Preserving a Legend: Industrial Microscopy and Artifact Conservation
The Walt Disney Family Museum blends historical fact with state-of-the-art technology while illuminating one of the most fascinating lives in history.
From Mickey Mouse to Snow White, from Hollywood to Disneyland, Walt Disney’s artistry and imagination helped define America as we know it. In an effort to bring his legacy to life and inspire visitors through his remarkable story, The Walt Disney Family Museum blends historical fact with state-of-the-art technology while illuminating one of the most fascinating lives in history. Through cartoons, artifacts, movies, and music; a spectacular model of Disneyland; and Disney's own narration, the museum highlights the man’s biggest successes, his numerous disappointments, and his unyielding optimism as he worked tirelessly to advance the art of animation.
Located in a historic brick building on the Main Post of San Francisco’s Presidio, the 40,000-square-foot Walt Disney Family Museum tells Disney’s story through interactive galleries, original artifacts, more than 200 video screens, a learning center, listening stations, a Fantasia-themed theater, and a 13-foot model of Disneyland as Disney originally envisioned it. On a day-to-day operational basis, one of the museum’s biggest responsibilities is the proper preservation and safe display of thousands of priceless historical artifacts—personal objects that belonged to Walt Disney and members of his family, early pieces of two- and three-dimensional animation art, original animation cels from Disney films, early examples of Disney merchandising, equipment used by Disney and his team throughout his career, items relating to the development of Disneyland, and much more.
To ensure that these pieces of history are properly protected—and in many cases accurately preserved—the museum employs a conservation department specializing in material analysis, conservation treatments, preservation, and proper handling and display. One of the most critical tools utilized by this department for their work is a high-performance stereo microscope that allows the extremely precise viewing and analysis of both flat and dimensional objects.
“What our department specializes in is preserving all of the objects we receive here that will become part of a special exhibit or part of our permanent collection,” said Tonja Morris, objects conservator at The Walt Disney Family Museum. “What that entails is looking at each of these objects as they come in, examining them for long-term stability, analyzing their deterioration or degradation, and working with our registration department to create proper storage housing for each object, ensuring a stable environment for the object that will slow down or inhibit any deterioration that may already be occurring.”
“In relation to exhibition, we examine each object to see if it is stable enough to go on public display,“ continued Morris. “If we determine that something is not, then it’s our job to intervene and take the steps necessary to prepare an object for display in the museum. In the case of animation art, for example, one of the common problems is that the animation cels are made of materials that do not age well over time and may be buckling or yellowing. If this is the case, we then have to determine if the animation cels and their paint media would be able to withstand the conditions of being on display without suffering further deterioration.
To do this, we use our Olympus SZ61 stereo microscope to thoroughly determine and characterize the paint layers on each cel, giving ourselves a sense of exactly what is happening on a microscopic level within each of these layers. Without magnification, these cels can often appear completely stable. Under magnification, however, we may notice small cracks or fissures beginning to appear within the paint surfaces. From there, we can begin to investigate where these cracks are originating from and what we can do to stabilize the materials, preventing further deterioration and ensuring long-term preservation.”
Clearly seeing the best course of action
Beyond discovering and assessing object deterioration or damage, the microscope is also used by Morris and her team to carry out treatments that address said damage. In the case of animation cels, paint lifting and cracking that may be made worse by room vibrations while on display is improved by stabilizing the paint in question, a procedure that is done under high magnification.
“Working under the microscope, we carefully apply an adhesive system, or consolidant, to damaged paint areas, filling in cracked and damaged areas so they cannot worsen while on exhibit. This is an area of preservation that is greatly enhanced by microscope usage—in the past, we had to take much more of a hands-off approach to this type of conservation treatment as the naked eye does not afford the level of precision needed to accurately apply our adhesive system. The microscope also allows us to identify what is truly the root cause of the damage we are seeing—or not seeing—without magnification, allowing us to determine what is definitively our best course of action in terms of conserving the item.”
Another benefit to working with an industrial microscope is that it gives museum staff members a chance to learn more about an artist’s technique and the materials they worked with. One example of this is when the museum was examining a painting by renowned Disney artist Mary Blair (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South, Cinderella) prior to an exhibit of her work. “While investigating the condition of one of Blair’s paintings, we were taking a closer look at what appeared to be white paint strokes,” explained Morris. “What we realized while looking at the strokes under high magnification, however, was that they were not paint strokes at all but rather areas of the painting that Blair had actually scratched out of the piece.
So, any areas of the painting appearing to be white were not actually applied white paint but instead white ground layers made visible by Blair scratching out the paint above. This is something we never would have known without being able to look at her work under a microscope.” Following this discovery, Morris and her team then took a closer look at some of Blair’s other work, learning that this was a technique she also applied to many other paintings during a period of time in her work.
“This type of insight really gives us a chance to better understand an artist’s working method,” Morris continued. “And the more we know about an artist, the better we can preserve their work. In this case, we were able to determine that what may have previously been thought to be areas of damage were not damage at all but rather the places where Blair placed the point of a hard tool to begin these scratches.”
Beyond two-dimensional objects, the museum also uses its microscope system extensively for the examination of three-dimensional pieces. “We use the SZ61 for a variety of dimensional objects,” said Morris. “In the area of ceramics, I’ve used it to assess the condition of ceramics and their glazes as well as identify whether different-colored glazes are on top or below a clear glaze over the ceramic, if there is a clear glaze over the ceramic, if glazed surfaces are intact, and so on. We can also use the microscope to take a magnified look at any cracks in a vessel, determining how far they actually extend and to what extent they may worsen. Under normal light and without magnification, cracks in ceramics are not always visible or may appear to be much less severe than they actually are.
As a conservator, I may need to be thinking about an object’s structural stability before it goes on display—the microscope allows me to make the most accurate assessment possible as far as whether a piece of art can be safely displayed at our museum. It also allows me to make suggestions about the most appropriate method of display or how an object display case should be designed for maximum protection and prevention of any further damage.”
Another aspect to the museum’s microscope usage is the fact that microscope users can determine if and where an artist changed their approach to a piece while they were working on it. “In the past, we would have had no way of knowing if an artist may have changed their mind about something midway through a piece,” said Morris. “Today, however, we have the power to really determine the whole story of an artist’s approach. For example, if we see an under layer of black paint beneath a layer of blue, this might indicate that that portion of a painting was originally painted black, giving us an even deeper look into that artist’s process and thinking.”
Working to maintaining the artist’s true intent
An exciting addition to the museum’s conservation department, the Olympus SZ61 has greatly enhanced preservation capabilities while allowing staff members to perform a host of tasks that were previously not possible. “In the past, if we had preservation work that could not be properly done without magnification, we would simply not do the work rather than risk additional damage to an object, which often resulted in us not being able to display certain pieces,” explained Morris. “One good example of this is the stabilization of paint layers, which we can now perform using our microscope. The key to successful stabilization—which utilizes a consolidant to support damaged or degraded areas—is to not add any material to or place anything over original material if at all possible.
Without proper magnification, this type of work is simply not possible. Now, however, we use extremely fine brushes or syringes under high magnification to carefully apply very precise amounts of consolidant between paint layers. My whole goal is to preserve anything original, fully maintaining the artist’s true intent.”
Morris continues, “With a stereo microscope, we are now able to get a close look at what is actually happening as far as exactly where the consolidant is going or how paint or other media is reacting to it. This allows us to know exactly how well our treatment is performing and will continue to perform. In the past, we utilized very minimal magnification, which did not allow even close to the level of precision we are now able to work with. In fact, what led to us obtaining our microscope was an important painting in our collection that needed a stabilization treatment that we could not perform with our previous magnification system.”
“Because an object can look fine to the naked eye but in reality be suffering major degradation—or vice versa—having the ability to examine every piece that comes through the museum under high magnification has been an invaluable addition to our department and the museum as a whole,” Morris concluded. “Our general examination process has been greatly enhanced, as has our own ability to know what to look for in a piece as far as its level of degradation and what can be done to successfully preserve it. We look forward to continuing to utilize the microscope not only in the conservation lab but as a tool that can assist in other areas of the museum, including the examination and monitoring of large exhibited objects and the creation of effective display mounting systems based on careful consideration of object condition and preservation parameters.”
Cofounded by Walt Disney’s daughter, the late Diane Disney Miller, and his grandson, Walter E. D. Miller, The Walt Disney Family Museum is owned and operated by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, a nonprofit foundation.