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Southern University Works to Restore its Collection of African Art


Even after fetid floodwater receded from the Southern University at New Orleans campus, the soggy artifacts in its collection of African art marinated for months in dark, dank buildings.

Intricate patterns carved on a drum were barely visible beneath a film of mold. Mold had blackened raffia that sprouted like hair from tribal masks, and it had eaten away at shackles and chains in a plastic storage chest that was full to the brim with a thick, viscous, yellow-brown broth.

“I wasn’t putting my hand in there,” Linda Hill, the collection’s curator, said of that box. “I love what I do, but this was beyond me.”

On some pieces, mold colonies grew straight up, looking like wispy weeds.

“I never knew mold could grow like that,” Hill said. “This was science-fiction mold.”

Water from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which flooded the Pontchartrain Park campus to depths of 11 feet, knocked pottery and masks off their shelves and managed to invade Plexiglas display cases.

As a result, Hill said, about 28 percent of the 1,000-piece collection was deemed unsalvageable.

To save the rest, Hill has embarked on a process designed to stop the action of the compounds that had permeated the wood, pottery and textiles in the remaining artifacts. It may take as long as five years, and no one is sure how much it will cost.

So far, Hill said, she has received $1.7 million for the restoration initiative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We will be cleaning the pieces to remove the mold that’s on them and try to stabilize the objects to slow down deterioration that has been caused by the mold and becoming wet,” conservator Leslie Gat said. “Working with Linda, we will work to bring them back to the best condition that’s possible.”

That task is expected to start in July. Gat, who is based in New York City, and her fellow professionals will be assisted by volunteer members of a Harlem youth group.

“From a conservation point of view, it’s a very exciting project,” Gat said.

The high-schoolers will learn not only about the science involved in art restoration but also about the history of the art itself, said Anthony Means, the director of the Math & Science Upward Bound Program.

“They’ll know all of this stuff,” he said. “It’s great. … Some of the freshmen who are coming in will be able to work through this project and see it through from beginning to end.”

But before SUNO’s treasures could be bundled off to Manhattan, they had to be dried and disinfected in a process that blasts the collection with a nonstop barrage of argon to suffocate whatever contaminants and insects might linger in the masks, musical instruments and other pieces.

To be successful, this form of fumigation must be carried out in an environment from which all other air has been sucked out. For the SUNO collection, this environment is a giant, shiny, silver-colored polyurethane bag with a blue tube connected to a gleaming tank full of argon.

“We’re actually suffocating whatever’s living in there,” she said.

Argon, which the National Archives uses to protect the U.S. Constitution inside its case, has been pumped into the big bag since May 11, said Bill Louche, a wood restorer from Montgomery, N.Y., who set up and started the treatment.

Besides thwarting further mold growth, argon kills pests such as book lice, which can eat through objects to get to the mold they crave, he said.

When Louche inspected the objects this spring, he didn’t see any signs of insects, “but there’s always that possibility,” he said. “Insects can lie dormant until the right conditions come along, such as moisture.”

The argon treatment is being administered in a dark 2,400-square-foot space in a Mandeville strip mall that has been cut in half by a row of wall studs from which strips of plastic sheeting hang.

On one side is the artifact-filled polyurethane bag, which, Hill said, “looks like aluminum foil.”

No one has peeked inside the sealed bag since the gas infusion began, and, Louche said, removing the treasures for shipment will involve much more than simply ripping into the container without protective gear.

“If you put your head in there, you would go brain-dead in a short length of time,” he said. “The argon would push the oxygen right out of your brain.”

The Associated Press

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