Nebraska State Historical Society Blog

Doane Powell with wall of masks

May 3, 2017

Saving Face

Unusual objects have a way of showing up for treatment at the Ford Conservation Center. So in some ways the 69 masks by Nebraska artist Doane Powell were no surprise. But a little bizarre? Maybe. The Nebraska History Museum collection of mid-20th century faces, both famous and infamous, were made from a wide range of materials--including leftover lingerie! Fortunately Powell left a detailed book on how to make masks, complete with step-by-step instructions and diagrams. He described himself as a “Cartoonist. Portrait Painter. Sculptor. Art Instructor. Art Director. Lecturer.”  Powell had many talents, but conservator he was not. His wide range of layered paper masks were widely used for social events, theater productions, advertising, masquerades and early tv shows. The daughter of Powell's assistant donated them to the Museum and the staff brought them to the Ford Center for treatment as the evidence of their use was clear. 60+ years of hand grime and environmental residue...
  The Ford Center staff approached this project like we do every other one: 1) What can we do to stabilize the piece, to ensure it is structurally sound and to prevent further damage? 2) How can we best clean the surface?  3) What can we do to compensate for any aesthetic damage and return it to closer to its original intended appearance?  In this case, we examined each of the masks and came up with a general many-step treatment plan: consolidate any loose paint or fragments   vacuum the masks with a brush and a net over the nozzle, just in case any pieces came loose  clean the surfaces, testing the paint surfaces and using extreme caution so as not to disturb the original materials humidify warped masks either locally or in a humidification chamber  mend and fill tears or losses    inpaint repairs to visually integrate with the surrounding area.    

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