For an extensive discussion about the restoration of historic painted stage scenery, see the chapter on conservation by Richard Kerschner and Mary Jo Davis in "Suspended Worlds" by Christine Hadsel, published by Godine Press, 2015.
The stabilization of an historic painted theater curtain requires the combination of several conservation disciplines. The team working on this project includes textile, paintings and paper conservators, with an objects conservator serving on the advisory committee. Their combined knowledge and skills provide a multi-disciplinary approach to the issues and techniques of cleaning and repairing this type of historic artifact.
Stabilization objectives are:
1. Reduce surface soiling and disfiguring stains.
2. Stabilize the primary support (fabric) through the mending of rips and tears. Compensate for large losses through the insertion of similar fabrics. Stabilize raw or damaged edges to prevent vertical or horizontal rips.
3. Provide minimal consolidation of the paint layer when loss of media is localized or urgent.
4. Provide in-painting and toning of mends, fills, and stains to improve the overall aesthetics.
5. Prepare the curtain for re-installation or safe storage by either reusing the existing roller and support system or making a new one.
WORKING ON-SITE AND USING LOCAL VOLUNTEERS
All work is done on-site, unless there are unusual circumstances that require moving a curtain to a near-by building. Each site is required to provide “lunch” tables of equal height to create an island large enough to accommodate a curtain, roller and top support. Each site must also provide volunteers/carpenters to help the conservation team safely remove the curtain from the stage and to help reinstall it, as well as at least two volunteers to assist the team during the entire stabilization process. The hall needs to be heated and there has to be electricity and water (at least near-by).
To prepare for the removal of accumulated surface dirt and grime, the curtain must be placed on a flat surface. The island of lunch tables is padded with 100% polyester blankets followed by a covering of cotton muslin and a final layer of Tyvek.
If the curtain is already on a roller, it is vacuumed on both sides as it is unrolled, face down. If there is no roller, or if the roller is unusable, a new one will be made. (see below). As the curtain unrolls, rips and tears are mended with either muslin or 100% polyester fabric and secured with Beva 371 film. Securing fragile side edges is done is a similar manner, but is left until the entire curtain is rolled out. A vacuum with a HEPA filter is used to indirectly suck up dust and miscellaneous debris that is gently brushed into the vacuum nozzle using soft bristle brushes.
Surface cleaning is restricted by the friable nature of the media, which is almost always a water- soluble distemper made with dry pigments and an animal glue binder. As most of the paints were made on-site by the artists, they vary widely in their quality and stability, even within a given curtain. Surface cleaning of the most sensitive areas is avoided and the decision whether to consolidate is made depending on the degree of instability.
If consolidation is called for, a local application of consolidant is applied in the form of a fine mist, using an air brush. After researching various options, and considering the fact that we are working on-site, not in a laboratory, we have found that powdery paint can be partially consolidated with several passes of B72 in either Xylenes or Acetone to improve handling and stability. In no case do we try to provide complete consolidation. Due to the proximity of kitchens or town offices or other public access, the toxicity of Xylenes often rules out its use. In either case, we have found that mends using BEVA 371 with muslin or polyester often need to be re-adhered after spraying. Protective masks, gloves, and fans are all required elements of the consolidation process. If possible, the curtain is temporarily hung outside while it is sprayed.
Stain reduction has been somewhat successful when using damp blotters placed on the recto of the stain, followed by a warm tacking iron to help wick discoloration upward. However, if the media becomes too damp, tide lines may form. In cases where stains are in need of solvent treatment, a suction table has sometimes been useful. Some stains also respond to mild enzymatic solution applied with cotton swabs and still others can be mitigated by careful use of a scalpel to break up a hard edge. Most stains can later be judiciously in-painted to improve the aesthetics of the curtain’s overall appearance.
After the initial cleaning and mending of rips and tears, the curtain is unrolled face up a couple of feet at a time so that surface soiling can be further reduced using dry, vulcanized sponges. Sooty residue can be dramatically reduced by this method, along with the general accumulation of 100 years of dirt.
Once a curtain is face up and fully unrolled, in-painting can be performed, although it is usually better to wait until the curtain is hung so the light can be better judged. On the other hand, if the curtain is larger than 10ft high, it is very difficult to in-paint from a ladder and still see what one is doing. The goal of in-painting is to disguise mends and improve the overall aesthetics at the distance it will be viewed – usually about 20 feet. Acrylic (vinyl) paints that are water-based and non-toxic during application render an appropriate matte appearance. When dry, these paints are soluble in Acetone and therefore more safely reversible on and around the original distemper paint. We have found that Flashe paints work well for this purpose.
If the support system is gone or broken or otherwise inadequate, a new bottom roller can be constructed from galvanized aluminum downspouts. Most Grange Hall rollers were originally made this way. The 10ft sections are whacked together, and then covered by 100% polyester batting and a layer of 100% cotton stockingette. The ends are tied off with cinch ties and finished with black duct tape to cover the sharp edges. Holes are drilled for nylon, multi-ply ropes. Whether a new or original roller is used, a 30” muslin apron is attached to the bottom of the curtain to provide a buffer that can be stitched or tacked to the roller and then wrapped around it at least two times to provide additional cushioning.
Director Chris Hadsel and assistant
Peter Isles making a new roller
Grange Master helping to make new
top support, St. Johnsbury, VT
A top support is usually a wooden sandwich created out of two layers of 1”x4” pine boards. A 6” muslin top extension is attached with BEVA 371 film to the curtain’s top margin and is then stapled or tacked to the inside of the rear sandwich boards. The front board is covered with an isolating layer of muslin and the two halves are then screwed together. Pulleys are attached to each end (a single pulley and a double pulley) and a screw eye is attached to the middle of the back board to help guide the ropes.
Installing each curtain is a challenge. With luck, there are original supports or guide lines to help with placement. If not, local carpenters are required to help secure the support system. A professional rigger is used if the curtain is especially large or if the stage has special needs.
Volunteers installing a curtain
at Sudbury Meeting House, VT
Robert Brier, “Show Works installing a grand drape at Alumni Hall, Haverhill, NH
Due to the sheer size and number of painted curtains, and the limits of budget and time, the project team depends on local volunteers to assist in almost every aspect of the work. Once trained, our “Curtain Caretakers” become critical to the future care and handling of the curtains after the project team has gone. Under the supervision of project staff, volunteers gain appreciation and understanding of the fragile nature of these 100-year old artifacts. Starting with surface cleaning, they learn proper vacuuming techniques, how to hold a brush, use a screen and use the vulcanized rubber sponges. Personal protection equipment (PPE) is provided for all volunteers and the reasons for its use is explained and demonstrated. The only things we do not allow them to do is in-painting or be present during the application of consolidants.
A final treatment report includes suggestions for care and handling and any special considerations for each curtain and site. If the extent of consolidation or repair is beyond the scope of the project, additional conservation recommendations are included. Each site is also informed about the need to comply with federal and state fire and safety regulations, and they are encouraged to provide for accessibility if necessary. Whenever possible, they are steered toward grants that can help them comply.
The project director also offers a free talk and slide show for each site. Sometimes that becomes part of the celebration of the newly conserved curtain and sometimes it is used to help a site with its fundraising.
For more technical information, contact the project director or one of the conservators.