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Interview with Howard Clemenko, OEC Mountmaker

Q: Can you describe the first things you consider when making a mount?
A: Well, the first thing we say is, “Oh, I can’t do it!” (laughs) No, the first thing we need to know is whether the object we’re mounting is a prop or an artifact. An artifact is an object that is or will be accessioned. These are given a number and put into, or are already a part of, a permanent collection. If it’s an artifact, we have to make a mount that will protect and preserve it. If the object is a prop, then almost anything can be used to mount it. We usually don’t need to worry about destroying it because it won’t be used afterwards. Then, depending on what type of environment the object will be in, the look the client wants, and the support the object needs, we work on fashioning a mount.

I use “we” because I make mounts with the help of other people. Everyone in the model shop at OEC is capable of making mounts and some people bring valuable experience in certain types of mount making to the jobs. For example, Natalie has more experience than I do making mannequins. Jon and Danny have more experience than I with props.

Q: What materials do you typically use to make the mounts?
A: Well, if we’re working with an artifact, we can’t use wood or any other natural material in case this would attract creatures, decay, and/or interact chemically with the artifact. I often use brass, stainless steel, or man-made plastics. Steel can be used, as well, but only for a short period of time; otherwise it will start to rust. If we’re mounting a prop, we can use whatever material we think will work best because we don’t have to worry about preserving the object.

Q: Do you make all the mounts here at OEC?
A: Sometimes, the object is so fragile that it can’t be transported to OEC. In that case, I have to travel to the site to make the mount. I can’t take all my tools with me, so I have to be more resourceful with what I use to create the mounts, which can be fun!

Q: How long have you worked at OEC? And where did you work before?
A: I have been at OEC four years. I worked at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology for thirteen years as their principle Mountmaker before I retired. I worked only with artifacts there, so when I came to OEC, I had to learn how to make mounts for props.

Q: Why did you decide to work here?
A: After I retired from the University of Pennsylvania, I had friends living in Rockville who convinced me to come live next to them. I looked for part-time work starting with the National Museum of the American Indian because I heard they were looking for mountmakers. I never got through to talk to them and I ended up speaking with Lora Collins here at OEC, who had just lost her principle mountmaker, ironically, to the Museum of the American Indian. That is how I started working here.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the job? What’s the most challenging?
A: The variety of objects and projects I get to work on. All of the projects are challenging. But I’d say the biggest challenge is keeping up with the people I work with. They’re young, brilliant, and so creative. They’re just amazing.

Q: Have you had a favorite project so far?
A: No; I like them all for different reasons. Jim Henson’s Fantastic World was fun, First Ladies was fun – but both for completely different reasons! I also enjoyed doing the electronics for the Polio interactive displays and the rain showers for the exhibit Orchids: Take a Walk on the Wild Side.

Q: How did you decide you wanted to be a mountmaker?
A: A friend of a friend asked me to make some mounts for several large African pieces. I managed to make the mounts without destroying the pieces even though I knew virtually nothing about mountmaking and less than that about conservation. As a result, I was asked to do some more mounts for friends of his. At the time, I had my own business designing and building interiors for children’s rooms and private playgrounds. A friend told me about an opening at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. I applied for the job of Mountmaker and was hired.

Q: What kind of training did you go through?
A: I took a course in mountmaking after I had been making mounts for a year or so. Virginia Greene, the head conservator at Penn and her assistant Lynn Grant were most helpful over the years teaching me the things that good conservation methodology required. Slowly I developed approaches that produced mounts that were lighter, stronger and less obtrusive.

Q: Family?
A: I have three children and seven grandchildren. Everyone here knows my grandchildren as “Howard’s Mob” because I put one of those old-fashioned sepia photos of them in the break room.

photo: Clemenko shows where the artifact he is holding will be located in an exhibit.

More photos

One of Clemenko’s mounting jobs at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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