Throughout the year, we’re featuring the many folks involved in the New Room’s restoration and their roles in the project. Today, we interview Elizabeth Chambers, Mount Vernon’s director of exhibitions and collections management, and Bruce Lee, president of ELY, Inc.
Hello, Elizabeth and Bruce! Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start by telling me about your jobs.
Elizabeth Chambers (EC): I am the director of exhibitions and collections management at Mount Vernon. I manage the fine and decorative arts collection, which includes ensuring proper documentation for gifts and loans and maintaining proper storage for the artifacts. I also oversee the exhibition program in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center as well as objects on display in the Mansion and outbuildings.
Bruce Lee: (BL) I am the president and a project manager at ELY, Inc., a museum services company.
What have your roles been in the New Room project?
EC: My role is to coordinate the deinstallation and then reinstallation of all the fine and decorative art objects in the room. I also coordinated the logistics of all the movement of objects in the interim, between conservators, storage, and the like.
BL: We design, fabricate, and install the mounts for the 3D objects, as well as attach the cleats and install the framed objects and mirrors.
What is a mount?
BL: A mount is a bracket that safely holds a museum artifact where it’s being displayed. It’s a display armature that protects the piece from falling or movement or theft. But also it needs to be invisible. Or that’s the request! You can’t make it invisible. It needs to be as unobtrusive as possible, yet secure.
Bruce Lee holds the custom mount ELY, Inc., fabricated for one of the mirrors in the New Room. The prongs he is pointing to will serve as the mount for the candelabra that rests on the bracket.
David Schlaegel and Bruce Lee install the mirror and bracket on their mount.
Once installed, the mount is nearly invisible. Read more about this mirror here.
You just completed the installation of all the hanging pieces in the room. What were some of the challenging aspects of accomplishing that?
EC: I would say the most challenging aspect was not knowing what was in the walls and what we were attaching the artwork to. We have pieces that are quite heavy and large and we have to make sure that they stay on the walls. Bruce bought a boroscope to help us with this.
What is a boroscope?
BL: It’s a little camera-like probe that you can stick into a hole in the wall and see if there are places where you can anchor, studs, or lath, or whatever’s in there. Then you’re not willy-nilly putting holes in 18th-century plaster. We’re trying to be as noninvasive as possible in the attachments to the building, but yet, as secure as possible.
Tom Reinhart, deputy director for architecture, and Neale Nickels, architectural conservator, use the boroscope to investigate inside the New Room’s walls.
EC: We worked with our preservation colleagues in a team effort to collaborate and find the best possible, least intrusive, most secure way to hang everything.
BL: And we also coordinate with the curators. It’s one thing to say we need to put the vases up here on the mantel, but you have to consider where exactly you want them. That changes how the mount works and what kind of mount you use. When you’re hanging the paintings, even if we have the drawings and dimensions in advance, when you see it on the wall you might look at it differently. You have to adjust, and in an 18th-century building you can’t throw all these holes in the wall every time.
EC: You can’t just spackle it.
BL: It’s not like working in a gallery where you could hang something, and then take it down and hang it five inches to the left. You don’t have that option.
Dermot Rooney and Bruce Lee hang William Winstanley’s Morning on its cleats in the New Room.
Elizabeth, you oversee installation of exhibitions here at Mount Vernon’s museum, and Bruce, you have experience installing artwork in many other museums. Would you say that dealing with the wall structure is the main consideration that makes this different, to be in a historic house rather than a museum?
BL: Right, a museum is designed for exactly that purpose, hanging stuff on walls. Usually there’s structure back behind the sheet rock or plaster that you can attach to, and usually you know where it all is and what you can do. Here, you don’t know that. So, for instance, the 180-pound mirror needs a substantial amount of support, but because of the nature of the building, minimal anchors and holes. We have to balance the two and make sure that the mirror doesn’t come crashing down.
Sarah Martin (left), preservation specialist, and Elizabeth Chambers (right) discuss the installation plan.
How did you get interested in museum work?
EC: I was a history major with no idea about what I wanted to do. I did an internship in museums and worked my way into collections management. I started working as exhibitions registrar at Mount Vernon, before eventually becoming collections manager, and now, director of exhibitions and collections management.
BL: I studied painting and worked construction to put myself through school. I had a construction background and I understood how paintings are structured and how they work, and that kind of happened because I needed to eat—I got a job working for art handling companies and museums and doing installations.
What are you most excited about for the New Room project?
EC: I am most excited to see the different interpretation of the room. It’s always been a dining room as long as I’ve been at Mount Vernon, and to see it more as a salon-style room I think is very exciting. And I don’t have to worry about the security of all the china on the table!
BL: I’m most excited about meeting all the folks who have worked on it, preservation folks, faux finishers, and all those guys. It’s amazing, the skills and trades that work here to do all this. Karl is fantastic. These people are really skilled and it’s a pleasure to be working with them.
Thank you both!
Interview conducted and edited by Hannah Freece, Project Manager