PILGRIM HALL MUSEUM: Conservators offer behind-the-scene look at historic restoration project

WICKED LOCAL PLYMOUTH.com –  Art, history and art history buffs came together at Pilgrim Hall Museum this week to witness history come back to life on canvas.

With the initial cleaning of “Landing of the Pilgrims” complete, David Olin, chief conservator on the painting, and Bill Adair, lead conservator on the frame, offered a behind-the-scenes look at their restoration of the museum’s signature work.

Olin, of Olin Conservation, and Adair, of Gold Leaf Studios, have been working together on conservation projects since the early 1970s. Their current collaboration has become a very public spectacle, with online streaming capturing every facet of their work on Henry Sargent’s mammoth oil on canvas landscape and John Doggett’s gilded frame.

“I know some folks are getting addicted to the live video feed,” Pilgrim Hall Executive Director Patrick Browne said with a laugh while introducing the conservationists.

The painting, which helped frame the Pilgrim story in the national consciousness, has hung in the main gallery of Pilgrim Hall Museum since the museum opened in 1824.

Olin explained the painting conservation, noting the delicate cleaning process that washed away nearly two centuries of grime and varnish. Someone cleaned the painting at some point in the distant past and covered it in varnish that discolored as it aged.

The conservation crew uses solvents and solutions to slowly extract metals and dirt from the painting and bring the paint back to its original levels.

The painting will eventually be stabilized and strengthened, in-painted and then protected with a varnish that is age tested and will not discolor over the next century.

The work still to come includes that so-called in-painting, the process of matching spots that have been left bare by cracking. Sections of the sky have numerous cracks. Samoset’s thigh needs some in-painting as well.

Adair said his work includes repairing some of the ornamental carving and stripping the frame of bronze paint to reveal its original gilding. The process involves finding a balance. “We’re like detectives,” Adair said. “Each piece is different and requires experience to know what not to do.”

He originally hoped to work on the frame in his studio in Washington, but decided it was best to keep the frame in one piece and on site. “We have to come to Plymouth. Not a bad thing,” he said.

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By Rich Harbert, photo by Scott C. Smith