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Chicago Conservation Center Restores Iowa's Flood Damaged Artifacts

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CHICAGO When the floodwaters poured into downtown Cedar Rapids, many museums couldn't get all of their items out in time.

Within days, a team from the Chicago Conservation Center came to Iowa to rescue and recover everything from precious paintings to priceless artifacts.

You might call the Center a hospital or long-term recovery facility for Cedar Rapids' flood damaged items.

"Museums look to professionals like us to come and act as an expert in advising them as to what to do," owner and CEO Heather Becker said.

The Chicago Conservation Center is the largest facility of its kind in the nation. The center specializes in rescuing damaged items from disaster sites.

"You're never going to get them completely perfect again, but you will be able to save them and allow them to remain cultural, historical artifacts," Becker said.

Flood water warped a painting of May's Island from the Veteran's Memorial Museum. Soon, conservators will do their best to erase the damage.

"There's different types of solutions we can use. It can range from dry cleaning with a textile sponge to distilled water," Associate Paintings Conservator Rob Datum said.

Historic photographs from the Veteran's Memorial Museum also suffered the wrath of the water.

"The most important thing about these pieces being here is that they're now in a stable environment," Chief Conservator of Works of Art on Paper David Chandler said.

After a careful cleaning, another crew member will mount and frame the items.

"I don't want to put too much paste on here...just enough," Director of Custom Framing and Fabrication Ryan Butterfield said.

Special glass will safeguard the work for years to come.

"You can enjoy the piece, but it blocks out the harmful UV rays that you don't see that actually cause fading," Vice President of National Accounts and Client Services April Hann said.

Other items require a closer look before any treatment begins.

"Looking at it under a microscope helps you really look closely at the details and it allows you to decide how you're going to treat it," Becker said.

Center staff members also cleaned some clothing from the National Czech and Slovak Museum on site in Cedar Rapids before they transferred it to Chicago.

"When the staff first went into the building, it was almost as if (if you can imagine it) a wave had moved through the first floor of the Czech and Slovak Museum," Becker said.

Once they arrive at the Center, conservators use specially filtered water, a mild soap and a soft brush to wash away dirt and debris.

"When you take a soft bristled brush like that and brush it against the surface, you're able to get the dirt and grime to lift and separate from the fibers," Becker said.

But, the goal isn't to get the clothing to look brand new. Some of the dirt and stains are historic.

"You want to make sure you don't over-clean a piece and that you maintain the integrity of that soiling," Hann said.

A headdress from the African American Museum of Iowa is another item that required careful cleaning.

"This was a priority piece when it came in. We took care of it right away," Hann said.

Even though it still looks dirty, crews have already cleaned it to prevent mold from destroying the artifact.

"You do a lot of cleaning and try to remove as many spores as possible," Hann said.

Now, the goal is to detangle and reattach this portion of the headdress.

"It's all about patience and delicacy," Becker said.

Many of the items from Iowa have already survived for decades or even centuries. While it's always upsetting for anyone to see a piece of history in shambles, a place like this can turn troubled items back into treasures.

"It means a lot to me to help everyone through situations like this," Hann said.

There are literally thousands of items at the Center from Iowa. It could take years to clean and restore them all.

Click here to watch extended interviews, learn more about the conservation process and watch conservators restore additional artifacts.

Related Websites

Chicago Conservation Center
Veterans' Memorial Commission
African American Museum of Art
Natonal Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

E-mail Mark Geary at or follow him on Twitter.

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