In her professional career, art conservator Linda Merk-Gould has often accepted the term “art restoration” to describe what she does, “because that’s what people understand,” she says.
“There is a real big philosophical definer of what a conservator is, versus a restorer,” she adds.
“I am definitely a conservator.”
Merk-Gould explains that the tenet of her profession is that a conservator’s work – from piecing together the fragments of an Attic vase to placing a protective coating on a Rodin – should be 100 percent reversible. When a newer, better way to protect, preserve and present the art object comes along – or if additional scholarship or a missing component turns up that changes the way the object should look – previous treatments can be removed or reversed without harming the original parts of the object.
Merk-Gould’s specialty is conserving outdoor sculpture. The business she founded in 1982, Fine Objects Conservation Inc., received contracts to work on everything from a privately-owned collection of monumental Henry Moore sculptures to the Statue of Liberty. On Lady Liberty, she minimized the appearance of distracting tars drips on the statue. In 1911 coal tar was painted on the interior of the copper statue to seal it and had since oozed out between the seams.
Merk-Gould, who relocated to Vero Beach roughly one year ago, closed her business in 2012, but continues to selectively practice her craft. She has clients in Florida with whom she had worked since the 1980s, and sometimes acts as a consultant to curators with whom she has worked in the past. She is not accepting new clients.
“At this point, I keep it small and manageable – and enjoyable,” she says.
You might ask how someone gets to be an object conservator. After all, it’s not exactly the job little boys and girls dream of. It wasn’t for Merk-Gould, either.
“I wanted to be in nuclear physics,” she says. Growing up during the 1960s, she was captivated by the nation’s focus on science.
“We landed on the moon for the first time. That’s what captured a lot of people’s imagination.”
By the time Merk-Gould entered Wellesley College, her interest had turned to archaeology. As an adjunct to that subject, a professor suggested that she study material science, a field in which new materials are discovered or designed.
She undertook that study at M.I.T., a half-hour bus ride away from Wellesley. Merk-Gould explains that an educational relationship between several private colleges in the region “makes it easy to take unusual classes that one college has and another doesn’t have.”
“That facilitated exploring,” she says.
She did research in M.I.T.’s ancient materials lab with renowned metallurgist Dr. Cyril Stanley Smith.
Her study of archeology also introduced Merk-Gould to the restoration of ancient objects; she interned in the objects conservation lab at Harvard’s Fogg Museum under the lab’s director, Arthur Beal.
“I just fell in love with the problem-solving of what materials are made of, how people made them, how you store them, and respect how they were made,” she says.
Merk-Gould eventually dropped archeology in favor of her new love; her B.A. from Wellesley is in Art and Ancient Materials. That was followed by an M.A. in Sculpture Conservation at the Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She subsequently interned at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, and at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.
Her first full-time position was as assistant conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There she worked with artifacts of bronze, silver and gold from the museum’s Heeramaneck Collection of ancient Near Eastern art.
A stint as assistant conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art followed, before Merk-Gould took the position of director of the Conservation Department at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
During her tenure at the Peabody, Merk-Gould did some conservation work on the side for private collectors and small museums. She soon began to weigh the possibility of going into business for herself full time. In 1982 she took the leap. She opened her own conservation studio in Westport, Conn., and never looked back.
“If you are an entrepreneur, you’re an entrepreneur,” she says.
Sparked by the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, America’s new awareness of its cultural heritage soon turned into concern for its public monuments. Many of these, erected in the 19th century, needed professional conservation in order to ensure they would last well into the future.
“My graduate thesis had been on corrosion removal methods,” says Merk-Gould.
She notes that people had long used sandblasting to clean public buildings and monuments, but by the mid-1980s, that technique had been found to irreparably damage stone and metal surfaces. For Merk-Gould, the challenge became to develop techniques that would effectively remove corrosion without erasing the hand-worked surfaces of bronze sculptures.
She consulted with a water jet specialist at the University of Missouri in Rolla, Dr. David Summers, concerning the possibility of using a pressurized jet of water sculpture conservation.
With the help of some corroded bronze plaques lent to her for that purpose by the City of New York, Merk-Gould and Summers did tests on the plaques as well as some un-corroded pieces of bronze. The technique worked beautifully. Their findings were ultimately published by John Hopkins University and presented at a corrosion industry convention in the mid-1990s.
Merk-Gould used water jet technology on the 1992 project to clean, re-patinate and place a protective coating on the multi-figural monument to President James A. Garfield that stands in the nation’s capital.
“The architect of the capital at that time, George White, was very supportive of the work,” says Merk-Gould.
The following year she was awarded the contract to conserve the nearly 20-foot-tall Statue of Freedom that stands atop the dome of the U.S. Capitol building.
Designed by American sculptor Thomas Crawford in Rome, the plaster for the statue was sent in sections to Washington to be cast in bronze. The finished statue of a robed woman with plumed cap was set on top of the newly completed Capitol dome in late 1863.
The first challenge was getting the sculpture – which tops out 288 feet above the ground – down, so that Merk-Gould could work on it. It was too high to be reached by crane, so she and Gary Strand, a structural engineer, devised a way to safely convey the sculpture to earth by helicopter.
The trial lifting was the most nerve-wracking.
At first the sculpture was lifted only a few inches above its base to ensure that it was entirely free of the nuts and bolts that had held it in place for 130 years.
“Nobody had worked on it systematically since its installation in the middle of the Civil War,” she says.
“When we did the initial lifting, we found pennies that had been inserted between the base of the sculpture and the dome by workmen to commemorate the event. Bringing those to the curator of the capitol was an exciting moment.”