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Conserving Artifacts at Benton County Historical Society

February 13, 2019

Benton County Historical Society is building a new, state-of-the-art museum in downtown Corvallis, Oregon.  The Corvallis Museum provides four galleries for exhibiting objects from the Society’s collection of over 100,000 artifacts.  Many of the artifacts need to be cleaned, stabilized and given supportive mounts before they can be moved from protective storage to public exhibitions. Thanks to generous matching Oregon Heritage Grant, BCHS was able to hire object conservator Tom Fuller to prepare artifacts for the first exhibitions in the Corvallis Museum.

Compact storage units house museum artifacts in a climate controlled storage facility.

Our primary concern is whether the artifacts are stable enough to endure the rigor of exhibition. Travel, handling, gravity and exposure to ultra-violet light can degrade an artifact. Occasionally Mr. Fuller has recommended that we don’t use a particular artifact in an exhibition due to condition issues. Other times he has been able to mitigate circumstances to allow the artifacts to be used. Sometimes, the objects simply needed a skilled cleaning.

Oregon Governor Douglas McKay’s western saddle is gleaming and ready for public exhibition thanks to Fuller’s meticulous care. This hand-tooled saddle with engraved silver work was made by Ed Bohlin, “saddle maker to the stars”, like Hollywood cowboys Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger.  Douglas McKay was an Oregon State University alumnus with a passion for the American West.

One of the more visually dramatic objects that Fuller conserved is the Zumwalt family trunk which came to Oregon via the Applegate Trail in 1846. While crossing the Cascade Range, the party was forced to leave this hide-covered trunk and other baggage behind.  Fortunately, it was still there when they returned for it in the spring of 1847. After 170 years in Oregon, the trunk received some long-overdue attention from a professional conservator.

Zumwalt family trunk before conservation.
Zumwalt family trunk after conservation.

This week Fuller is working wood grain auger with hand-carved paddles that Rowland Chambers carved for his water-powered grist mill on the Luckiamute River in Kings Valley in 1853.  Early pioneers planted wheat and built grist mills for grinding flour. The auger or screw conveyor moved grain continuously from one part of the mill to another.

We hope you’ll come see Fuller’s beautiful work when the Corvallis Museum construction and installation is complete, hopefully in autumn 2019.

Written by: Mark Tolonen, Curator of Exhibitions at Benton County Historical Society

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