Tufts Restoring Rare 3-D Map of Boston Watersheds

Recently rediscovered map reflects past, current environmental issues
May 10, 2010

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass.-- A rare relief map commissioned more than a century ago by the city of Boston to raise awareness of water quality issues is being restored at Tufts University following the map's rediscovery by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Measuring almost nine feet by six feet, and made of plaster and papier-mache, the artifact was created by noted map-maker J.N. McClintock under commission by the Boston Water Board, an MWRA antecedent. It offers a detailed look at the Cochituate and Sudbury watersheds, including rivers and reservoirs that supplied Boston, aqueducts, roads and railroads, and open space.

The three-dimensional map was designed to be the centerpiece of the water board's exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

"The use of relief was very uncommon and was intended to impress at the fair," notes MWRA historian Marcis Kempe. That approach was apparently successful, because the map won an award at the exposition "for careful and skillful presentation and instructive display."

According to Kempe, the map reflects growing public health and environmental awareness. "In the late 1800s, germs were just being recognized as causing disease," he explains. "Villages were getting too close to lakes. There was a need to find clean upland water supplies. Municipal water supplies were just being introduced into most cities, and Boston was regarded as one of the most progressive and best engineered water supplies in the country. Only a handful of the largest eastern cities had built anything like the Sudbury reservoirs."

The history of the map after the fair is unclear. It was probably moved a number of times before it was rediscovered late last year among other records stored at the MWRA's facility on Deer Island. It was covered with the dust and dirt of decades but the MWRA had no funds to restore it.

The agency turned to Ingrid Neuman, an instructor in the nationally known Museum Studies program at Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and museum conservator at the Rhode Island School of Design. Neuman's specialty is conservation of three-dimensional objects. She helped restore the lining of a stovepipe hat worn by Abraham Lincoln.

Neuman saw the map as the perfect opportunity to propose a new course that would be offered by Tufts' Experimental College. The "ExCollege," based in the School of Arts and Sciences, offers innovative, interactive, and interdisciplinary programs and courses and is believed to be the oldest program of its kind in the country.

This semester, 13 students – 10 Tufts undergraduates and three students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – have been busily restoring the 117-year-old piece as part of a new course on "Art Conservation: Saving a Vintage Topographical Map."

The first objective, according to Neuman, was simply to remove the grime accumulated over the last century. "The map and its oak frame were covered with deeply engrained dirt and soot. Paint was flaking, cracks were evident and the sheet metal that was used for the reservoirs themselves was dull."

The good news, according to Neuman, was the lack of previous restoration attempts. "The map had suffered from benign neglect, which was actually an advantage." Often, well-intentioned attempts to repaint or repair artifacts destroy their integrity.

Each student works on one section of the map. Using moistened oversized cotton swabs, they gently rub away the dirt. Some apply distilled water to the swabs, but many prefer one of the oldest tools in the field of conservation: their own saliva.

It turns out that spit and polish is more than an expression. The complex components of human saliva that help dissolve food and protect our teeth also do a good job of cleaning paintings and wood finishes.

Large cracks and gaps are filled with pigmented wax or paper soaked with methyl cellulose. Sections of the original paint, most likely oil-based, will be refurbished with modern acrylics, carefully color-matched. Acrylics have the advantage of being easily removed if necessary, Neuman notes.

The painstaking conservation effort "combines science and art," according to Tufts School of Engineering senior Christina Thomas, who is majoring in biomedical engineering. She plans to pursue a career in stem cell research; like many of her classmates, she finds the interdisciplinary nature of the conservation effort satisfying.

Tufts will return the restored map to the MWRA. Plans call for it to be on permanent public display later this year, probably in the lobby of a water treatment plant in Marlborough.

Aerial photography has replaced the need for such maps but Kempe notes that the piece is still relevant. "It ties in with the concerns of that day in managing water quality by controlling sewage and growth in the watershed. We still have the same concerns today," he says.

 

 

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Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.