Samantha Springer Assistant Objects Conservator
Susan E. Bergh Curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art
Previous installation of the stela in a hall outside the old Pre-Columbian gallery on the lower level of the 1916 building (currently the entrance to the Renaissance galleries)
Remounting the Maya stela—a stone monument that towers nine feet tall—was one of the most ambitious projects that the objects conservators shouldered during the recent building expansion. When the museum acquired the stela in 1967, it comprised more than 40 fragments of varying sizes, none more than a few inches thick. To display the fragments in the 1960s, the staff mounted them in a shallow, five-sided aluminum pan which was then built into a wall at the entry to the Pre-Columbian gallery. The stela remained in that location until 2005, when it was removed to make way for the renovation. Planning the new Pre-Columbian gallery provided the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine how the stela could be displayed to evoke its ancient appearance more closely.
The fragments represent only part of the front face of the original, a freestanding monument made of a single rectangular piece of stone some 18 inches thick and 12 feet high; a three-foot-tall panel, carved with the head of a mythical creature, is missing from the bottom. Thus, the two goals of the new installation were to give the stela the appearance of a sculpture that stands on its own and to raise it to the height that its creators intended.
Coordinating the project was no easy feat. Over a span of eight years, many CMA staff members were involved—conservators, the curator, designers, registrars, art handlers, and others—along with contract art riggers and X-ray technicians; consultants from Chicago and Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Museum of Natural History made crucial contributions. In addition, the project presented the logistical challenge of safely navigating the largest sculpture on view in the museum through a maze of construction zones into various secure workspaces. For example, after the stela was deinstalled, it spent time in temporary storage on the second floor of the now-demolished 1958 building; to move it to the new conservation suite, it was lifted by crane through an opening in the building’s outer wall, lowered onto a flatbed truck, and driven—slowly—around Wade Oval.
Conservators used a variety of examination and analytical techniques to assess how the artwork was mounted in the 1960s, as no records about the mount’s construction could be found. We could see that plaster surrounded the fragments, filling the space between the outer edges of the stone and the sides of the aluminum pan; visible on the back of the pan were vertical braces that prevented the pan from torquing, along with a number of small holes, some empty and others filled with the butt ends of threaded rods that penetrated the mount. But, without further exploration, a host of questions remained. For instance, what was the purpose of the rods, how far did they extend into the mount, how thick were the fragments, and did the stone abut the back plate of the mount? X-radiography, an essential tool for this project, revealed that the rods were hooked at the other end and, rather than penetrating into the artwork, they held a layer of expanded metal lath in place between the stone and the mount’s back plate. The chicken-wire-like lath was probably used to reinforce the plaster.
But what of the empty holes that dotted the back of the pan? When we overlaid the X-rays onto photographic images of the stela, it became apparent that the holes lined up with the four corners of each large fragment. This was a key piece of information, making it clear that the fragments had been placed in the pan in a horizontal position on top of short rods that were used to level and align the fragments with one another. Then plaster was poured into the pan and, after it set, the rods were removed, leaving behind empty holes. This technique would have improved control and made fine-tuning possible during alignment, one of the most difficult steps during reassembly, especially due to the heavy weight of many of the fragments and the fact that the fragments do not fit perfectly against one another.
Bracing This composite image of the X-ray films revealed three horizontal braces inside the pan in addition to the two vertical braces visible on the back of the pan. Individual films showed the expanded metal lathe, which resembles chicken wire.
Annotated Photograph Black lines define joins between major fragments, and circles indicate the locations of empty holes in the back plate.
Heavy Lifting The stela was lifted onto the new support, which is painted with corrosion-resistant International Harvester Red, in a section of Smith Exhibition Hall that has the necessary ceiling height.
A drawback of X-rays is that the resulting image compresses all the layers into one plane. To determine the mount’s stratigraphy and confirm identification of the mounting materials, we excavated exploratory “windows” both through the back plate and into the plaster on the front. We found the metal lath in the plaster behind the stone along with a component invisible to X-rays: a gray, elastic coating applied to the pan interior. The coating could not be identified definitively, but it was most likely used to seal the pan in order to protect it from moisture and prevent plaster from leaking out.
The exploratory windows and additional experiments, such as pulse-echo tests, allowed us to assess the plaster’s stability and determine that, provided the plaster is not extensively altered, the mount is stable. This was crucial to our decision to retain the mount rather than to remove all of the fragments and start anew. With the advice of Dario Gasparini, a structural engineer at CWRU, we undertook a minor reconfiguration of the mount that involved removing the sides of the pan but leaving the back completely intact in order not to disrupt the bond between the pan and the plaster. Gasparini and his university colleague, Neil Harnar, then designed and constructed a steel support that holds the stela upright and elevates it to its approximate original height. The elegant, sturdy new support also provides additional rigidity and allows for vertical and horizontal leveling; to simplify movement in the future, it has wheels and its height can be lowered to allow the stela to fit through doorways.
THE NEW INSTALLATION Front Face of a Stela ad 692. Mesoamerica, Guatemala, Petén region, El Perú-Waka’, Maya people. Limestone; 108 x 71¾ in. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1967.29. The stela portrays Lady K’abel, a resplendently dressed Maya queen, with a dwarf attendant.
In the gallery the new support is hidden by a wooden platform over the base and a wooden surround or cap that fits over the back and simulates the stela’s original depth. The copious information we collected from these and many other analytical studies is held in conservation and curatorial files, along with many photographs and detailed reports about every stage of the movement, analysis, and remounting.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2014