Bracket-making

A significant percentage of the objects that are selected for inclusion in museum exhibitions require brackets to hold them in place while they are on view.  One of the most indispensible steps in the exhibit development process is designing and constructing these often one-of-a-kind support structures, which vary widely in size and complexity.

The Office of Exhibits Central's (OEC) primary mount-maker, Howard Clemenko, follows a carefully thought-out process when developing a mount.  His first step is to gather as much information as possible from the curator and conservator relating to the object's history and fragility, as well as input from the exhibit designer regarding the anticipated design intent for the display of the object inside its exhibit case.  Next, he studies the object, itself, in order to discern its strengths and weaknesses, composition, and most advantageous angles.  He then determines the safest method for supporting the object, and best materials to use to fabricate the mount.  It is imperative that the bracket not alter the object in any way, and that the materials be inert, so that they do not chemically react with the object.  Additionally, Clemenko strives to make the brackets unobtrusive, so that visitors can focus on the important characteristics of the object.

Clemenko, who has been a mount-maker for twenty years, has designed and constructed thousands of brackets during his career.  The diverse list of projects on which he has worked while at OEC is a long one, including artifacts used in everyday life during the Roman era for display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History; objects for exhibits organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service on the U.S. First Ladies, as well as on Jim Hensen's muppets; bird specimens and mollusk shells for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, to accompany displays of their rare books; and objects from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's Numismatic Collection presenting a comparative study of American coinage over time.

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Study mounts for coinage for the "Stories on Money" exhibit from the
 Smithsonian's Numismatic Collection

 

For the Numismatic Collection's coinage exhibit, entitled "Stories on Money," Clemenko prototyped three different types of mounts which are pictured above.  The first–utilized for the large coins at the top and bottom–consisted of three prongs, each of which was constructed of flattened brass, bent at a right angle.  The second type–used for the two medium-sized middle coins–was made up of three different parts: a lower section composed of an inverted brass "V" which had a tyne on each end on which the coin sat; an upper section comprised of a small flat brass pin with a hook at the top which held the coin in place from above; and a stainless steel "Z"-shaped spring which connected the upper and lower sections together, and allowed the pin and hook to move, while providing enough tension to firmly hold the coin in place once it was mounted.  To install the coin, Clemenko grasped the small flat pin and hook with one hand, rested the coin on the tynes of the inverted V with the other hand, pulled the pin and hook up–by stretching the spring–until it reached the top of the coin, and then gently slipped the hook over the coin's upper rim.  The third type of mount–utilized for the smallest coin pictured above–was constructed of three strands of spring-tempered stainless steel, whose front ends were formed and flattened to fit the shape of the coin, and whose back ends were soldered together and inserted into the back board.  The tensile flexibility of the spring-tempered stainless steel allowed the bracket to firmly support the coin.

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Side view of study mounts for coinage

 

Clemenko used silver solder with a high percentage of silver content, and an acetylene air torch to heat, bend, and connect the metal materials.  He then covered the metal with a heated powder coating or with B-72, which served to seal the metal with a conservationally-approved inert buffer that prevented the bracket from directly rubbing against the surface of the coin.  The coins were displayed at varying distances from the back board to which they were mounted to enhance the exhibit case's visual interest.  Variations in depth can also be used to highlight a particularly important object within a case. 

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View of some of the coins included in "Stories on Money" at the
 National Museum of American History

 

A similar project on which Clemenko worked was the fabrication of a series of mounts for a collection of Greek coins and bank notes, on loan from the National Bank of Greece and the Welfare Foundation for Social and Cultural Affairs, which traced the history of Greece through the images that appeared on its currency.  "Classically Greek: Coins and Bank Notes from Antiquity to Today" was displayed in the Schermer Hall gallery of the Smithsonian's Castle Building in 2008.

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View of the installation of "Classically Greek" in the Schermer Hall of the
 Smithsonian's Castle Building

 

Mounts for an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, entitled "Going to Sea," were also constructed by Clemenko.  The show examined man's interaction with the sea by surveying the use of, and navigation of, the oceans; it illustrated the history of sea exploration from early navigational voyages, through contemporary discoveries many of which were made using highly-advanced technologies.

Clemenko first studied a drawing of the layout of the exhibit, which was provided by the exhibit designer, to determine where each object would be mounted, and what type of mount each artifact would require.

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Exhibit drawing for "Going to Sea"

 

Next, Clemenko carefully removed the object on which he intended to work from the storage vault, and took it to his workshop.

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Exhibit objects for "Going to Sea"

 

Clemenko then examined each object, paying particular attention to its condition and fragility.  An especially delicate sea shell, for example (pictured below), required a soft mount, which Clemenko fabricated using small plastic tubing made of polyolefin.  He heated and formed the shrink tube, creating an encircling loop which was the exact size of the sea shell, so that the shell would fit snugly within it.

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View of the back of the sea shell and its shrink tube loop

 

Next, he heated the tubing and attached a brass support rod to it, which would elevate the sea shell so that it would be more visible within its exhibit case.  Clemenko then placed the sea shell inside its shrink tube circle.  The shell's fragile appendages were reinforced from behind by the tubing, which was not visible from the front.

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View of the sea shell on its brass support rod

 

Clemenko has also constructed mounts for non-accessioned objects, which are sometimes included in exhibits.  "Journey Stories," which was organized by the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service, examined the intersection between transportation and American society by providing individual stories which illustrated the critical roles that mobility and travel have played in our country's history.  The limited security exhibit, which traveled to small and rural communities, included purchased objects which required less stringent conservation controls.

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The non-accessioned objects mounted inside this "Journey Stories" exhibit case included a clay tobacco pipe, dice, and a deck of cards–modern-day examples of items that would have been used by some of the early colonists on board a ship

 

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The non-accessioned objects displayed inside this "Journey Stories" exhibit case included cowry shells which were used for bartering, a ceramic jug, plates, and a pressed brick of tea with embossed surface designs

 

Another interesting project on which Clemenko worked, was the fabrication of a complex mount for an important artifact that was included in an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania while he was working there.  According to Clemenko, "An archaeological dig in the Great Death Pit of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, conducted jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1928 and 1929, yielded a wealth of objects that were traced to Sumerians from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., in Mesopotamia.  During the dig, C. Leonard Woolley discovered two lyres of special interest, one of which was a beautifully-carved 'Boat-Shaped' Lyre with a figure of a standing stag on the front."

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Silver "Boat-Shaped" Lyre from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.

 

In 1997, the lyre was selected for inclusion in the "Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur" exhibit, which was organized by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  It was researched and documented by Maude de Schauensee–one of the exhibit curators at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book Two Lyres from Ur–who requested that Clemenko fabricate a mount for the stringed instrument, which required an especially high degree of planning.  The complexity of the mount resulted from a number of factors including the object's fragility; the fact that the lyre was divided into thirteen separate fragments; and the requirement that each fragment needed to be supported independently, so that the pieces could be removed and studied as distinct entities by scholars.

Additionally, each fragment needed to be mounted so that once it was removed for study, the mount would allow it to remain stable and level when placed on a flat surface.  Moreover, because of their fragility, the fragments could not be secured to their mounts in any way; the mounts needed to have vertical adjustability in order for the fragments to align properly for display; and each fragment had to overlap where necessary, but not touch the others.  Clemenko was also responsible for reconstructing the sections of the lyre that were missing, including the strings, and the branches of the copper tree on which the stag's front hoofs were braced.  The new pieces were to be fabricated out of present-day materials with the stipulation that they had to be clearly distinguishable as new, and they could not touch the original artifact.  Lastly, the lyre and its mount needed to be installed on an inclined surface in its exhibit case.

After careful consideration, Clemenko decided to fabricate a custom-formed cradle for each fragment upon which the artifact would rest.  He began by rolling Pliacre–a non-exothermic epoxy putty–between two sheets of plastic wrap moistened with water.  The moisture allowed the Pliacre to move within the plastic sheets so that it could be stretched quite thin.  When necessary, the plastic wrap was rewetted to allow the rolling and stretching process to continue.  When the Pliacre was thin enough, Clemenko placed the lyre fragments face down in a bed of sand.  He covered the backs of the objects with another sheet of plastic wrap to protect them, and then placed the Pliacre on top, gently pressing it to help it conform to the shape of the fragments.

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Side view of the Pliacre cradles and brass support rods; the stag's head
and antlers are visible on the left side of the image

 

After lifting the Pliacre "shells" or "cradles" off the objects, Clemenko let them dry for 24 hours.  He then applied a coat of B-72, and let them dry for another 24 hours.  A second coat of B-72 was applied, and allowed to dry for an additional 24 hours.  Following that, Clemenko immersed soft Tyvek–a high-density polyethylene fiber material–in B-72, let it rest overnight, and applied it to each Pliacre shell the following day to create a protective surface that would lie between the Pliacre and the lyre fragments.

The next step was for Clemenko to add more Pliacre epoxy putty beneath the shells to build up a mass to which he could attach the solid brass support rods which would run from the Pliacre cradles to the deck of the case.  After determining how thick the built-up areas needed to be in order to safely support the fragments, as well as the precise height and angle of each cradle, and the length that each brass support rod needed to be, Clemenko fit together the entire mount to make certain that the pieces were exactly as he wanted them to be, ensuring that the sides of the cradles were high enough to keep the objects securely in place on the inclined deck surface.  He then laid the lyre fragments on their individualized cradles to check their relationship to one another.  After removing the fragments, he completed the assembly by drilling holes in the built-up areas of the Pliacre cradles, and permanently attached the brass support rods.  Lastly, Clemenko drilled holes in the deck of the case to accommodate the brass rods.

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Drawing showing the built-up area beneath the cradle,
as well as the brass support rod

 

As noted above, some of the project's complexity was derived from the fact that the fragments had to be removable for study.  When fully installed, however, many of the lyre fragments needed to overlap in order to show how the artifact would have originally appeared.  Additionally, the mounts were designed so that they would hold the fragments in a precise alignment when installed.  In order to avoid future handling problems, Clemenko supplied installation instructions for the  mount, which provided a specific order in which the fragments needed to be removed and re-installed following study.  As a consequence, the fragments were less likely to be incorrectly handled.

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View of the overlapping–but not touching–lyre fragments

 

"One of the greatest benefits of being a mount-maker," Clemenko noted, "is the opportunity to be able to study artifacts in such an intimate manner.  I also enjoy being able to participate in installations, and watch exhibitions come together in the gallery.  Additionally, as a sculptor, I appreciate fine work, and have a strong interest in form and dimensionality, which allow me to display the objects to their best advantage."

The ever-changing nature of designing and constructing supports for an unending list of objects, serves to keep Clemenko fascinated with the art of mount-making.  And combining traditional methods and materials with new ones, as they evolve, ensures that the field remains a fertile environment for the exchange of knowledge and information.

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Clemenko adjusts a mount for one of the muppets included in
"Jim Hensen's Fantastic World," organized by the Smithsonian
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service

 

photo credits

  photos 1-3:        Editor

  photos 4-8:        Jessica Hostetler

  photos 9-10:       Editor

  photos 11-12:    Two Lyres from Ur by Maude de Schauensee

  photo 13:           Elevation drawing of Pliacre mount by Howard Clemenko

  photo 14:           Two Lyres from Ur by Maude de Schauensee

  photo 15:           (c) The Muppets Studio, LLC.  All rights reserved

Background information on the Boat-Shaped Lyre from the article, "The 'Boat-Shaped' Lyre: Restudy of a Unique Musical Instrument from Ur" by Maude de Schauensee (Expedition, Volume 40, No. 2 [1998]).

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