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SUNO Works to Restore its Collection of African Art

SUNO 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, says 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 says. “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 says, 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 says, 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 says. “Working with Linda, we will work to bring them back to the best condition that’s possible.”

That task is expected to start this month. 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 says.

— Associated Press

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