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Conservation of the Benjamin Franklin Statue

William Zorach working on Franklin statue c. 1935
William Zorach working on Franklin statue (c1935). Peter A. Juley & Son Collection Smithsonian American Art Museum J0029383.

The Artist William Zorach

Lithuanian-born artist William Zorach (1887-1966) immigrated to the United States in 1891 at age four with his family. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he acquired his art education through a lithography apprenticeship and formal study at the Cleveland School of Arts, the National Academy of Design in New York and the La Pallette School in Paris.

Professionally, he was a member of the American Society of Painters, Sculptors & Gravers, the American Society of Sculptors and was active in the creation of the Sculptors Guild. In 1931, the Art Institute of Chicago awarded him the second Logan Prize for his sculpture, “Mother and Child” which he sculpted from a two-ton block of pinkish blue-grained marble. It took Zorach 18 months to complete.

The display of such paintings of his as “Spirit of Dance” at the Radio City Music Hall in New York and his sculpture of Benjamin Franklin at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum help shape and preserve the ideals of American culture into tangible works for the public to learn from and enjoy.

Front of Ben Franklin statue before treatment
Front before treatment

Conservation

The Benjamin Franklin Statue, located in the foyer of the National Postal Museum, is an iconic fixture at the museum. Popular as a backdrop for group photos, museum visitors often touch the marble statue and rub the figure’s shoes for good luck. Although the structural integrity of the sculpture is in good condition, 72 years of public display and visitor contact render the marble statue dirty and in need of a thorough surface cleaning. In February 2008, object conservator Cathy Valentour came to the museum, conducted a condition survey of the statue and proposed a treatment plan to treat the statue in August and preserve its refreshed condition for years to come.

The Condition of the Statue

Overall, the statue is dusty, dirty and particularly soiled in the lower areas of the figure’s cape, legs and shoes where visitors can reach the sculpture. The surface of the shoes is worn and shiny from repeated rubbing by visitors. On the back of the statue, there are crayon marks and below his right shoe, there is a piece of gum stuck underneath. Additionally there is minor scratching and chipping prevalent on the statue. The pedestal, made of a purple marble, has deep scratches and soap stains along the bottom from routine maintenance of the museum’s floor.

Photographic Documentation

The first step to any conservation treatment is to take Before Treatment pictures documenting the current condition of the artifact. During the course of this treatment, photographs are taken to capture any subtle or dramatic condition changes. When the treatment is complete, the conservator takes After Treatment photographs of the entire artifact to show the result. These photographs serve as vital records for caretakers.

Zorach's signature and date on the base of the statue
Zorach's signature and date

Spot Testing

Prior to treating the entire statue, the conservator has to decide what tools of the trade will be most effective and harmless in treating the marble. Less is more in the world of conservation. To determine the stability of the marble surface, Cathy Valentour performs spot tests by applying water and neutral soap to cotton swabs and a toothbrush and treating small sections of the statue. On the more soiled areas, she uses Ammonium citrate.

The Treatment Begins

The conservator consults with the museum’s preservation department about the spot test results and proceeds with the treatment by using a vacuum with a high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) to remove surface dust and dirt from the entire statue. Then she begins removing the grime, crayon and other marks on the statue being careful not to treat too aggressively as to create color change in the marble surface. The scratches along the base are sealed to minimize their appearance but chips in the marble are not restored.

Sealed and Buffed

Finally, to preserve the refreshed appearance of the statue, all the treated areas are sealed with microcrystalline wax and buffed. The overall treatment is expected to take three weeks to complete.

Glossary

Ammonium Citrate - a white powder with a slight ammonia odor used to clean concrete. Citric acid is a cleaning agent found in nature.

Microcrystalline Wax - Microcrystalline waxes have very minute crystals (Micro Crystals) and are flexible with a great affinity for oil. Microcrystalline waxes are used chiefly in laminated-paper products, in coatings and linings, and in adhesives, sealing compositions, and various types of polishes.


The Benjamin Franklin statue is on loan from the Fine Arts Program, U.S. General Services Administration


Additional Imagery


  • Spot testing with a toothbrush
    Spot testing with a toothbrush
  • Signature's letter h is treated
    Signature letter h treated
  • close up of signature's letter h being treated
    Signature letter h treated detail

  • grime on the statue
    Grime
  • Lower right leg treated
    Lower right leg treated
  • Right side of statue treated
    Right side of statue treated

  • Detail of treatment on the statue's shoes
    Detail of treatment
  • Right side of head and shoulders treated
    Right side of head and shoulders treated
  • Right side of torso treated
    Right side of torso treated

  • Right side of brow treated
    Right side of brow treated
  • photo of William Zorach working on an armature (1940)
    William Zorach working on an armature (1940). William Zorach, ca. 1940 / Walt Sanders, photographer, 1 photographic print: b&w; 33 x 28 cm. Courtesy of the Forbes Watson papers, 1900-1950, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • photo of William Zorach working on a bust (1948)
    William Zorach working on a bust (1948). William Zorach, 1948 / John D Schiff, photographer, 1 photographic print: b&w; 26 x 21 cm. Courtesy of the Miscellaneous Photograph Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.