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Vandalized Murals & Fragile Qur'ans: Fitler Square's CCAHA Takes On Art's Most Daring Rescues
By Rolando Rosa
When Candice Graham stepped into Shofuso on a mid-June morning in 2022, she was met with a disheartening scene.
Two waterfall murals, gifts from renowned artist Hiroshi Senju, had been defaced overnight at this cherished Japanese historical site and exhibition space in Philadelphia.
The act of vandalism left superficial damage on one mural, while the other suffered a deep puncture. This act was particularly heart-wrenching given Senju's intention behind these murals - to strengthen the cultural ties between Philadelphia and Japan.
“They’re essentially priceless,” Graham, the museum’s site manager, said. “There’s no way to put a numerical value on them...They are very unique and special to us.”
That’s when the Conservation Center For Art And Historical Artifacts came to the rescue.
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The CCAHA, headquartered here in Fitler Square, specializes in the restoration and repair of books, photographs, and documents.
With a dedicated team of conservators, CCAHA takes on diverse projects, from restoring Islamic manuscripts and archiving old birth records, to safeguarding pivotal documents at the Museum of the American Revolution.
The center takes on cases ranging from “Andy Warhol to Bruegel to Declaration of Independence copies,” Jilliann Herrick Wilcox, a Senior Conservation Assistant who has been with the CCAHA since 1987, said. “It’s so varied. That’s what makes it so exciting and challenging.”
Established in 1977 by Marilyn Kemp Weidner, CCAHA began when Weidner identified a gap in the market: oil painting and “object conservation” was a robust industry, but paper conservation lagged behind.
Honing her skills in Philadelphia and New York, Weidner set up an initial studio right in her living room. Soon, her expertise garnered national attention, leading to commissions from across the country.
Over the decades, CCAHA has broadened its horizons. It now tackles not only restoration, but also preservation, digitization, and even consultancy, assisting museums that need help writing grants to achieve their preservation goals.
To Shofuso's Rescue
Heather Hendry, Senior Paper Conservator for the CCAHA, was tasked with revitalizing the Shofuso murals last November.
Hendry quickly realized she was up against an “unexpected challenge”.
“Because it was modern paint, it was basically a layer of plastic,” Hendry said. “So it wasn’t responding like a traditional Japanese screen, which would be painted with watercolor.”
Thankfully, a technique Hendry has honed over the last five years was able to get the job done.
Within about three months, the murals were returned to Shofuso and received rave reviews from the staff.
“I was really satisfied with how it turned out,” Graham said. “You cannot tell that there was any damage done to it until you’re very close to it.”
Hendry beams while recalling the project. “There’s something new every day and you don’t know exactly how you’re going to do it,” Hendry said. “[You] build up sort of an array of things that you know you can try but you never actually know the answer until you’ve tried it.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
Located just a half a mile from CCAHA, The Rosenbach Museum & Library houses an eighteenth-century English translation of the Qur'an. Richard Homer, the Senior Book Conservator at CCAHA, undertook its meticulous conservation.
The Rosenbach wanted to include the Qur'an in a tour exploring early American religious culture, but the book was in dire straits. Both its front and back boards were either completely detached or perilously close to it.
Undeterred, Homer employed unbleached sewing thread and Mulberry paper to seamlessly integrate the disjointed parts. He completed the intricate work in about 20 hours—a relatively swift project for him, as some restorations demand a staggering 200 hours or more.
Alexander Lawrence Ames, the Rosenbach's Director of Outreach & Engagement, is grateful to be in such close proximity to the CCAHA.
“Right in our neighborhood is a world renowned center for conservation work on the kinds of materials that we hold,” Ames said. “The fact that we can utilize CCAHA’s expertise, their skills, their vision of the place of conservation in our community is truly essential.”
Part of the Community
In 2002, the CCAHA inaugurated the Philadelphia Stewardship Program, aimed at equipping cultural institutions with preservation strategies and innovative tools for their prized collections.
“We’re a non-profit. Education is part of our mission. It’s really just kind of helping people understand that it’s not just specialists that can do this,” Greg Stuart, Education Program Manager, said. “Anybody can take steps to care for important historical documents.”
An open house at the CCAHA is scheduled for Oct. 24 from 5-7 p.m., with the general public invited to attend. During the event, visitors will have the opportunity to talk directly with the conservation staff and glean insights from their expertise.
“We want people to know that we’re members of the neighborhood,” Jason Henn, Manager of Marketing & External Relations, said. “We work with these institutions but we’re really focused on community outreach as a mission-driven non-profit.”