Conserving Nebraska's History, One Object at a Time

Dec. 25, 2019, 8:45 a.m. ·

Conservator Rebecca Cashman at the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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In a brick building on a quiet street on the edge of Omaha’s Hanscom Park, there’s a small group of conservators saving Nebraska’s history, one object at a time. They work at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, a regional conservation lab that helps stabilize and preserve cultural history across the Midwest. And their work isn’t just for museums and valuable objects. This story is part of NET's "Best of 2019 Signature Stories" project.

Wearing a white lab coat and latex gloves, Rebecca Cashman looks like she’s ready for an important experiment, and in a way, she is. She’s an objects conservator at the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha. She sits behind a large microscope in the objects lab.

“I’ve been working on part of a Frank Stella sculpture that belongs to a private collector,” Cashman said. “It has some corrosion issues, so I’m trying to figure out how we can deal with those issues. So I’m doing some microscope work trying to examine the corrosion product and think of a treatment plan for this object.”

Cashman is one of six conservators and assistants who work at the Conservation Center, established more than 20 years ago and one of the only conservation labs in the Midwest. The next closest one is in Minneapolis. The non-profit is a division of History Nebraska and does work for museums and historical collections, but also for private clients, for a fee, who want help preserving family heirlooms.

Painting conservator Kenneth Bé at the Ford Conservation Center. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“People often don’t even think we take in objects like that,” Cashman said. “They think we just work on works from well-known artists, works of obvious historical value from museums and that’s just not the case. I would say it’s pretty much half-and-half.”

Cashman and her colleagues are trained conservators who don’t restore objects, but instead repair and stabilize them. They don’t grind away original surfaces, strip original paint or add things to objects that are missing components. Cashman sees a variety of objects come through the lab.

“There’s a certain amount of broken ceramics that are always coming in and ceramics break and glass breaks,” she said. “Recently a man brought in a mannequin model, which was an interesting project. There are things that have been damaged by pets and Roomba vacuum cleaners.”

Next door in the paintings lab, conservator Kenneth Bé inspects a damaged 1975 painting of a Native American Indian from the Omaha tribe. It’s one of the newest arrivals in Bé’s lab. It has several deep cuts and tears in the canvas.

Work on an old coffee advertisement at the Ford Conservation Center. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“I’ll make a proposal on how to straighten out these problematic spots, how to flatten them, how to line the painting, how to clean it and to put it on a new stretcher,” Bé said.

Bé has repaired, cleaned, retouched and preserved more than a thousand paintings in his ten years at the Conservation Center. Along with holes and tears in canvas, the most common issues involve years of grime, soot, discolored varnish coatings and even layers of nicotine on paintings. They’ve come from private collections, museums, even old barns and attics.

“It just takes the right training and a certain degree of sensitivity to the artwork and what should or should not be done and a lot of patience to get all this work done,” he said. “I think all those 1,000 paintings are much better off as a result.”

Next to Bé’s lab is the paper lab, where conservator Hilary LeFevere and her colleagues are gathered around a 100-year old coffee advertisement on particle board that’s broken into five pieces. It came from an old building in Omaha, and the owner wants it repaired and preserved.

A century-old Native American ribbon dress at the Ford Conservation Center. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Essentially we’re gluing it back together, but we’re using adhesives that we’re choosing through reading and testing in order to stick it back together and we’re going to put it onto this board,” LeFevere said.

LeFevere, who’s been with the Ford Conservation Center for about three years, preserves all sorts of paper objects, some of them in pretty bad shape.

“That can be documents, prints, original works on paper, paintings on paper, posters, books, photographs on paper and sometimes we work on parchment too,” she said.

The Ford Conservation Center is a non-profit, but does charge private clients and museums a fee for their work. The Center also advises smaller museums that don’t have large staffs on how to best preserve historic objects and paintings.

Editor's Note: This story is part of our "Best of 2019 Signature Stories" report. It originally aired on January 24, 2019.