Since our founding in 1907, the Varnum Continentals have collected artifacts representative of our national and local military history. For many years, numerous items were simply stored away. In recent years, the board of trustees has made a concerted effort to review the collection, identify items appropriate to our historic mission and present them to our visitors to reflect the chronology of military history from the pre-Revolutionary period to the more recent past.
A key aspect is the conservation of artifacts ensuring they are properly preserved. Our collection includes firearms, bladed weapons, and personal gear used by soldiers. Many soft goods, such as flags and uniforms, require a special type of conservation expertise.
And, it is here that the Varnum Continentals have gained the valued presence Maria Vazquez, a highly skilled textile conservator as a member of our volunteer family.
Serendipity played a role in Maria’s coming to the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, according to Vice President and Armory Curator Patrick Donovan. “Our good friends at Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum in Warwick, RI, introduced her to me about 2 years ago,” he explained. “The museum owner, Anne Holst, knew that we had many 19th and early 20th century military textiles in need of attention and felt Maria would be interested in helping us since she was looking for volunteer opportunities to build her textile conservation resume.”
Patrick promptly invited Maria to visit the Armory Museum. Their first meeting encompassed more than two hours, during which they reviewed some of the collection and what needed to be done to preserve and improve them. She soon began her conservation of on the Armory Museum’s most historically-important military uniforms and flags.
“Maria ensures all our textiles are being stored and displayed properly” said Patrick. “She not only cleans and performs conservation work on them. She also creates the proper display for each item to exhibit them for the long term without harming the object.” He added that Maria’s presence as a member of the Varnum team has opened a number of doors for the future in terms of cooperation and sharing with some of our State’s and nation’s best institutions including the Naval War College Museum, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pamplin Historical Park, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and others.
In addition to literally saving our museum’s American Civil War uniform collection from devastating moth damage, Maria has been instrumental in our effort to save a group of historic flags from the Town of Bristol including what we now believe to be the oldest Colonial American flag in existence, the silk “Nathaniel Byfield” flag. Dating to circa 1690, this flag was the Colonel’s flag of Company A of the Bristol County Militia when Byfield was its commanding officer. He was an influential and wealthy judge at the time. He was also one of the original founders of the Town of Bristol. Patrick Donovan explained the significance of this acquisition, noting “this flag has been deemed a ‘national treasure’ as so few objects from this early period of our country’s history exist today.” The discovery and Maria’s conservation of this flag is the subject of a Rhode Island PBS documentary that is currently in production. It is expected to be broadcast in May of 2021.
The flag’s fragile condition and its historical importance has made this an extremely challenging project for Maria. But she is doing an amazing job. To help ensure success, the museum has consulted with several world-renowned conservators including the woman who conserved THE Star Spangled Banner itself (now on display at the Smithsonian). Completion of this project will be a tremendous accomplishment for both Maria bringing national attention to the Varnum organization.
Varnum News recently spoke with Maria about her passion for her profession and her contributions to the Armory Museum mission.
VARNUM NEWS: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you study?
MARIA VAZQUEZ: “I’m originally from Connecticut, but I live in Rhode Island now. I earned my Master of Science in Textile Conservation from the University of Rhode Island. I had applied to the University of Rhode Island to get my Masters in Historic Textiles and a textile conservation class was part of the curriculum. It was love at first sight. I didn’t realize that there were people that took care of these objects after they went into museums, or people that dressed mannequins for display. Organizing exhibitions to bring the stories of these objects to the public makes me really happy. Conservators are the caretakers for objects, but it also feels like we are the last voices these objects have.”
VN: What exactly is the role of a conservator? Are there specialty areas in the field?
MV: “A textile conservator’s role is as a custodian for textile objects. We analyze the objects to see if they need conservation, cleaning, or reversal of previous conservation in order to prevent deterioration and elongate the life of the objects we care for. We are trained to know what is best for these objects as far as their environment and hazards that might destroy them. Within textile conservation, you can specialize in various centuries of textiles. For instance, my area of expertise is textiles from 1780-1940. My concentration is in women’s clothing during that time period, but I’m learning a lot about men’s military uniforms and flags now as well.”
VN: What attracted you to working with the Armory collection?
MV: “Although my specialty has been with women’s clothing, military uniforms have always fascinated me because of the designs of the objects and what they have been through. I was eager to expand my expertise and try out a new area of my field.”
VN: How do you collaborate with the curator and other volunteers at the Armory?
MV: “Patrick, Tim Jackson, and I bounce ideas off of each other for fantastic things that we could do for exhibits as new objects come in and how we can help the public understand what people actually looked like from the various wars and time periods. We want to make their experience at the armory as immersive as possible, which tends to push us to make bigger and better displays: for instance, with the Lyman Aylesworth exhibit.”
“Patrick said that they had other pieces that belonged to him besides his coat, and I pointed out that we could mount them with the coat. When we needed a mount or stand made to help support the objects, we turned to Andy Santilli for his building skills and ingenious ideas. Patrick, Tim, Andy, and I come together to confer about ideas that we have for advanced displays, and there’s always someone with the expertise or an idea to solve any problem we’ve come up against. It’s a wonderful working environment of very supportive and caring individuals who are very passionate about this field. Another interesting item to restore was the saddle blanket used by (General Thomas) Chace.” (an East Greenwich resident, who commanded the 4th Brigade of the Rhode Island Militia in the 1870’s).
VN: In acquisition of a potential artifact, is there a role for the conservator before the item is actually acquired?
MV: “Patrick will usually tell me about an object and any concerns he has for it before he acquires it. Sometimes, I can give him verification on an item’s authenticity or explain things that might make him hesitant. Most of the time, I need the object in front of me to confirm details about it because pictures can hide a lot.”
VN: The Armory has a number of uniforms, flags, etc., in storage at present. How do you go about choosing what item or artifact you want to work with?
MV: “Patrick has a spreadsheet of objects that are waiting for conservation in order of importance. When I first arrived, he wanted me to work on several Civil War uniforms and since then I’ve mostly had smaller projects to work on that can be completed within ten hours of work or so. That means that as new exciting objects come in to the museum, I can get them vacuumed, conserved, and mounted relatively quickly so they can go out on display.”
“After I finish the major flag project, I will have an opportunity to pick the new direction for my conservation at the museum. I’ll talk it over with Patrick and see what is in most dire need of re-mounting, but I’ll probably move on to working on all the dress forms in the World Wars Room. The Civil War Room required the most conservation time, so everything else will be less time consuming and go by more quickly. We have big plans for a LOT of uniforms being on display in the armory in the near future, so stay tuned.”
VN: Can you expand on a conservator’s role is determining what items can be conserved and to what degree? For example, to what degree is conservation appropriate and how do you decide?
MV: “Conservators consult with curators when conserving objects in order to understand the object’s history and how they want the object displayed, and whether it is possible or depending on the fragility of the object and how long it will be on display. For instance, a two-hundred-year-old uniform that has seen a lot of damage shouldn’t be mounted in a position where any of the seams are strained and might give out while on display. If a uniform has a bullet wound, it needs to be stabilized to prevent gravity from making the hole bigger or misshaping it, but the stabilization could be done in a contrasting color to highlight the hole, which allows it to be more obvious to the public, but also for the object to be safe for long-term display.”
VN: What is the most interesting, or perhaps unusual, project you have been involved in at the Armory?
MV: “We have a lot of objects with amazing stories that made them a pleasure to work with and bring to life. My favorite object is probably the wedding dress of Jesse Whalley’s wife. A local man who served in the Army in World War One, he was blinded in combat. His story is so moving that when his descendant mentioned some conservation necessary on the wedding dress, it was a pleasure to repair the modern damage done so that the dress can continue to be loved and passed down through their family. A kitten had gotten at the silk wedding dress, pulling at the belt, buttons, and pulling holes into the seams and skirt. I stitched a sheer silk organza behind the damaged areas to prevent them from getting worse and make it look like the damage never happened.”
VN: As noted earlier, the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum has entered into an agreement with the Town of Bristol to take custody of a number historic flags for restoration and then permanent loan to the museum. What is your role in this project?
MV: “The most impressive object that I’ve worked on is what we’re calling the Byfield Flag, which is purportedly the oldest Colonial American flag known to exist. The silk was shattering and badly wrinkled from being wrapped around its flag pole for forty years. The flag needed to be humidified before it could even be unrolled to allow the fibers to unroll flat without damaging the material. It then needed to be vacuumed delicately to prevent the loose pieces from moving away from their positions. The flag then needed to be pressed flat to move the weave back to where it wanted to lay without straining the seams and fringe. The flag was then sandwiched between two layers of silk crepe line so the damaged areas could be stabilized, the fringe could be straightened and the flag could be displayed flat.”
(Ed. Note: this project will be covered in the RIPBS documentary mentioned earlier).
VN: What tools and equipment are required for your work? What kind of environment is needed to conserve an item and how do you prepare an artifact to work on?
MV: “There are some unique tools, threads, and fabrics used specifically for conservation. All of the materials used for conservation have been tested by the AATCC (a national organization) to prove they won’t off-gas or deteriorate and cause damage to the textiles they are used with. Textiles need to be kept in a low relative humidity environment, ideally between 40 and 45%. Too low a humidity can caused textiles to break apart and too high can cause mold. Temperature is less important than humidity, but needs to be kept constant so the fibers aren’t expanding and contracting, which causes mechanical deterioration. I look over all the objects I work on to see if there’s any conservation necessary or new details about the object that I might notice and someone else hasn’t. I then clean off anything that won’t be picked up by a vacuum and vacuum it before conservation takes place and the object is mounted for display.”
VN: Are you also working with other organizations?
MV: “I am contacted by a variety of organizations such as museums, libraries, preservation societies, universities, colleagues, and auction houses for assistance with objects found or exhibits they want to put on display. For instance, the Bristol Historical Preservation Society asked me to organize, document, mount, and properly box their textile collection so that it could be displayed for exhibits, stored, and put into their database for easy searching. This led to the discovery of very special objects that they didn’t even know they had because they didn’t have a complete inventory.”
“The biggest museum I’ve ever done work for was the New York Historical Society that had me install a dress, wig, and turban for the Dolley Madison exhibit (2016). I custom made the wig to match one of Dolley Madison’s portraits and the experience was pretty epic.”
VN: What has working here at the Armory Museum meant to you?
MV: “Working at the Varnum Armory has given me a chance to network with a wide range of individuals and organizations, which has also helped museums across Rhode Island. Small organizations don’t have access to their own textile conservators; helping the history of the entire state of Rhode Island, instead of just one small part of it, is extremely rewarding. All of these interactions have benefitted me professionally because they have gotten my name out there for work and got me jobs to work on which are historically, extremely significant, and that has led to being a part of several PBS television shows catapulting my career further. I appreciate the Varnum Armory, and all its volunteers, for everything they do for me and I hope to continue to give back to the museum for many years to come.”
Patrick Donovan emphasized the importance of Maria’s presence on the Varnum team. “A key function is to ensure all the museum’s textiles and are being restored, and either stored or safely and properly displayed,” he said. “Her great experience gives our organization a lot of credibility in the museum and conservation world. This is opening a lot of doors for us,” added Patrick. “Maria’s contribution as a conservator, caring for the Varnum collection, is not only an important aspect to the Continental’s mission to preserve and share RI military history. It also allows us to serve as a preservation resource for other local organizations.”
Patrick emphasized the significance of having a conservator explaining that it is part of his effort as Curator to further professionalize the museum. It has drawn the attention of libraries, historical societies, and other museums in the area. “By amplifying these capabilities through our social media channels with the important help of Varnum Trustee and Webmaster, John D. Harvey, our reputation as a serious and capable institution has really blossomed,” he said. “By showing how truly important we are to the education and preservation of an important and interesting segment of Rhode Island’s history, we increase the public value of our organization. And this will only help us when it comes to funding and applying for grants in the future.”
The Armory Vice President expanded on the value of an in-house conservator. “We are now frequently involved with consulting and conservation services for other organizations since the word has gotten out that we have this in house expertise. It also gives donors and lending institutions confidence in our ability to properly care for our museum collection,” he said. “It is a sign of maturity. Having a textile conservator as part of our team has directly led to the acquisition of some major new Rhode Island military history artifacts. In fact, we just closed a long term loan with a family in Tennessee for an epic collection of Rhode Island artifacts from the Civil War.” He added that it was the ability to do conservation on uniforms that really helped convince the family to make the loan to the Varnum Armory Museum.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in a recent commentary on the role of conservators said that the preservation of vital artifacts is “a complex process involving intensive cleaning, painstaking repair, (and) storage in a controlled and safe environment.” This is now possible right within the Varnum Armory Museum (and the Varnum House Museum) thanks to our dedicated volunteer team. The importance of Maria Vazquez in this process is reflected in Secretary Bunch’s remarks speaking to the much larger conservation commitment of the Smithsonian. “Conservation ensures that our cultural and natural heritage will come alive for future scholars, students and citizens.” And that, thanks to Maria Vazquez, is now reflected right here within the Varnum organization. The Varnum Conservation Lab is, in effect, a new branch of the Varnum Continentals that we can all be very proud of.