Inside Winterthur's Historical Conservation Efforts
Henry Francis du Pont’s legacy lives on through the Wilmington museum's programs, which are aimed at training the next generation of antiquities conservationists.
(FROM LEFT): A vandalized 19th century portrait, the subject of one of WUDPAC students’ many art restoration efforts.; A WUDPAC student completes a delicate restoration project on a portrait from one of Winterthur’s historic gallery collections.//photos by Jim Graham
Inside a series of meticulously clean, brightly lit labs on the grounds of Winterthur, staff conservationists and students are busy ensuring the objects of the past will be around for future generations to appreciate. One is restoring delicate fragments of wallpaper from the farmhouse on the oldest continually operating African-American-owned farm in Pennsylvania. Another is repairing tears in a vandalized 19th-century portrait brought in by a local resident.
In a lab down the hall, two students are embarking on a grant-funded project cleaning and polishing for the first time in 30 years 500 silver objects in the museum’s possession. Elsewhere, a team builds special dress forms to showcase the elaborate costumes for the “Costuming the Crown” exhibition.
The work perpetuates that of Henry Francis du Pont, who died 50 years ago and spent much of the 20th century developing his family’s 1,000-acre Winterthur estate just outside of Wilmington, including the museum that houses his unparalleled collection of early American decorative and fine arts. Through the intertwined conservation and education initiatives he spearheaded during his lifetime, Winterthur grew into a place to train the next generation of conservationists.
Du Pont’s successors have carried on his vision, launching Winterthur onto the world stage through a conservation training program with China that has resulted in a vibrant cultural exchange and new opportunities for preservationists and conservators on both sides of the Pacific.
“People today think Mr. du Pont was set in his ways, and he wasn’t,” says Charles Hummel, a former director at Winterthur who worked for du Pont for 14 years and at age 86 still works at the museum several days a week. “He was always open to change, he really was. If he asked you for an opinion, he listened.”
Associate conservator Laura Mina works on a project for Winterthur’s “Costuming the Crown Exhibition,” which showcases 40 intricate costumes worn by actors in the Netflix original “The Crown.”//photo by Jim Graham
A steward of history
Winterthur started out as one of many properties purchased by French émigré Éleuthère Irénée (E. I.) du Pont, the founder of the original gunpowder factory that grew into the multinational corporation that bears his name and the patriarch of Delaware’s most powerful and influential family. His daughter, Evelina, and her husband, Jacques Antoine Bidermann, built the main house at the estate and named it after Bidermann’s family home in Switzerland.
Fast-forward a few generations. H. F. du Pont, E. I.’s great-grandson, took over managing Winterthur’s grounds in 1903 upon graduating from Harvard University (he had been born on the estate in 1880). He then took ownership of the estate after his father died in 1926.
Led by a keen interest in history, the younger du Pont became a serious collector of early American decorative and fine art objects, so much so that he eventually turned his home into a museum and opened it to the public. Today, Winterthur has more than 90,000 objects made or used in America between 1630 and 1860, from ceramics and glass, to furniture and metalwork, to paintings and textiles.
Juliana Ly, graduate student in the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), and Joyce Hill Stoner, Professor of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, discuss the restoration of a damaged 19th-century portrait for display in the Winterthur museum.//photo by Jim Graham
Building a pipeline
Becca Duffy, curatorial fellow at Winterthur, and Leslie
The prescient H.F. du Pont wasn’t just a collector; he became an early champion of preserving and restoring historic objects. Understanding that education was the key to ensuring his conservation efforts lived on, he led Winterthur to partner with the University of Delaware on two graduate-level programs to educate conservators who bring new techniques and fresh perspectives into the field each year.
Du Pont supported the creation of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture with the University of Delaware in 1952. The two-year program looks at American history through the social context of decorative arts and household furnishings, with students earning a Master of Arts degree in American Material Culture from the university.
In 1974, Winterthur and UD established the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), a three-year masters level program in art conservation in which students spend a significant amount of time at Winterthur studying various types of materials and treatments and working on special projects.
“Winterthur’s labs are the University of Delaware’s classrooms,” says Margaret “Peggy” Holben Ellis, president of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works in Washington, D.C. “These are the young people who are going to revitalize the field.”
One of just five graduate-level art conservation programs in North America that “produce the conservators of tomorrow,” WUDPAC is a major contributor to the pipeline of conservationists at the national and international level, Ellis says. (The other four programs are at New York University, State University College at Buffalo, University of California at Los Angeles and Queens University in Ontario.)
Juliana Ly will graduate from WUDPAC next year. Her eyes light up as she talks about her love of paintings and her work on the ripped 19th-century portrait. The program curriculum is essentially “a three-legged stool,” blending art history, chemistry and the high-end hand skills necessary to carry out conservation work such as removing varnish or stitching fabric, Ly says.
Jennifer Myers and Julianna Ly (l and r) of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, with post graduate fellow Mina Porell.//photo by Jim Graham
After graduating from WUDPAC, Ly says she plans to work as a conservator before deciding if she wants to return to the University of Delaware for a Ph.D. Either way, continuing education is necessary in some form to learn new technology and techniques. “If you want to stay in the game, you have to keep up,” says Ly.
Between 1977 and 2018, 405 students have graduated from WUDPAC and gone on to work at major institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian Institution, as well as at auction houses, antique dealers and universities. WUDPAC grads can also be found working around the world, from the United Kingdom to Japan.
A conservation hub
A final du Pont project helped ensure Winterthur’s place in the conservation world. The Louise du Pont Crowninshield Research Building, named for du Pont’s sister—a renowned historic preservationist in her own right—opened in 1969. But the highly anticipated opening day turned out to be bittersweet—H.F. du Pont had died a month before.
Intended from the start to be the hub of conservation activity and learning, the Crowninshield Building houses Winterthur’s various workrooms and offices, as well as its library. Labs are dedicated to specific materials, including metals, objects, paper, photographs, furniture, upholstered furniture, textiles and paintings. Other rooms are allotted for scientific research and analysis.
(FROM LEFT): Catherine Matsen, conservation scientist at Winterthur, works in the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Research building.; Catherine Matsen, conservation scientist at Winterthur, and Rosie Grayburn, associate scientist, work in The Louise du Pont Crowninshield Research building.
The Crowninshield Building represented a turning point for Winterthur, making it a center of learning for American Material Culture graduate students and later WUDPAC students. “Other places were training specifically in painting conservation, but we really became the place that had it all. The Crowninshield Building really made that possible because of the labs,” says Jeff Groff, director of interpretation and estate historian, and a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture master’s program.
Du Pont understood the importance of Winterthur taking a leadership role in the conservation community, says Hummel, the estate’s former director. The conservation training programs “would add another dimension to the services Winterthur was providing, so he very wholeheartedly supported them.”
The Crowninshield Building also houses the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility that makes Winterthur one of only 18 museum laboratories in the United States, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The SRAL has an array of high-tech instruments to analyze an object to determine its condition, how it was made, its age and authenticity so it can be properly preserved or repaired. Scientists from other museums and institutions visit to use the SRAL’s resources.
(FROM LEFT): Mark Anderson, Winterthur’s senior furniture conservator, and Yang Xu, a WUDPAC graduate student.//photos by Jim Graham
Building international bridges
Yang Xu and Mark Anderson restore an item from
As Winterthur’s reputation for conservation expertise has grown, international relationships have followed. A unique opportunity to work with conservationists in the Forbidden City in Beijing catapulted Winterthur into the global historic preservation community.
When the World Monuments Fund teamed up with China’s Palace Museum to restore the 18th century Qianlong Garden in Beijing’s Forbidden City, it reached out to Winterthur to provide missing necessary skills, says Greg Landrey, director of Library, Collections Management & Academic Programs. However, Winterthur did much more than contribute skills to a one-time project; in 2010 it began working with Beijing colleagues to develop a conservation training program at Tsinghua University, so the Chinese could create their own pipeline of restoration experts.
The partnership is also fostering cultural exchanges and new opportunities for students and professors in both countries. “China is a wealth of opportunity for our students,” says Landrey. “We’re planting seeds for future opportunities for our students to engage with Asian culture and China specifically.”
It’s also an opportunity for Chinese conservation students. Yang Xu, who graduated from Tsinghua University with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architecture, is now pursuing a WUDPAC degree. Xu, whose current project is the restoration of a grandfather clock in the furniture lab, says he intends to bring new techniques back to China.
With an increasing number of Tsinghua University students, academics and staff traveling from China to Winterthur and the University of Delaware to learn and bring their own knowledge, Landrey says he expects the Brandywine Valley to benefit economically from the boost in tourists from Asia.
“We very much want as an institution to increasingly be in the global scene,” says Landrey. “The wealth of expertise here should be shared globally. We also feel that the expertise here needs to be refreshed. So, when I’m in China I’m as much learning from my colleagues and students there as I am giving.”
In addition to strengthening the countries’ cultural bond through conservation, Winterthur hopes to make a positive influence on the United States’ relationship with China outside of the political realm, he says.
Even a relatively small collection of objects can speak volumes about the history between the two countries. Winterthur has loaned 31 pieces of Chinese export porcelain, some of which belonged to George Washington, to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum as part of an exhibition about the two nations’ trade history.