Mesoamerican Plaster Casts

Annex wall temporary storage conditions
Old storage conditions at the Peabody Museum. Rehoused casts in temporary storage.

Preservation & Rehousing Project  

The Peabody Museum is steward to a rare and important collection of Mesoamerican plaster casts that were created in the late nineteenth century. The casts are very important because they preserve information from original stone carvings that has now become increasingly lost to erosion, destruction, or looters (Fash 2004a, 2004b; Jackson 2004). 

In July 2007, the Museum initiated a major preservation project to document, condition-assess, clean, and stabilize more than seven hundred and fifty of the plaster casts that comprise sculptural art and hieroglyphic writing facsimiles from monuments and buildings at more than twenty-five archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. 

overview of casts temporary work area
Overview of casts removed from storage and ready for processing. Temporary conservation work area.

Many of the casts were de-installed from an exhibition at the Peabody Museum in the 1980s and then moved to a storage facility located in a large industrial building. Unfortunately, the casts were cut into sections, stacked, and stored in very poor environmental conditions, and then left for many years. 


Phase One: Stabilization & Rehousing

The cast preservation/rehousing project is a Museum- and University-wide collaboration, involving curators, collection managers and assistants, conservators, and art handlers, with support from financial, database, and information technology. The following describes conservation’s role in this project. 

During the first phase of the project, the Conservation team worked collaboratively with other teams and was responsible for advising on handling/moving, documenting, condition-assessing, cleaning and stabilizing, and then rehousing plaster casts. 

Left in long-term storage in a very dusty, uncontrolled environment, many of the casts were extremely dirty, soiled, and damaged. From July 2007 to May 2008,  the Conservation team cleaned, stabilized, documented, and rehoused more than seven hundred and fifty casts.

Half-cleaned cast Conservator filing losses and cracks Consolidating paint on a  plaster cast

A partially cleaned plaster cast.

Judy Jungels filling losses and cracks.

Christie Pohl consolidating paint on a plaster cast.

Phase Two: Treatment for Exhibition  

Currently, Conservation department staff is conducting extensive treatment on several casts selected by the curator for future exhibition. These casts were first identified during the initial phase by curatorial review, along with Conservation input.

At a later date, the curator narrowed down the selection to 167 casts that required further treatment for exhibition. This final treatment phase includes structural stabilization backing, filling, and inpainting, as well as future collaboration with the Exhibit department to design appropriate display supports.

Conservator inpainting fills staff with finished cast

Diana Medellin inpainting fills.

Lynne Ambrose, Diana Medellin, and Don Bissex place a finished cast on exhibit stands for use in Harvard classes.