Perfect blend of interests

A passion for reviving antiquities

Conservator uses her skills from workrooms of BMA to distant digs

March 08, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,

A bright winter sun streams into a room at the Baltimore Museum of Art, far removed from the public galleries. Her eyes dense with concentration, Angie Elliott picks up what looks like a long toothpick and winds a small clump of cotton around its point, an improvised Q-tip, and dips it into a bottle of ethanol. Bending over a table, Elliott uses the damp tool to gently swab the surface of an ornate 16th-century chamfron, a piece of steel armor with inlays of gold and silver, made to protect a horse's forehead and nose in battle.

The armor, in the museum's possession since 1945, has never been exhibited. It is the task of Elliott, as one of the BMA's two conservators of objects - as opposed to, say, paintings or drawings - to remove the accumulated corrosion and grime of the ages from the piece and restore it, as far as possible, to the glory of its prime, ready for public viewing with other Renaissance works later this year.

Elliott, 30, looks immeasurably content, her job of just two months the welcome culmination of an intense apprenticeship not only in the workshops of academia - Birmingham Southern College in her native Alabama, where she double-majored in sculpture and art history; and Buffalo State College in New York, where she received a master's degree in art conservation - but also in arduous archaeological excavations. It was in the search for remnants of the ancient Turkish city of Gordion, once capital of the Phrygian kingdom, that Elliott found her calling.

On her table at the BMA, a diverse set of objects awaits her attention alongside the horse's armor: a boxwood Madonna and Child, carved in Germany in the early 15th century; an unknown artist's ceramic plate from the 16th or 17th century; two contemporary masks, one from Mali and the second from Papua New Guinea and made of cane, palms, feathers and pigment; a flying angel holding a crown and scepter, its date and creator unknown; and a glass-and-bronze table lamp made by the French art nouveau glassmaker Emile Gall?.

We asked Elliott about her interest in conservation and her latest project.

You liked art as a kid?

I was sort of the strange one in my family, the one who liked art and wanted to go to museums, and got into that whole thing. We sometimes traveled to Atlanta to see shows at the High Museum, mostly with friends. As an undergrad I specialized in sculpture and art history, and I was really interested in archaeology, but I didn't know how to pull it all together into something I wanted to do. I didn't know if I wanted to be a sculptor and I didn't think I wanted to be a curator. I knew I didn't want to be an archaeologist full time, but I went on a dig when I was an undergrad, in Turkey. I loved it. We uncovered some amazing mosaics that I was really enthralled with. I couldn't get over them.

We didn't have a conservator on the dig, even though in Turkey you do usually have conservators to help when things are excavated because there's a big environmental shift from something that's wet and in the ground, in the temperature and the humidity, and it really changes when you take it out of the ground, and things really start to deteriorate. So I was really curious about what happens to an object once it comes out of the ground. I went back to Alabama and started to do research on how you deal with a mosaic when it comes out of the ground, how do you preserve it. So that's how I found out about conservators and conservation and how they work hand in hand with archaeologists on sites to conserve, to really preserve objects as they come out of the ground.

So that led you to museums - less strenuous than working on archaeological sites.

I still work on digs, though. I don't know if I'll be able to go this year but I usually try to go for a few weeks every year. Funding is really tight right now.

You keep learning, basically, if you go out onto the digs themselves. It's hands-on.

Yes, it's very hands-on. And I also write grants and bring students there. It's not part of my museum work at all. That's all separate from what I do here.

Tell me about the horse's armor.

This is the interesting story behind this one. We were all thinking it was a child's breastplate, but it's actually the top piece for a horse's head. When I first looked at it, I thought it was all gold. It's steel, a technique called damascene, where they would apply wires or foil onto grooves in the metal, and if you look at it up close you can see that's gold. They've cut very shallow grooves and hammered wire or thick foil onto it and it just stays there. It was all inlaid, what we call a false inlay. There's silver, gold and foil all over this.

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