting behind the canvas, and were actually pulling the painting off the wall and damaging the mural.

When EverGreene arrived, we excavated samples of the plaster behind the murals and sent them for petrographic analysis to Highbridge Materials Consulting who ran a battery of tests to determine if there could be problems with the plaster.  Why was the plaster falling apart in so many locations?  After reviewing their extensive report, we realized that the plaster used in the walls underneath the canvas murals had never fully carbonized, or cured, and that there were many inconsistencies in the original plastering mix.

In the 1990s, AMNH engaged a conservator to try and treat some of these delaminating locations.  They installed some temporary wooden “buttons” and “strips” in an effort to hold the mural onto the wall, and where they could, they made discreet incisions and removed plaster debris from behind the canvas.  But the problem was much bigger than these localized treatments could cure.

After much analysis, EverGreene, city agencies, the construction team, and the museum conservation staff decided to remove some of the canvas murals from the wall to treat the plaster substrate.  Can you imagine what it’s like to remove seven mural segments each of which measures 30’ (h) x 12’ (w)?  Well it is an incredibly complex endeavor that involves a lot of scaffolding with a talented and passionate team with a commitment to preservation.  So, from 2010 until the fall of 2012, Evergreene worked literally around the clock to preserve these artworks. Because the museum is open seven days a week, sometimes we would begin work at 6pm, other times at 7am, to accommodate the museum’s schedule. Honestly, that was one of the hardest parts for our conservation team.  The museum remained fully operational throughout the entire process, with our scaffolding covered in white skrim, that hid the entire work area and protected visitors as they milled about John Russell Pope’s (the architect of Roosevelt Memorial Hall) wonderful coffered barrel vaulted entrance.

Once removed from the wall the murals were rolled onto large thick cardboard tubes.  We managed to weave these fifteen foot tubes through vertical scaffolding pipes, thirty feet in the air, getting them down the scaffolding and into our custom-built work room down in the bowels of the museum.  There, we erected a containment room to control dust and debris, with huge tables to lay the murals flat while we cleaned, restored and conserved them. It was wild; the conservators all wore spacesuits and full-face respirators during this phase of the conservation process, it was tough work, and everyone really earned their stripes.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever worn a Tyvek suit, but believe me—they were hot…to say the least!  Over time, the murals had become distorted and stretched out of shape partially because of the broken plaster that had built up behind them and partially because a thick layer of plaster and the old paste/glue that coated the back of the murals.

Once we finished the “back-of-canvas-work”  and addressed the canvas distortions, we had an exciting night in the Hall of Ocean Life, underneath the 94’ Blue Whale, where we laid out all of the murals to make sure everything lined up, sort of a dry-run for their installation. After we reinstalled the murals, using a modern glue, we began cleaning them, doing the aesthetic infilling and inpainting, and finally, applying a varnish to seal and enrich the colors.  In the process, we realized that MacKay had painted complementary colors next to one another which really made the colors pop. A former World War I camouflage artist, it makes sense he’d be using clever tricks like that.

Finally, in September 2012, the scaffolding company Eagle Scaffolding Services, very carefully and quickly removed the scaffolding (they were amazing!). And the finished murals were revealed.

Thanks to everyone at EverGreene, and the construction team at the American Museum of Natural History, the murals look fantastic and I don’t think any of us will ever forget the experience.

(Left: Conservator Kumiko Hisano (front), Jaime Dobbertin (rear) Boris Gusit (middle) and team conducted inpainting to re-create lost and damaged areas)

Forrest Filler is a Conservation Technician who joined EverGreene in 2007.  He is skilled in conducting finishes studies, developing chemical methodologies for cleaning and overpaint removal of painted surfaces, and implementing treatment plans. He began his work with easel painting conservation in private practice in 2005. He is also pursuing his Masters of Science in Design and Historic Preservation at U Mass Amherst in conjunction with Hancock Shaker Village.