Sheldon tackles a big clean-up project

MIDDLEBURY — The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History is cleaner than ever, despite a damaging shower of soot and ash earlier this fall. Sometime in the night of Sept. 29, a derelict parlor chimney dropped a load of soot into the building off Park Street in Middlebury. A cloud of dust damaged artifacts in three rooms of the museum.
“Soot is a corrosive substance consisting of oil, carbon and tar compounds,” said Sharon Morrison, an art conservator working to restore the museum’s collection. “The particles are so small that they easily infiltrate the surface of paintings and museum objects and damage them.”
The museum staff worked with five volunteers to catalog and wrap each individual object, preparing the rooms for cleaning by Servpro, a restoration cleaning specialist.
“We never could have done it without the volunteers,” said Sheldon Museum Associate Director Mary Manley.
The affected paintings include portraits by Sheldon Peck and Benjamin Franklin Mason, completed in the early 19th century. Ironically, several of the paintings depict the Wainwright family, who owned a successful cast metal business in Middlebury; the soot fell through a Wainwright cast iron stove.
After the preliminary cleaning, Morrison and another restoration expert, Suki Fredericks, went to work cleaning the 11 portraits and various historic objects. The list includes dishes and utensils made of pottery, porcelain, pewter, tin, iron, copper, and wood; crystal and brass candelabras; 57 lead soldiers; gilded mirrors; painted clocks; musical instruments; manuscripts and books; colored glass; tea caddies; jugs; and a child’s sled.
After nearly a month of work last week they finished cleaning the portraits and frames, though Morrison continues to work on the objects. The conservators used cotton swabs, vulcanized rubber “soot sponges” and low-pressure vacuums for the majority of the work. Most of the treatments were performed on-site with water-based solutions, though Fredericks took some paintings to her workshops for solvent cleaning and re-varnishing.
Although the amount of discharged soot was impressive — one chimney held 15 gallons of detritus — none of the four fireplaces in the Sheldon Museum had been used in living memory. Manley said that the last fire may have been lit in those fireplaces by Henry Sheldon himself, in the late 1800s. The chimneys had collected bat guano, hunks of slate from the roof, bricks, and two live birds, which were released without incident.
Fredericks speculated that the wet weather of the late summer and fall saturated the soot and left it more likely to fall “in one big swoosh.”
“The real message, whether you’re a new homeowner or not, and even if you don’t use your fireplace, is to check the chimneys and have them cleaned,” Manley said.
Manley said the museum plans to cap all four of the chimneys in the spring, after the institution’s annual winter recess. The museum will close this year between Jan. 14 and the end of February, though the research department will be open by appointment with the museum’s recently hired archivist.
This coming spring will be a busy time for the museum; it will begin a search for an executive director in 2012, looking to replace Jan Albers, who stepped down on Sept. 30.
By the time the museum opens in March, Manley expects the soot issues to be fully cleared up. Not only are the museum rooms and their chimneys cleaner than ever, but so are the paintings.
 “They hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. We’re seeing lace and details like that where we couldn’t before,” she said. “The silver lining to all this is that the paintings are just popping right now.”
The Sheldon Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and the research center is open Tuesday-Friday 1-5 p.m. through Jan. 14; the electric train display will run through Jan. 14.  The museum will close at 1 p.m. on Dec. 24. After Jan. 14, the museum and shop will be open on Saturdays only through February and the Research Center will be open by appointment only.
Reporter Christian Woodard is at [email protected].

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