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The Damascus Room in Context: Acquisition, Furnishings and Conservation, 2012

Presentations: June 28, 2012

Domestic Interiors in Late Ottoman Damascus: An Overview (18th-19th Centuries)

Speaker: James Grehan, Associate Professor, Department of History, Portland State University

This presentation will try to put the Damascus Room and its furnishings into a broader social perspective. It will briefly sketch out the social and economic background of late Ottoman Damascus, and then examine the domestic realities of the vast majority of the population, who lived in modest circumstances. The talk will fall roughly into two sections. The first will deal with typical residential architecture: the design of homes, the infrastructure to which most people had access, questions of lighting and heating. The second will look closely at the everyday objects with which Damascenes surrounded themselves. The most lasting impression left by the domestic interiors of this period - well before the onset of modern consumerism - is one of poverty and utilitarian sparseness. It is only through this experience of the majority, managing their homes within these harsh contraints, that the artifacts within the Damascus Room can truly be appreciated.

Rare treasures of 18th - early 19th century Damascus: Discoveries of originally preserved 'ajami interiors and glimpses into recent conservation projects

Speaker: Anke Scharrahs, Conservator specializing in polychrome wooden surfaces

Many 18th and 19th century private houses in Damascus' Old City conceal rare treasures: luxurious, highly decorated rooms intended to welcome and honor guests. Due to years of regular use as multifunctional living spaces, these interiors have been significantly changed during their lifetimes. They were frequently cleaned, rearranged, and renovated, or covered by later varnishes or new paint layers. Only a very few examples have survived untouched with their original surfaces intact. Surprisingly colourful and embellished with an array of sophisticated painting techniques, these rooms provide us with new insight into the world of Damascene interior decoration and the tastes of the owner-builders of this period.

This paper focuses on the original surface appearance of these rooms, including other commonly-used materials and decoration techniques such as opus sectile with mother of pearl inlays, coloured plaster and stone powder pastework, mural paintings, polchrome stone reliefs, tiles, and stained glass windows. The author will also present research findings and conservation treatment results for a number of interiors in privately-owned houses in Damascus. These successful projects, carried out in collaboration with the Syrian conservator Shadi Khalil, have revived magnificent interiors in some of the most important private residences in Damascus, such as Bayt Mujalled, as well as those in smaller houses that bear wonderfully adorned 'ajami interiors. Finally, the author will present her ongoing work with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which in 2010 began a large conservation and rehabillitation project of three important houses in the Old City of Damascus: Bayt Siba'i, Bayt Nizam and Bayt Hassan al-Quwatli. During the past 15 months, this work has focused on the Grape Room of Bayt Nizam, considered one of the most significant and valuable Damascene interiors, and its conservation has revealed unexpected details that have remained hidden for more than 100 years.

Damascene Intersections, 1938-1955: Doris Duke, Asfar & Sarkis, House of the Spanish Crown, and Retrofitting an 'ajami interior for Shangri La

Speaker: Keelan Overton, Curator of Islamic Art, Shangri La

One of the most captivating photographs preserved in the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives depicts Doris Duke shopping for chests in the courtyard of a Damascene home in 1938. Taking this image as a starting point, this presentation traces the history of Duke's encounters with Syria from 1938, the year of her visit to Damascus, to 1955, the year that an 'ajami room retrofitted for Shangri La was shipped to Honolulu. Specifically, it examines the mosaic of personalities responsible for the creation of the Damascus Room (collector, dealer, restorer) while further explaining the curatorial choices made in the preparation of the interior for public opening. Finally, this presentation will contextualize Duke's interest in Damascene interiors - both the Damascus Room and the Syrian Room (acquired in the late 1970s) - within larger patterns of twentieth century collecting. At a moment when the inclusion of an historic Syrian interior is becoming increasingly desirable for musuem collections of Islamic art, Shangri La's two examples become ever more relevant to the study of the field's historiography.

From Damascus to Honolulu: How Context and Environment Shape Conservation Decisions

Speaker: Mary McGinn, Paintings Conservator and Adjunct Associate Professor, Winterthur/University of Delaware

Following Shangri La's 2004 symposium, Preserving a Sense of Awe: The History and Conservation of Interiors from Ottoman Damascus, Professor Richard Wolbers initiated a fruitful collaboration between the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Since 2005, Shangri La has hosted twelve WUDPAC students for summer internships. Over the course of three summers, the graduate students documented, assessed and treated the Damascus Room. After two more summers, one of the Syrian Rooms is near completion and the collaboration continues with two interns this summer who will begin work on the smaller Syrian Room. This paper will review the work of the students and faculty on both the Damascus Room and the Syrian Room: condition assessments, technical findings, archival research, digital documentation, treatment methodologies and results. The author will focus on how the transplantation of these complex artifacts from their semi-arid place of origin in the Middle East to the humid environment of the Oahu shore affected their condition, and ultimately, expectations for their presentation and preservation. Decisions about treatment materials and methodologies were based not just on the nature of the original materials, but were influenced by previous restoration campaigns, Doris Duke's vision and the realities of Shangri La's unique museum environment. The paper will also highlight the comprehensive documentation, using Adobe Illustrator, which allows DDFIA to continue monitoring the rooms for condition changes.

The Anatomy of Ottoman Silk Velvet: Selections from Shangri La's Damascus Room

Speaker: Ann Svenson, Textile Conservator in Private Practice

Ottoman velvet cushion covers are among a group of complex woven textiles existing in collections throughout the world, yet there is very little in topical literature that describes the highly technical accomplishments that these cloths represent. During the preparation of the Damascus Room for public opening, several Ottoman velvets in the DDFIA collection were made available for a close inspection of weave structure and fiber use. Unfortunately, all of the examined pieces were too fragile for an invasive examination whereby fibers are manipulated under the microscope. Nonetheless, digital images taken during treatment do reveal significant issues of fiber use, thread preparation and weave structure. This presentation will offer this new material for consideration and will also provide a brief overview of the conservation challenges encountered during the preparation of the velvets for display.

Silk Velvet Weaving in Bursa, 1600-1750: Regulation & Transgression

Speaker: Amanda Phillips, Fellow at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and Scholar-in-Residence, Shangri La

Brocaded silk velvet furnishing fabrics made in the Ottoman city of Bursa during the early modern period graced the homes of wealthy subjects from Damascus to Budapest, and are now found in abundance in museums from Honolulu to London to Istanbul. The silks were available in a range of qualities and styles, and the weavers making the fabrics were acutely aware of changes in fashion, as well as daily realities that impacted on their craft, from fluctuations in the price and quality of silk to general inflation to the exigencies of regulation of the the fabric they produced. The interplay of these factors led them to make changes that affected their products, which in turn resulted in slew of court cases that described permissible and transgressing weaving practice as well as setting standards for finished goods.

Using as primary examples several brocaded silk velvet cushion covers from the Damascus Room at Shangri La, this talk will look in close detail at how structure and material reflected the practices of weaving and the greater silk economy in Bursa. It also describes the mechanisms and philosophies which guided the regulation of weaving between 1600 and 1750, and how weavers coped with this oversight at legal and less-legal levels. Using records from the shariah courts, edicts from the administration in Istanbul, and most importantly, the velvets themselves, I hope to paint a picture of the many interests competing for primacy in this massive and enduring industry, and their repercussions on how we think about large-scale luxury production in the Ottoman sphere.

Preservation Challenges at Shangri La: Re-opening the Damascus Room

Speaker: Kent Severson, Conservator, Shangri La

While there are relatively few objects in the large vitrine in the Damascus Room, preparing objects for display has been a good introduction to the range of preservation issues facing the collection at Shangri La. All metal artifacts in the collection are subject to intense corrosion, particularly on horizontal surfaces, suggesting that airborne particles and droplets play a major role. Preliminary investigations are underway to assess the composition of these aerosols. Meanwhile, objects such as the four lamps hanging from the ceiling and the silver vessels in the vitrine required cleaning and corrosion protection.

Textiles, documents and manuscripts are likewise threatened by proximity to the sea but these are stored in Shangri La's best controlled environment when not on display. Air conditioning and dehumidification keep the 'Textile Vault' relatively stable; this is not the case for the other major storage room at Shangri La. The 'Wine Vault' has experienced wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity in recent years and remains problematic. Examination of glass objects stored in the Wine Vault in advance of installation in the Damascus Room vitrine revealed evidence of deterioration in recent years. Environmental data collected inside the Vault is being examined along with old photographic documentation to determine the cause and timing of the deterioration.

Doris Duke was fond of embedding tiles throughout Shangri La, including in the bathroom adjacent to the so-called "Moroccan Room." This space is inaccessible to the public making the Syrian tiles mounted on the walls there a hidden treasure. To bring a few of them back into public view, cement edgings were cut away and rusting steel pans removed. New installations, such as this one in the Damascus Room, provide an opportunity for the examination and treatment of pieces that might otherwise languish, keeping the collection at Shangri La safe.


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