A Superman clock from the 1960s, an aluminum eagle from a Cincinnati federal building, the original amber-colored plastic, metal and wood sign from Swingos. Everywhere you look at ICA, there’s a different cultural wonder to behold.
The entire 6,000-square-foot second floor is an open workroom, loosely divided into sections where teams work on paintings, objects, textiles and paper.
Far from being a house of oddities, ICA’s very mission is to traffic in such cultural artifacts and restore them to their former glory. Founded in 1952 after the directors of five Midwestern museums decided to pool their resources to hire one full-time conservator, ICA originally set up shop on the campus of Oberlin College, where it was housed for more than 50 years. As the first nonprofit regional art conservation center in the U.S., ICA became the model for the National Endowment for the Arts when they set out to create other regional centers across the country.
ICA has treated more than 25,000 objects over the years, from classic relics to more modern examples of pop culture. In 2018 alone, it kept 32 collections in safekeeping for museums such as Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. It also reproduced four rare Victorian lampshades, conserved Neil Armstrong’s experimental Douglas F5D jet aircraft and cleaned Victor Schreckengost’s outdoor sculptural relief at Lakewood High School. In truth, there isn’t much ICA can’t do.
In the textiles workspace, one of Harry Houdini’s straitjackets sits wrapped in tissue paper. It awaits the deft ministrations of Jane Hammond, the textile conservator, who is removing a layer of soot and repairing damages to the fabric.
“I’m not manipulating huge audiences with my escapades, but as I treat this terrifying institutional straitjacket that Houdini wore while hanging upside down, I can really feel the history of the piece,” says Hammond.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a regular client for ICA, has provided a steady stream of iconic restoration projects over the years, from Cyndi Lauper’s bustier featured in the 1983 “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video, to a guitar strap from The Clash and Hammond’s favorite work: a jacket embroidered by a Punjabi tribe that Mick Jagger wore onstage in 1977. The jacket had been damaged when a roof leak caused the vegetable dyes to bleed, and Hammond had to embroider over the damage.
“That project was so special because you could feel the spirit of cultures that don’t exist anymore,” recalls Hammond. “We all descend when the Rock Hall brings in a new object because everyone here can relate to these musical stories.”
Perhaps the oddest feature of ICA is also its most subtle: a plexiglass cabinet on the western wall of the workroom housing 500 small glass vials containing a veritable rainbow of substances.
As the lore goes, Richard Buck, the original ICA conservator in 1952, was formerly a student of Edward Forbes, the director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Forbes, one of the preeminent teachers of museum directors, was an ardent collector of pigments, instructing his students to send him myriad samples as they went to work in museums across the world. The full 3,000-bottle collection of these historically important colorants sits on display in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard. But Forbes also created a tiny handful of satellite collections, including one for his former student, Buck.
ICA’s collection of 500 specimens includes everything from an apricot-hued sap gathered from gum acacia trees, to rich green malachite that is ground up to make pigment, to Indian Yellow, a substance about which you have to ask twice to make sure you got the explanation right.
“The pigment is a powder made from the processed urine of cows who are only fed mango leaves,” says Reilly, ready to explain it again when you inevitably ask for
Far from being just an eye-pleasing display of wall art, conservators use the small samples of pigments as references when they need to verify the origins or decipher the chemical makeup of the pieces that come into their care.
“The Forbes collection is the perfect example of everything we do,” explains Reilly. “Researching the chemical makeup of the pigments represents science, as the colors and display itself capture the arts and humanities that inspire us every day.”