Friday, October 24, 2014

Protecting a Historic Shrine

With the opening of the Old Senate Chamber less than two months away, we are thrilled to soon have a historic room that will be filled with important original and recreated fine arts and furnishings. While we are eager to share many of the original artifacts with the public, much of the items on display in the Old Senate Chamber, and many other rooms in the Maryland State House, are irreplaceable, and the possibility of damage to the room or anything it contains is a constant worry. With such risks being taken, what sort of plan is there to protect the Maryland State House’s historic rooms?

The restoration of a room does not solely revolve around research and architectural discoveries, nor does the care of a room stop on opening day. Rather, many meetings are spent discussing preparation plans to protect the room from disaster and care for it on a regular basis. One aspect of preparation planning of particular importance for historic preservationists is how to protect your artifacts in the case of a fire.

The Old Senate Chamber restoration was prompted by plaster in the room falling off the walls due to nearly twenty layers of several different types of paint applied directly to the historic bricks. By collecting detailed records and working on preventative care of the room and its furnishings, we are taking measures to ensure this does not happen again. Maryland State Archives, April 2004.

While most modern homes and public buildings are equipped with a standardized sprinkler system, fire protection plans are much more complex when there are eighteenth-century furnishings, architecture or “historic building fabric,” and fine arts to consider. Imagine the damage that occurs when a sprinkler system goes off in your home; it soaks and damages much of the furniture, walls, and floor. In the Old Senate Chamber, which will contain valuable items like Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of William Pitt and original furniture crafted by John Shaw’s shop, this could cause irrecoverable deterioration to items that can never be replaced. So, in the case of fire, a preservationist must consider a solution that would protect the collection, and the room itself, from both destruction by fire and by water.

The solution is a wireless fire alarm and mist system. In the eighteenth-century part of the Maryland State House, which includes the Old Senate Chamber, Old House of Delegates Chamber, Archives Room, and Caucus Room, there is no conventional sprinkler system. Instead, when a fire alarm is triggered, a complex system is released to mist the room with water vapor. Not only is the mist system environmentally friendly, because it uses significantly less water than a conventional sprinkler, it is also valuable in protecting historic artifacts. While a conventional sprinkler system soaks objects directly from the top, but may not easily reach a fire that is under a table, the mist system clouds the room, soaking nothing, but much more easily reaching every part of the room, thereby protecting the collection from extensive damage from fire and from flooding.

The Old House of Delegates chamber was refitted with a mist system to protect the recreated room. Maryland State Archives, February 2011.

Disaster scenarios are not the only thing that need to be considered to protect the exhibits in the long term. Day to day care of the items also needs to be carefully orchestrated, and is a constant concern in an active building like the Maryland State House. Documents, antiques, works of art, and the building itself all require certain, stable conditions to ensure that they are preserved. Therefore, it becomes the task of not only the state's curatorial staff, but several other state agencies and visitors like you to protect the safety of our objects. To protect our historic collection everyday, temperatures are carefully monitored, and in 2008, the Maryland State House was closed for several months to install a modern HVAC system.

The next time you come to the Maryland State House, and especially when you visit us in December to see the restored Old Senate Chamber, we hope you keep in mind the efforts put forth to not only create the visitor experience, but also to maintain it. Don’t forget to take a look around and see if you can spot the modern additions added to protect this historic building!

Want to do your part to help protect the Maryland State House and its collections? We encourage you to not touch the historic features of the building, furnishings, and art, so that they can best be preserved for future generations!

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