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: Salvaging collections is 'like a hidden treasure hunt' GazetteOnline.com - Cedar Rapids, Iowa City

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    Salvaging collections is like a hidden treasure hunt | GazetteOnline.com - Cedar Rapids, Iowa City Even Texas is involved in the restoration of the Czech
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      Salvaging collections is 'like a hidden treasure hunt' | GazetteOnline.com - Cedar Rapids, Iowa City
      Cedar Rapids - Iowa City - Eastern Iowa
      89°  SUNNY         

      Updated August 04. 2008 12:09AM

      Salvaging collections is 'like a hidden treasure hunt'

      By Alicia Ebaugh

      (Courtney Sargent/The Gazette)
      Assistant conservator Kristin Baum (left) and student volunteer Bryan Stusse unwrap pieces salvaged from the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa. They were preparing the pieces for cleaning and restoration in a workroom at the University of Iowa Oakdale Campus in Coralville.

      IOWA CITY - Even after two cleanings, Nancy Kraft still caught a whiff of that distinctive floodwater smell from the "Popular Czech Polkas" record as she loaded it onto the turntable.

      "You can get a headache," Kraft, the head of the University of Iowa Libraries preservation department, said of the smell. "Our workers wear masks with charcoal filters when they handle them for cleaning."

      But it was all worth it when the record crackled to life.

      "This is great!" Kraft exclaimed. "This job is kind of like a hidden treasure hunt — you don't know if you're going to uncover it or not."

      The preservation department at the UI is handling restoration efforts on thousands of items from the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa and the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, both of which suffered extensive damage in June flooding in Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art's collection also was affected.

      At the UI's Oakdale Campus, items including vinyl records and wooden sculptures were carefully rinsed and stacked in a makeshift "dirty room" in hopes of controlling the environment to prevent further mold or other damage. There, they wait to be worked on.

      It will take months to get through all of the items, Kraft said — 7,000 books, 3,000 records, hundreds of manuscripts, dozens of statues and even a few outfits of clothing.

      It's easier to face if it's dealt with a day at a time.

      "You can't hurry this," Kraft said. "Some of these items are irreplaceable. You try one thing on something that's a duplicate. If that doesn't work, you try something else."

      When the items were first brought to her a month ago, Kraft and her small team of staffers and volunteers prioritized the work to get to the things that would suffer most from prolonged contamination. If the paper sleeves over the records got stuck to them, for example, they would be lost, she reasoned.

      The African-American museum's manuscripts were frozen and sent to the Chicago Conservation Center to be freeze-dried, which sucks the moisture out of them so they are ready any time for restoration, Kraft said.

      The Czech and Slovak museum sent all the books it could save to a company in Fort Worth, Texas, for a similar process.

      The African-American museum's staff tossed all the books in its collection, Kraft said, after the museum curator determined it would be cheaper to replace them.

      But there may be no way to tell for almost a year whether wooden items will survive the flood, Kraft said.

      Wood, she said, "expands and contracts with the seasons. What might not crack now could crack later."

      Working with the contaminated items in the dirty room requires extreme caution. Workers must wear Tyvek suits, masks and gloves, Kraft said. They are required to shower after they're done.

      "If they come in contact with some of the things that were in that water, it could be very serious," she said, rattling off the possible consequences. Dysentery. Salmonella.

      "As soon as you open up that box, you're right there, up close and personal," she said. "It's smelly, dirty work."

      The cost of restoration is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but no one — not even Kraft — can give an estimate because she and the museums are still deciding what to have done.

      "We figured it cost $4 per LP just to stabilize them," Kraft said. "That doesn't include the final cleaning, the covers."

      Similar issues are in play at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in its treatment of 230 pieces of art damaged by sewer backup in the museum, which was at the edge of the flooded area in Cedar Rapids.

      After deciding to send some of the pieces away for conservation, registrar Teri Van Dorston said the remaining items were consolidated into a corner room, a controlled climate sealed with plastic. The single entry point is zippered.

      "It is a little like the movie 'E.T.,'" she joked.

      The art museum was more fortunate than the other two museums, Van Dorston said, because only 4 percent of its collection was affected. The African-American and the Czech and Slovak museums experienced up to 80 percent damage.

      Most of the restoration at the art museum is being done on-site by volunteers trained by Griswold Conservation Associates of Culver City, Calif.

      The work is tedious. Workers use small brushes to carefully treat the water damage with cleaner. If that doesn't work, another type of cleaner is tried.

      Some 57 sculptures and paintings in the art museum's basement storage area were sent to California in hopes experts there could restore them.

      "Whatever it was in the water down there was black and stanky," Van Dorston said. "Sometimes they can work miracles. Sometimes things just can't be brought back."

      The art museum is scheduled to reopen Aug. 30 with a display of photographs taken during the flood by Gazette photographers.

      The other museums, though, aren't as lucky.

      Dave Mulehna, director of the Czech and Slovak museum's library, said he hopes to simply start moving staffers back to work in the building at 30 16th Ave. SW by the end of the year.

      "It's going to be a couple years before we get a handle on where we are as a museum," he said.

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