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Conservation Project Unveils Cast of Characters

Students Help Conserve History in Coburn

UMass Lowell Image

Katherine Holloran, right, and her American art History classmates learned about object conservation from expert Christine Thomson while cleaning historic casts in Coburn Hall.

By Julia Gavin

Students in Prof. Marie Frank’s American Art class not only read about iconic art, they also helped clean and conserve several casts of historic sculptures as part of their coursework. 

The students helped bring new life to six plaster casts that stood watch over campus, most recently in Coburn Hall’s room 205, for more than a century. Ten casts, made by the noted Caproni Brothers firm, Boston-based makers of plaster reproductions of classical statues, were made from direct molds of the frieze at the Parthenon and from 15th century Italian sculptor Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria panels. Over the years, the casts suffered the effects of time and were covered with layers of coal dust from the building’s former heating system.

“I saw the casts on the wall for years, but didn’t know exactly what they were or their history,” says Frank, who noticed damage to one piece when they were mistakenly removed from the wall in the summer of 2014. “When I saw the Caproni brothers’ stamp on one, I knew we had a part of art history on campus. We had to preserve them.”

Casts as a Teaching Tool

In the early 20th century, many colleges and universities including Harvard, Yale and Cornell bought the Caproni’s plaster casts of masterworks to teach art history. Lowell Normal School, a teaching college predecessor institution of UMass Lowell that was based at Coburn Hall, acquired the casts around 1911, according to Frank. The once-common casts have become a rare find. While the pieces originally cost about $6 each, similar casts have sold for thousands of dollars at auction in recent years.

The six Parthenon casts show men on horseback and the four Cantoria panels depict a singing choir. The pieces vary in size, between roughly 4 feet-by-2 feet and 4 feet-by-6 feet.  The class project focused on the Parthenon casts.

Using cotton swabs and diluted solvents, students carefully removed decades of dust, conserving the casts for generations to come. 

Frank used grant money from the Transformational Education committee to make this hands-on learning experience possible. Part of the funds was used to hire Christine Thomson, an objects conservator, to meet with students, plan for the casts’ cleaning and lead the process. Thomson also repaired a few damaged areas of the fragile casts, showing students the art and science of her work.

“This new component helped students experience art as something they can touch rather than as an image in a PowerPoint presentation,” says Frank, who also assigned research projects related to the artwork.  “Students took pride in providing real service to the university community and became part of the history of the murals and casts — and our campus — by helping preserve our art for the future.”

The class drew students from numerous disciplines, each bringing their unique perspective to the project. Frank says that while an art student might be focused on the differences between restoration and conservation, a science student would be more interested in the chemical structure of the solvent.
For some, the experience also led to potential new career paths. 

“Working with art, cleaning it and learning some of the history of Lowell, our university and the art itself was fantastic,” says Katherine Holloran, a liberal arts junior concentrating on art history and psychology. In addition to the class work, Holloran met with Thomson to discuss the life of an art conservator. “Because of this class I've decided to go to graduate school for art conservation and pursue it as a career.”

The class also toured Skylight Studios in Woburn, where many of the Caproni casts and processes are still used in production. Students saw the original casts the Capronis made at the Parthenon and of sculptures from across the world, including the head of Michelangelo’s David. Students also saw artists at work sculpting and casting new work.

“I have a passion for Greco-Roman antiquity but I still haven't gotten the opportunity to visit Europe where the majority of these works are,” says Diana Vasquez ’15, who graduated in May with a major in history and minor in art history. She is also interested in art conservation and took the class to try out the job. “Seeing replicas at Skylight is the closest I’ve gotten to seeing one in person so far.”

The cast project served as a reference point for many of the topics traditionally covered in Frank’s class, including the roles of copies, originality and public art in America from 1607 to the present. The students helped create text panels explaining the casts’ importance, history and conservation process, which will be added when the art is re-installed at Coburn in the fall.

Moving to the Murals 

The casts weren’t Frank’s first target for art conservation and restoration on campus. While researching her illustrated history of the school, “The University of Massachusetts Lowell,”  Frank found photos of dances in Coburn 205 depicting students waltzing in gowns and tuxedos, surrounded by the room’s grand windows, chandeliers and, notably, murals that were no longer visible.  

Frank determined that the murals were painted around 1934 by Massachusetts artists who would go on to be part of the federal Works Progress Administration public art program. The murals show Lowell Normal School students learning and teaching, against a panorama of the city of Lowell.  For unknown reasons, the ballroom murals were painted over by the 1980s, but similar pieces at the building’s entrance survived. Frank is now working with a painting conservator to explore restoring the ballroom murals and having students clean the entrance pieces.

During a summer cleaning, staff found another figure from Coburn’s artistic past: a 6-foot tall sculpture of Apollo cast by the Caproni brothers. Frank is adding it and a sculpture of Joan of Arc in Coburn 205 to her list of potential student conservation projects. She is also keeping an eye out for a 4-foot statue of the Nike of Samothrace, which appears in historic photos of Coburn. 

For Frank, the Caproni cast collection makes a powerful visual statement about the university's legacy.

"The casts, and the murals, tell prospective students and their families that we are not Johnny-come-latelies in higher education; they underscore our tradition of excellence and our sense of place."

See more of the Caproni casts in the university's photo gallery.