A carousel project at the Shelburne Museum puts a new spin on history
Chances are most Vermonters have never encountered Rick Kerschner, or the lion, tiger, reindeer, horses, giraffes, and goats he has been taming for the last 20 years. These circus animals aren’t penned up in cages or performing tricks under a big top; most of them are on display at the Shelburne Museum along with some of the country’s most celebrated works of folk art.
But not all the animals in the historic Dentzel Carousel are ready for prime time in the museum’s Round Barn. One brown horse, dubbed Bucephelus, resides quietly at a one-story red building across the street from the museum, in a tiled space that looks like a seventh-grade chemistry classroom. It’s the Shelburne Museum Conservation Lab, where Kerschner, a balding man with warm blue eyes, has been on the job since it opened in the early 1980s. During more than two decades as chief conservator — and now director of conservation and preservation — Kerschner has salvaged countless museum artifacts, including paintings, quilts, carriages and paper. But no single project has absorbed Kerschner’s time and attention quite like this vintage merry-go-round.
Manufactured in 1902 by the Pennsylvania-based Gustav A. Dentzel Company, the 40 animals that once rode in the Dentzel Carousel, as well as its 27 painted canvases, four chariots and circus organ, were the mainstay of an upstate New York amusement park until a 1929 flood put an end to the fun. In 1950, Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb purchased the carousel and hauled it across Lake Champlain to Vermont. But the carousel was never reconstructed on museum grounds. It wasn’t until the late ’80s, when Kerschner decided to resurrect the wooden animals, that Bucephelus and his pals began to regain their respective strides.
At 9:45 on a recent Thursday morning, Kerschner welcomes a reporter into his lab. It smells funny. That, the conservator explains, could be a cosmetics compound he uses to restore historic artifacts. All summer, his assistants have been using a cocktail of modern compounds to clean dark-brown stains off Bucephelus’ body. Years of linseed-oil coatings, Kerschner explains, made white Bucephelus look as though he had been doused with “tobacco juice.”
As evinced by its high-tech cleaning process, the conservation lab strikes an intriguing balance between scientific innovation and old-time charm. Against one wall, for instance, glass jars full of clear liquids recall an old-fashioned pharmacy. In a far corner is ensconced the mini carriage piloted by Tom Thumb in P.T. Barnum’s famous 19th-century circus.
Bucephelus, a pygmy-sized horse named after Alexander the Great’s equine companion, has a brown mane and bands of medieval-looking red trim. Like the circus animals on display in the barn across Route 7, Bucephelus saw a few decades’ worth of wear and tear in upstate New York. And yet, restoration has imbued him with a regal aspect — imagine a pony from a county fair prancing around King Arthur’s Court.
While Kerschner explains the ins and outs of the horse-restoration process, Eileen Sullivan, a graduate student from Buffalo, rubs a cotton swab over Bucephelus’ brass medallions. “We just opened our fifth box of cotton,” she reports with a sigh.
“But it’s worth it by the time it’s done,” Kerschner counters.
The Dentzel Carousel conservation project certainly requires patience. It takes interns like Sullivan a full summer to remove the existing linseed-oil coatings of a single animal and apply fresh coats of synthetic varnish. Fifteen more creatures await treatment. Meanwhile, thanks to an $82,000 grant from the D.C.-based Institute of Museum and Library Services, Kerschner and his assistants are also patching and cleaning the 27 painted panels that used to line the carousel interior. Each panel takes between two and three weeks to finish, and the crew is about halfway through the collection. Then there’s the Dentzel Carousel organ, stray pieces of which litter a nearby table. Kerschner says he knows a guy who will replace the missing parts.
All told, the Dentzel Carousel conservation project will be complete in about seven years — after more than a quarter-century of swabbing and polishing. “We want to finish before I retire,” the 57-year-old conservator says good-naturedly, “when I’m 65.”
Kerschner’s first brush with art conservation occurred in 1974 while he was touring the Netherlands with the U.S. Army. One day, the young soldier walked into an Amsterdam museum where, years before, a famous Rembrandt painting, “The Night Watch,” had been vandalized. What really impressed Kerschner wasn’t the masterwork itself, but all the labor that had gone into restoring it.
After returning to the states, Kerschner signed up for undergraduate classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art. During a class field trip, he toured a conservation lab at the Baltimore Museum of Art. When one of the museum staffers explained that conservation requires a background in both science and art, Kerschner, who at the time was studying both, discovered his calling.
More than 30 years later, Kerschner is a leading figure in Vermont conservation circles, as well as a mentor and advocate. A former treasurer of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, he goes around the country lecturing on techniques he has developed to minimize negative effects of environmental factors — such as humidity and light exposure — on historic artifacts. One of his simple innovations is lining the bottom of museum display cases with silica gel — a.k.a., the stuff in the little packets that comes in your vitamin bottles.
Chris Hadsel is a former director of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance, a consortium of about 200 Vermont collecting institutions. She confirms that Kerschner is a national innovator in the field of preventive conservation. Kerschner has pioneered a “low-tech, hands-on approach,” Hadsel explains, “rather than telling people to go out and buy fancy-dancy” humidification systems.
If the word “preventive” sounds like something from a pamphlet at the dermatologist’s office, that’s the point: Kerschner likens his conservation work to preventive health care. Just like the human body, he explains, historic artifacts require more time and money to fix once they’ve been damaged or abused.
And like effective preventive medical treatments, skilled conservation work often goes unnoticed. “Once something is completely restored, you forget about how it used to be,” Kerschner says, pausing to gaze admiringly at the century-old horse Sullivan is polishing. “People see this and they really never know what kind of work went into it.”
Before devoting time and money to restoring lost treasures, it helps to know what’s worth saving. This month, the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance are asking state residents to document their collection needs (see sidebar). But whatever the survey reports, Chris Hadsel, who now runs the statewide Painted Theater Curtain Project, attests that even “old-style” Vermonters aren’t always aware of the cultural treasures right under their noses.
Over the last decade, Hadsel has raised and spent about a half-million dollars to restore more than 100 Vermont theater curtains; she says it could be the largest conservation project currently underway in New England. Many people who have volunteered to help were previously unaware that the curtains even existed. In some cases, Hadsel recalls, the curtains “had been rolled up with baling twine, or stuck above the ceiling or under the stage for so long that even the town clerks had no idea what they had!”
What’s more, notes State Archivist Gregory Sanford, not every cultural treasure is as visible as a Dentzel Carousel or a painted theater curtain. He should know: While some of the documents Sanford restores — such as Vermont’s original 1777 constitution or its copy of the Bill of Rights — have obvious cultural significance, countless others just sit in filing cabinets. Think town charters and land records. That makes it hard, Sanford says, to get towns excited about investing in conservation.
“Conservation-type work is not the sexy work,” suggests Eileen Corcoran, executive director of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance. Her Vergennes office is headquartered at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where specialists conserve marine artifacts. “One of the reasons it’s so difficult to find funding is because it’s not the flashy stuff, or the exhibit itself, or the educational program,” Corcoran adds. “It’s the stuff that needs to be done so that you can utilize what you have.”
According to Corcoran, most of Vermont’s museum and gallery operators are having an increasingly hard time securing conservation funds. That’s partly because VMGA’s initial 10-year grant for conservation began to dry up in 2002, she says, and also because donors nationwide are now earmarking grant money for specialized programming that doesn’t go directly toward “nuts-and-bolts types of work” like conservation.
That assessment resonates with Maureen Labenski, curator of the volunteer-run DAR John Strong Mansion Museum in West Addison. The former home of Revolutionary War veteran John Strong houses furniture, paintings and household objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. Labenski says small Vermont museums have to be creative. For example, Kerschner of the Shelburne fixed a big “climate-control issue” in the museum’s basement by installing a new boiler, and the nonprofit Preservation Trust of Vermont contributed money towards the repair of some leaky windows.
In order to keep things going, Labenski says, the Strong periodically sells items from its permanent collection to keep its most valuable artifacts safe.
To some extent, large collecting institutions have a leg up on smaller ones when vying for conservation funding. Most federal grants from such sources as the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts require 50-50 matches for conservation projects, explains Vermont Historical Society Curator Jackie Calder. With more resources, she says, “big dogs” such as the Shelburne Museum can leverage local dollars to match federal ones; smaller museums typically cannot.
Even the Shelburne, however, has had to sell off items — known as “deaccessioning” — in its collection to fund conservation initiatives. In the 1990s, the museum sold several European and American paintings in order to establish a $25 million conservation endowment. Proceeds from the fund now pay Kerschner’s salary. “We realized what it would really take to take care of our collections,” he recalls.
In addition to financial concerns, there’s the threat of fire or flood. A tour of the Shelburne provides an impromptu illustration: Two hours after greeting a reporter at the conservation lab, Kerschner strolls across Route 7 and discovers a fire truck circling the museum grounds.
A friendly guy who works in shirtsleeves, Kerschner isn’t alarmed by the truck’s presence. But he’s not exactly relaxed, either. “I don’t see any smoke,” Kerschner calls out to a museum staffer standing outside the building with a walkie-talkie. “But there’s something going on in there!”
Minutes later, officials discover that a ventilator in a historic wooden building has been drawing in smoke from a nearby bread oven. The place is just one of the museum’s 27 historic structures, Kerschner explains; as today’s scare makes clear, even a $130,000 computerized building monitoring system isn’t a guarantee against catastrophe.
Emergency planning is a hot topic in contemporary historic-preservation circles. According to the “Heritage Health Index,” a 2005 report sponsored by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, more than three-quarters of American museums and historical societies have no emergency plan. Rick Kerschner estimates that the majority of Vermont’s historical societies don’t have a written plan for an unexpected disaster.
Kerschner has his own concerns about safety. Over the last decade, the National Endowment for the Humanities has given the museum about $2 million to enact security, fire safety and climate-control improvements. This year, however, the money may be cut from the federal budget. The conservator says he’s appealing to Senator Patrick Leahy to restore the NEH money. But since the museum is also asking Leahy to help earmark funding for collections programming, his appeal may go unanswered.
Kerschner says the NEH funding issue speaks to a “healthy tension” between preservation and access. Generally speaking, conservators are more concerned with minimizing humidity and light exposure, he notes, while curators, museum directors and donors want collections to be viewed. Case in point: When museum directors ask to host a reception in the building that houses Monet paintings, Kerschner asks them to serve white wine, rather than red. If the weather’s nice, he requests that caterers set up outside.
The same dilemma applies to circus carousels. Around the time Kerschner started working in the conservation lab, the Shelburne Museum purchased a second carousel. Now that bright assemblage of mirrors, circus music and red paint sits on the lawn just beyond the Round Barn and is used regularly by children and adults. Although it will eventually be “destroyed” as a result of such heavy use, the working carousel frees up the Dentzel one to be presented and viewed as a work of art. One is also a great promotion for the other.
Strolling the museum grounds en route to the Round Barn, Kerschner says he is cheered by the knowledge that the Dentzel Carousel will be viewed by future generations. But not ridden by kids; it’s a “compromise.” If every cultural artifact were perfectly conserved, it would last forever, he points out. “But what good is it if no one sees it?”
The Shelburne Museum’s Round Barn is a red, 107-year-old structure that was built in East Passumpsic and moved to the museum in the mid-’80s. When Kerschner enters the building around 11:15, a gaggle of boisterous children has already gathered around a group of brown horses and spotted giraffes. The conservator explains that the animals have been positioned to look as though they are circling the Round Barn’s central support column.
For a few moments, the kids argue over the parading animals like impatient gamblers outside paddocks at the Kentucky Derby. Their chaperone occasionally interjects to relay historical factoids. Before shuffling off to another new exhibit, one boy peers closely at the rear quarters of a Dentzel horse. “The tails are real!” he exclaims.