Conservation in Action: Saving the Binney Monument
Mount Auburn is delighted to announce the long-awaited completion of the conservation of the Binney monument. The 19th-century marble memorial, carved by Thomas Crawford in 1847, is the only monument at Mount Auburn that has been designated an “American Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millennium Committee. “It is without question, one of the finest and most important funerary monuments in the United States,” states Lauretta Dimmick, former Assistant Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. “Because it is Crawford’s only realized funerary monument, and because none of the other first-generation American sculptors even attempted such commissions, this sculpture is of extraordinary value historically.”
Before this conservation project, lichen, moss, organic growth, and soil accretions covered the surface of the stone, and severe weathering had eroded the monument over time, creating a fragile, “sugary” surface. Comparisons made with historic photographs show that damage had accelerated at an alarming rate in the last decades. Curators of American sculpture from around the country supported Mount Auburn’s efforts to save the Neo-classical, Neo-Roman sculpture before the artistic integrity of the nationally significant work of funerary art was lost.
Repairing and Stabilizing the Foundation
Beginning in June, Mount Auburn’s Chief of Conservation David Gallagher and his preservation team began work on the project. The first step required repair and stabilization of the stone foundation underneath the monument. Located just below the marble base of the sculpture, the granite apron stones on each side of the monument not only contribute to the overall design, they also serve to channel water away from the foundation, provide a buffer between the marble monument and the damp earth, and conceal the foundation. Mount Auburn’s preservation team removed the apron stones on the monument’s south and west sides. The stone on the west side had broken into two pieces and required repair with stainless steel rods set in epoxy. The team carefully maneuvered the two apron stones back into place and secured them to prevent further movement. “This is a major repair and it’s barely visible,” says Gallagher. “Our team did an outstanding job.” To replace mortar that had washed out of the foundation, and thus stabilize the stones and minimize water penetration, a flowable grout was poured into open joints on all four sides.
Resetting the Lot Curbing
The next step involved resetting the granite curbing surrounding the lot. The granite stones had settled, and dirt and grass had completely covered a length of the curbing along the west side of the lot. Roots from a large tree had also pushed several of the curbing stones out of place. The preservation team carefully lifted a long, heavy section of the curbing out of the ground, realigned it, and reset it above grade. The joints between the curbing stones were then filled in with lead.
Washing and Cleaning the Monument
Conservation of the marble sculpture began in July once the foundation work was complete and the diagonal joints of the apron stone were pointed with lead. Conservators from Daedalus Inc., began their treatment by washing the surface of the stone with light detergent and toothbrushes and by removing manually and with great care the severe biological growth that had built up on the surface. An irreversible action, the cleaning was the most difficult and complex part of treatment. “One of the challenges of this delicate procedure,” Mount Auburn’s Director of Preservation Gus Fraser explains, “is knowing when to stop the cleaning process in order not to risk losing some of the surface of the sculpture.” Conservator Josh Craine then used a portable hand-held laser in order to remove the dark black areas of built-up, black gypsum crust deposits. Wave lengths from the portable laser effectively vaporized and popped off the dark deposits without causing damage to the monument.
Pointing and Consolidating the Monument
With the cleaning completed, the monument was restored to the creamy white color of the Italian Carrara marble. A thrilling moment came when the conservators and Mount Auburn staff were able to locate the sculptor’s signature, which had been previously concealed by biological growth and dirt. After cleaning, the conservators applied a chemical consolidant to the entire sculpture in order to strengthen the sugaring surface of the stone and reduce further damage from acid rain and snow. The cleaning process also revealed further networks of fine cracks and imperfections in the stone not previously visible. Using soft lime mortar, the conservators patiently filled in these numerous cracks and pointed the open joints between the marble stones. Finer cracks were injected with a reversible acrylic resin, tinted to match the color of the stone.
The final step involved landscaping. Mount Auburn’s horticultural staff planted the lot surrounding the Binney monument with a low groundcover in order to further protect the monument and enhance the beauty of the lot. Two dogwood trees now also frame the boundaries of the site.
Conservation of the Binney monument is part of a larger project supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services focused on the Cemetery’s most significant monuments deemed critical to the long-term stewardship of Mount Auburn’s cultural landscape. “For many years it has been a dream of ours to conserve this beautiful work of art, and we are immensely grateful for the generous gift that made this landmark preservation project possible,” says Meg Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections. “This critical conservation work, so urgently needed, has preserved and stabilized a national treasure, whose narrative, meaning and symbolism future generations will continue to appreciate.”
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