Conserving History at the Harpers Ferry Center Conserving History at the Harpers Ferry Center
17 August 2022

Conserving History at the Harpers Ferry Center

Written by: Leah Palmer

This summer, I have the privilege to work for the National Park Service as a Textile Conservation intern.

Conservation is both a science and an art dedicated to making sure that cultural objects (artworks, artifacts, mementos of history) remain stable for the education and enjoyment of future generations; while it may not be a very well-known field, conservation is something I’m very passionate about. I am enraptured by the idea that humans are humans, across time and space. We all have desires, needs, foibles, annoyances, skills. For me, this concept is most poignantly communicated through the passing down of objects from generation to generation. For years, I have been fascinated by antique stores, feeling that I’m entering a space full of others’ memories, hopes, histories. When I purchase a tarnished silver mirror, I see in its glimmer not only my own face, but perhaps also the faces of those who’ve looked into it before me, shaving or putting on makeup or donning a hat. I distinctly recall in elementary school walking, in the drizzling grey of an oncoming rainstorm, through an old graveyard. As I looked at each name, and  as I touched each headstone, I was implacably moved, deeply struck by the knowledge that these people, with names, had lives before mine. They conducted ninety years of life on this earth, with all of the vibrance that entails, and now they were gone, with pieces of their memory scattered throughout the world. That feeling remains with me to this day as I stumble through crowded antique stores, and old homes, and abandoned gas stations. For me, conserving objects is not a sterile, scientific process. It resonates with something deep inside me, this desire to acknowledge the humanity of people who came before me, and attempt to show others an echo of their memory, however small.

While at the Harpers Ferry Center, I’ve been able to take care of a few different objects under the National Parks’ purview, all of which are relics of a very specific time in history. One of my current projects is Vietnam War Memorial banner in need of paint consolidation. This fabric banner was made by a Vietnam War Platoon and depicts a set of soldier’s gear, along with the platoon name and number. The image was painted onto a bedsheet in 1967, and was recently left at the Vietnam War Memorial, along with many other objects from the era. The paints have started to flake off of the bedsheet, leaving it fragile and ragged. In treating this object, I concocted an ethulose consolidant solution made with ethulose, acetone, and water; I have been gently re-adhering the paint flakes back onto the banner, while simultaneously removing stains using a suction device. It’s been satisfying to be able to take practical steps to preserve the memory of this platoon.

In these first three weeks, I’ve learned first-hand that conservation is an extremely detail-oriented field; there is a constant need for careful attention and desire for perfection. As someone who comes from a more creative background, I’ve been learning how to double-check the effects of my treatment on a textile, making the object’s safety my primary concern. As I continue this internship, I am excited to grow my skills in this area, while also continuing to exercise my creativity in the realm of problem-solving. Conservation is such a valuable (and unseen) part of the museum world, and I’m thankful to get to be a small part of it! 

Agency: National Park Service


Location: Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services

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