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NMSU students learn art of restoration at one of two museum conservation programs in U.S.

Nearly 25 years ago, a large-scale bronze sculpture was unveiled on the business complex at New Mexico State University. Through the years, the statue became corroded and marred with graffiti. Today, the luster is back thanks to a rare preservation program in the College of Arts and Sciences. Newly restored, "The Traders" was revealed during homecoming weekend.

Silvia Marinas-Feliner standing in front of "The Traders" sculpture
Art professor Silvia Marinas-Felinas, program director for New Mexico State University's Museum Conservation Program, stands in front of the partially covered statue of "The Traders." The sculpture was unveiled during NMSU's Homecoming week. (Photo by Tonya Suther)
2009 photo shows "The Traders" sculpture
A 2009 photo shows "The Traders" sculpture prior to restoration efforts by students in NMSU's Museum Conservation Program. (NMSU Photo by Harrison Brooks)
"The Traders" sculpture after restoration
"The Traders" sculpture after NMSU students removed corrosion and graffiti and coated the bronze piece with a protective wax as part of the university's Museum Conservation Program. (NMSU photo by Tonya Suther)

"I'm very happy that we finally stabilized this sculpture," said Silvia Marinas-Feliner, museum conservation program director and professor of art conservation at NMSU. "The corrosion was really advanced, and we couldn't fix everything, but at least now it's stabilized."

Restoring "The Traders" is just one of the many hands-on projects assigned to students in NMSU's Museum Conservation Program. This unique program is one of only two programs nationwide that prepares students for graduate work to become art conservators. Students enrolled in the program gain practical experience while restoring bronze statues, religious retablos and other works of fine art.

Marinas-Feliner, the director of the program since 2002, said the program has had a 10-year record of steady growth, attracting out-of-state and international students from Japan and China. More than 45 students have already declared the Museum Conservation Program as a major, and more than 140 students have taken, at least, one museum conservation course.

Demand for the program began in 2005 after a survey completed by Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum and Library. The report estimated 4.8 billion artifacts at 30,000 institutions across the country with 190 million items in need of immediate restoration assistance.

"Damage is occurring at institutions of all sizes, but it is worse at small-town museums and historical societies," Marinas-Feliner said. "Most of our national heritage is in small museums that aren't well funded nor professionally run. Therefore, there is a great need for art conservators as well as people working in museums who are trained in museum conservation."

The program is called museum conservation instead of art conservation because the course includes museum studies, an area where conservators work with curators and collection managers who need to be knowledgeable in the fundamentals of conservation.

"After finishing a BFA in museum conservation, students may choose to start working in a museum, because they're looking for people with knowledge of conservation issues to take care of their collections," Marinas-Feliner said.

Students in NMSU's art restoration classes learn collections care and preventive conservation. Art conservators work to protect objects from further degradation, which requires not only knowledge of art and conservation techniques, but also chemical, biological and physical factors that cause works of art to deteriorate.

With a master's in art conservation from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Marinas-Feliner also teaches the introduction classes, Techniques 1 and Techniques 2 where students learn about theory and practice and the restoration of ceramics, canvas and metals.

"This semester, my students are restoring retablos," Marinas-Feliner said. "It is the second largest retablos collection in the nation, and we have it here at NMSU."

Marinas-Feliner spearheaded the program in 2001. Working with the NMSU Foundation, the program was made possible by the generosity of the Stockman Family Foundation, which has donated almost two million dollars over the years.

Students in the program also work with the community to provide art conservation services to institutions in Las Cruces and the surrounding areas. In the past, the program has offerred student interns to the N.M. Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, the Kent Hall Museum at NMSU, the Paul and Mary Taylor State Historic Monument and the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces.

Commissioned by the College of Business's Business Advisory Council, and completed by Duke Sundt, an NMSU fine arts alumnus, "The Traders" statue was first unveiled and dedicated during homecoming celebrations in 1988.

The newly-restored statue on display in NMSU's Business College Complex represents early commerce during New Mexico's territorial days. Three figures, a Native American trader, a Hispanic vaquero and an Anglo mountain man all gathered around items of trade, such as knives and tomahawks capture the cultural diversity and heritage of New Mexico circa 1850.

Restoring the statue was a three-step process. First, Marinas-Feliner's class delicately removed both the graffiti and corrosion. Restoration soap was then used to clean the entire sculpture before a sacrificial layer of microcrystalline wax was applied to protect the surface metal. Marinas-Feliner said the wax would be reapplied every year.

Past projects for Marinas-Feliner and her students have included the "Bataan Death March Memorial" at Veteran's Memorial Park in Las Cruces and the "Olive Rush" fresco mural at NMSU's Foster Hall.

Next semester, she plans to have the class restore "The Joy of Learning," a smaller bronze that sits in the grass behind the Branson Library on the NMSU campus.

For more information about the Museum Conservation Program contact Marinas-Feliner at smarinas@nmsu.edu or visit the program's website at http://artdepartment.nmsu.edu/programs/museumcons/index.php?go=home.html.