Brought back to life

By Rhonda Zatezalo

Above: Welding the broken top of Ainu Man’s walking staff back in place. Photo: R. Zatezalo

The right tools retain the authenticity of treasured works

October 2015 - How often is the best weld of the day one that will never be seen? In the world of museum restorations, that’s entirely the point. Recently, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History began a project to restore a series of bronze sculptures that depict the large variety of differences among humankind. Cast in the 1930s, several of the sculptures—designated for a new exhibit—were damaged decades ago and have been in storage ever since. The restoration would require a master metalsmith, detailed welding and a team of conservators to ensure the restoration kept the sculptures as close to original as possible.The original commission began in 1929 when Stanley Field, then president of the Field Museum, sent a telegram to Malvina Hoffman, a sculptor in New York, proposing a project requiring world travel. A gifted artist, Hoffman had persistently knocked on the door of renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin in France until he agreed to view her work. Her talent was clearly evident and Rodin agreed to take her on as a student. This same tenacity showed itself upon hearing Field’s proposal. 

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After much deliberation, Hoffman persuaded the museum board to cast likenesses in bronze instead of plaster by casting the first two statues in her New York studio. More than five years and 104 sculptures later, the Hall of Man exhibit opened to the public. 

The Hall of Man included some plaster castings, sketches, photographs and videos of the project. These additional pieces allowed visitors to immerse themselves in the different culture groups as well as the process behind the creation of the sculptures, much like a modern-day multimedia exhibit. The Hall of Man remained open for more than 30 years before it was dismantled. Some statues were moved to other locations within the museum and the rest were put into storage.

Despite efforts to keep visitor hands off the statues, the pieces were manhandled and broken over the years. Staff attempted repairs, but inevitably, the broken pieces were stowed out of sight. When the museum decided to create a new exhibit using Hoffman’s work, a full restoration project was deemed best. 

Headed by Shelley Smith, associate conservator at the Field Museum, the process had to be quick, detailed, and require as little rework as possible to meet deadlines. The exact alloy of the sculptures is unknown and the pigmentation of the original bronze patina was created at the dawn of modern chemistry and was a closely guarded secret. No notes remain of how to reproduce it. Smith, knowing the repairs would also require an experienced metalsmith, contacted Guido Schindler of Schindler Studios in Houston. FFJ 1015 welding image2Schindler joined a team that included several conservators who would clean, tone or recolor worn areas, and prepare the sculptures for public viewing.

Authentic approach

Among the pieces chosen for restoration is the life-sized Andaman Islander, an archer crouched on a rock, poised to shoot a barbed and bladed arrow from his bow. In order to capture the long, distinct bow, the bronze version was cast in two pieces, connected at the hand, but this had loosened over time. Schindler used filler rod to rebuild the connection, which was shaped to create a tight fit. Old screw holes were filled with bronze and new holes were tapped to reconnect the two pieces with set screws. 

Schindler forged a replacement barb on the archer’s bow. The newly forged barb was TIG welded into place using silicon bronze filler. Fronius USA, Portage, Indiana, donated a portable AccuPocket TIG welding unit for the duration of the project.

Another bow-wielding cast figure stood at 5 ft. 6 in. tall—too tall to fit through the doors to the welding area. Earlier repairs on the bronze bowstring haphazardly bound the broken ends together with wire. In order to restore the bowstring correctly, Schindler needed to carefully cut back, reshape and weld it together. Schindler and Smith created a temporary welding area with a portable fume extractor in the room where the sculpture stood. Looking back on the project, Smith says, “This repair would not have been possible without the Fronius battery-powered TIG welding unit because there are no outlets for welding units in the storage area in which we
repaired the sculpture.”

Once the bowstring was cut back and hand straightened, Smith held it in position while Schindler welded it in place. She then ground the weld with a small Dremel tool and retouched the repairs with Gamblin Conservation Colors to match the original bronze pigmentation. With the repairs to the bow finished, the team could restore the arrow. Over time the long, blade-shaped arrowhead had been twisted and bent out of plane and three of the four fletchings had been broken off and lost. Fortunately, an additional set of fletchings cast by Hoffman had been stored with the exhibit. After straightening the blade, Schindler carefully spot-welded each of these original parts into place with silicon bronze. The arrow was originally attached to the sculpture by threaded holes and screws. In the restoration, the holes were retapped and the arrow was reattached with stainless steel set screws. All repairs required the attention of Smith and other conservators to file, recolor and re-wax to make the repaired sections look as close to the original patina as possible.

Collective effort

Smith and Schindler worked together throughout the restoration process. Smith dialed in the weld parameters per Schindler’s direction as each piece was welded into place. Smith also held the broken pieces in position as Schindler welded. 

One of the more daunting repairs was the replacement of the top portion of a prominent walking staff on the piece Ainu Man, representing people from the region of Hokkaido, Japan. The walking stick the 5 ft. 1 in. Ainu Man held originally towered over him before the top of the staff was broken off in 1987. Such a detailed job required a sure hand. Despite only having brief experience with the new welding unit, Schindler confidently made the sculpture whole once again. This successful repair set the tone for the remaining restorations. 

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Schindler TIG welded using silicon bronze filler. He chose Fronius tools for this job, because “the equipment is user friendly and it makes sense.” The number of desired controls that are built right into the torch and is more of an “all in one” unit that’s ready to go at the setting he could dial in, with no need for a foot pedal.

The new exhibit doesn’t yet have an opening date. According to Smith, the plan is to reinstall 10 to 20 of the restored Hoffman sculptures. Of the pieces restored, Schindler’s favorite is Unity of Man, a piece he was unsure he could repair. 

During the last day of the project, Smith showed him Unity of Man, a large sculpture that portrayed a different ethnicity on each of its three sides. The spear held by a man from Africa was badly distorted, both bent and broken. It required a delicate touch to restore properly while keeping the weld hidden. Schindler forged the ends and welded the break together. A mere inch of material was lost in the process. Reflecting on this specific part of the larger project, he says, “I didn’t think I could fix it but now you can’t even tell it was fixed. It turned out cool.” FFJ

Rhonda Zatezalo is the owner of Crearies Marketing Design.




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