Note: This guest post is by Giles Parker, Museum Curator for the Northeast Museum Services Center, National Park Service

Have you ever been to Gettysburg or other battlefield sites and noticed the condition of the outdoor sculptures? Or, closer to home, are there any commemorative markers or metal plaques on your way to work today that are in poor condition?  Most National Parks and almost every town square have at least one outdoor sculpture that they preserve and protect, but what does it take to maintain and conserve these valuable resources on a recurring basis?

The Collections Conservation Branch of the Northeast Museum Services Center (NMSC) is one resource available to National Park Service sites in this conservation and maintenance process.  In late May 2011, two of our conservators – Margaret Breuker (Object Conservator) and Carol Warner (Senior Conservator) – were in the final stages of planning for the conservation of the over-life-sized bronze sculpture of Colonel William Prescott on Bunker Hill Monument within Boston National Historical Park (BOST).  Dates were set; arrangements were made with park staff for scaffolding and other supplies; and project agreements were signed and in place to complete the work in much the same way as we always do.

Since we are still in the infancy of connecting the world to our work, our mindset in many ways is still focused just on the hands-on work.  We had not stopped to really think how or even if this project might be a way to tell the public or our other parks how we complete this aspect of the NPS preservation mission. Our three newest social media rules helped to change our mindset and resulted in the short video produced by Saving Daylight Productions.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

In the weeks leading up to the start of the conservation project on Bunker Hill, we received the link to a video produced for Frederick Law Olmsted NHS.  In early April 2011, a signature tree beside the historic Brookline home of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was cut down after years of disease and decline turned it into a potential hazard.  Park staff had distributed press releases and provided information to traditional media outlets (read more…).  Thinking outside of the box, park staff created a Facebook Page for “The Olmsted Elm” and contracted to film the entire process in time lapse photography.

We had provided information about our project to Boston NHP for press releases, but why not a similar social media marketing for the conservation of the Prescott statue? Call us unoriginal. Call it derivative or plagiaristic. But, we like to think of this as serendipity.  We immediately saw how this format of video would work well with the work planned on Bunker Hill and contacted staff at Olmsted to find out more.

The web is full of good ideas that might help publicize your work. Connect with other cultural institutions through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Look for good ideas that you can “model” and make your own.  In the case of social media, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery.

The Power of Engaging Content

It is one thing to have a good idea or concept, it is yet another to have a compelling story to tell your audience.  For us, much of our work may not easily translate on video as an engaging story to a wide audience – particularly if trying to connect with the general public. However, this project and the work of our Collections Conservation Branch lend themselves well to a mass audience because…

…they work with the “best of the best” objects.  Per NPS policy, conservation treatment is focused primarily on objects in poor condition that will be used for exhibit, research, or publications.  In this case, the statue is part of the cultural landscape around the Bunker Hill Monument. Visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, you probably haven’t been to Bunker Hill without seeing the Colonel William Prescott statue; hearing his name or possibly taken a picture like many others found on the web.

… the end result can be fairly obvious even to the untrained eye.  While the focus of conservation is on reversibility and minimal intervention, conservation treatment is active (“hands-on”) work to preserve objects.   In this case, the Prescott statue has received professional conservation treatment eight times since 1981.  In years past, the statue had an uneven weathered patina, resulting in conservation treatments involving toned lacquer coatings.  The result at a minimum can be a cleaner, more polished and typically darker appearance.

While working out the logistics of the filming, our conservators cautioned that the end result may not be as dramatic as one might expect though.  Since the last conservation treatment in 1997, the bronze had weathered to a more even appearance than it had in previous years.  Conservation strategies have also changed and thus the entire statue would not go from green to black as it had in previous treatments.

However, the process involved – scaffolding around a major cultural resource; propane torches to sufficiently warm the bronze; and slightly darkening the appearance of the bronze in selective areas.  With the use of time-lapse photography similar to the Olmsted video, we felt that this was still a compelling way to tell the story of a process most visitors do not know about or may find hard to understand.

As your mindset continues to shift, continue to focus on the “day-to-day” and the “hands-on” work. But, look for those projects that can engage the public about our work and about nationally-significant resources.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

We had a concept and we also had content that we thought would translate well.  We even had approval from management to try something outside of our usual services.  But, what could we pull off on a limited amount of time and a limited budget? Sound familiar?

First, we continued to take a page from Olmsted and kept the end result focused on a video appropriate for YouTube or other video sharing sites.  While both parks would get all source images and the final HD video for use in other ways, we were interested in a video less than 3-minutes long that would capture the entire process.

Second, while some text might be necessary, I did not want this to be an instructional video.  We’ve done that before and that is a much more involved process to produce and write the script for (watch more…).  In addition, technical resources are already out there from sources such as Heritage Preservation, NPS Monument Research and Preservation Program; and from NCPTT. We did not need to reinvent the wheel.

Finally, a little bit of luck was still on our side. Time lapse photography is relatively inexpensive because it is not labor-intensive. The film producer would need to meet with us on the first day and set up the cameras. But, our staff was able to set them up each day from that point on for filming with images taken every five minutes from five locations.  The end result was 25 GB of images and video, but we were not paying for labor and travel costs for the duration of the project.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a time-lapse video or a video at all, but look at your upcoming projects and consider low-cost ways to create some buzz.

Conclusion

In early June 2011, our staff completed the conservation of the Colonel William Prescott statue and we captured the four day process on film.  The “simple” process as described in the video was difficult work for all involved.  The process also involved constructing/disassembling the scaffolding each day by park maintenance to prevent vandalism; weathering the thunderstorms associated with the early June tornadoes in Western Massachusetts and the media onslaught associated with the Sarah Palin bus tour stop at Bunker Hill.

In the end, the statue has a coating of hot wax that will provide protection for 5-10 years depending on the environment. Boston NHP has a video that visitors and park staff can access on the web or from their mobile device.  For our parks, we let them know about a cyclical maintenance need that most parks have and yet may not realize that funding exists to address. For us, we hopefully connected the public and our parks to one service that we provide and the cultural resources in the Northeast Region of the National Park Service.

As you work on your social media strategy, consider our three new rules.  And, as you pass through your park or your town today, consider the condition of the outdoor sculpture, monuments and markers that may need three “simple” steps of conservation treatment.

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