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A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

I normally wouldn’t seek out a story about paper conservation, but when I read a reference by the hosts of national public radio’s The Book Guys to paper conservator Tara Kennedy, whom they described in very engaging terms, I was intrigued enough to seek her out for an interview.  I’m glad I did because she proved every bit as engaging as advertised and the following  profile I wrote about her is the result.

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Every object passing through the hands of Tara Kennedy, the fetching paper conservator at Omaha’s Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, is filled with what she calls “life history.” That’s certainly the case with three historic Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documents she’s now conserving. She’s preparing the documents, which accompanied the explorers’ on their 1804-06 Journey of Discovery, for a July 30 through August 3 public exhibition at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park. The display is one of many area events being held in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The materials belong to the Oklahoma State Historical Society. One is a Lewis and Clark signed account of an address delivered by Lewis to a band of Yankton Sioux Indians at Calumet Bluff in present-day northeastern Nebraska. Another is a peace medal certificate signed by the explorers and presented to an Otoe warrior, Big Ax, at Fish Camp — an expedition bivouac south of today’s Dakota City, Neb. The third is a letter in French, signed by Thomas Jefferson, inviting tribal leaders of the Otoe-Missouria and other Indian nations to visit him in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy’s assessment of the documents’ condition — revealing varied wear and damage — determined what conservation to do or not do. “I must have an informed cultural respect for the items I work with, such as the history of the period and the materials used then,” she said. The letter’s in bad enough shape she’s doing a wash to remove tape and acidic residue. The other pieces require less work. The well-traveled Calumet Bluff piece, complete with original binding, “tells its life history,” she said. “It wasn’t something that laid around in a drawer or hung on a wall. It was carried by horseback…stuffed into pockets. It got wet, and then for decades it was bundled up in a trunk. It’s a well-loved document.”

As conservators go, Kennedy’s anything but the shy, retiring type associated with her profession. Away from her job at the Ford Center, this self-described “extrovert” acts in local community theater productions. Her stage work ranges from quirky roles at the Shelterbelt to playing perky Nellie Forbush, the object of Some Enchanted Evening seduction in a Chanticleer Theater staging of South Pacific. She’s currently appearing in the Ralston Community Theatre production of Into the Woods at the Bellevue Little Theatre. She also enjoys singing, playing guitar and piano and listening to jazz, blues, swing, punk and indie rock.

“I can’t live without music and art,” said Kennedy, who exudes the bonhomie of a Bohemian beat poet with her chic looks, casual clothes and earthy charms.

When not living-out-loud, she’s content toiling away alone in the center’s paper conservation laboratory, an open, airy, antiseptic-looking space broken up by storage cabinets, sinks, tables, vents and examination instruments. There, in the sterile isolation of her lab, she applies her training in paper technology and art history to the conservation of rare and precious paper objects. Only the music blaring from a boom box belies her more animated side.

As this region’s only paper conservator, she tends to such objects as birth certificates, works of art, maps, books, manuscripts, newspapers, photos, documents and “pretty much anything on paper” collectors or curators need preserved. A division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the center devotes much of its resources to the NSHS’s collections.

Describing her work, Kennedy points out the difference between conservation and restoration. “In conservation, we try to stabilize an object — to retain the information that’s there. We’re not interested necessarily in what I like to say is ‘tarting it up’ — in making it look like it did when it was first created. That’s restoration,” she said. “In some cases, that is what the client wants. We try to dissuade them from that because it’s almost like you’re falsifying the piece. I mean, the piece had a history. It may be 150 years old. It’s not going to look brand new.”

Sometimes, she added, “the only way to improve a piece’s condition and appearance is to use artists’ techniques to disguise damage.” For those occasions, she keeps a ready supply of pastels, paints and other art materials.

She said “the marriage of art and science” that is her work “is what attracted me in the first place to make it my career path. I enjoyed chemistry in high school, but I didn’t want to be a chemist. I always enjoyed objects of history and I used to wonder how things were preserved. As a girl I remember looking inside an exhibit case at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia estate) and wondering about the objects and their condition. These objects had been unearthed on the property and I remember wondering, How’d they get all the dirt off them?”

But it was acting, not conservation, she originally pursued. Growing up in Kingston, New York, West Caldwell, New Jersey and Southington, Connecticut, she acted “rabidly” in youth theater and enrolled in Northwestern University’s prestigious dramatic arts program. After “really enjoying” some art history courses, she switched majors. “I thought there was no way I could combine the arts, history and chemistry until I visited this conservation lab. It was sort of like a bolt of lightning.” Cinching the deal was her studying abroad in Europe, followed by post-grad work at the University of Texas-Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, an internship at the National Archives and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution.

When she heard about the opening at the Ford Center in Omaha, she said, “I had to look it up on a map. Conservators are snobs. Nobody wants to leave the east coast. I still think the east coast is the place to be. I’m terribly biased in that respect. I applied here (the Ford Center) and at the New York Public Library, and they both offered me a job. But this job was far superior to that one. So, no-brainer, I was going to Omaha. Why not? And, so, here I am.”

As much satisfaction as she derives from conserving the splendid paper objects entrusted to her, she enjoys leaving the lab to slake her thirst for art at far-flung exhibits or to heed the extrovert in her. Whether greeting visitors, leading tours or making appearances on the nationally syndicated public radio show, The Book Guys, she displays her characteristic high energy, sharp wit and engaging laugh. One of the appealing things to her about the post, which she came to from the Smithsonian in 2001, is the multifaceted work and “the public face” it allows her.

“It’s a real diverse job. I get bored with things pretty easily. I have to have a million things to do. Here, I do the behind the scenes work that makes up a lot of conservation work, but I also get to go out and give lectures and do assessments at cultural institutions. And, being a regional center, a variety of people come in with a variety of materials. I get to have more contact with the public, and I enjoy interacting with people,” she said. “It’s an element you don’t normally get with other conservation positions.”

Then there’s The Book Guys gig. When the show came to tape at the W. Dale Clark Library in the spring of 2003, then-Library Foundation Director Marcy Cotton hooked Kennedy up with hosts/producers Allan Stypeck and Mike Cuthbert, who were taken with her. “They put me on the air and sprang me with some weird questions,” Kennedy said. “They asked me about the use of kitty litter in removing odor from books and they were impressed I knew the answer. And they liked my laugh…and so they decided I would be the official preservation-conservation consul for The Book Guys. I think the conservators they’d encountered were not extroverted.” Since her debut, she’s been called on again to answer queries, and it was during one of these segments when Cuthbert referred on-air to the single, 20-something Kennedy as “a hottie from Omaha,” a designation she feigns to be upset by. “Here I am trying to be this serious professional and, yeah, now I’m the Omaha hottie. Thanks guys.”

Programs like The Book Guys and PBS’s Antiques Road Show have “really increased appreciation and awareness in the preservation of artifacts,” she said. No sooner does she say that, however, than she comes back with, “I don’t watch it (Antiques) myself. I’d rather watch forensics science shows.”

Indeed, her work is not so different from a crime scene investigator’s as she explores, with gloved hands, the composition, age and condition of fragile objects and the best ways for conserving the integrity of those pieces. Showing a visitor around the center’s labs one day, Kennedy quipped, “It’s a regular CSI in here,” as she strode about the microscopes, lights, scalpels, cotton swabs, brushes, acid solutions, water baths, fumidors and elephant venting trunks arrayed about her.

“We have a microscopy lab in which we can actually do microscopic examination of fibers, inks…that sort of thing. I’ve had to do technical exams on pieces to find out, for example, what kind of pulp was used to make a paper. Usually, it’s to determine age, as part of an authentication process, although it can also be a method of deciding what kind of treatment to do. I extract micro pieces from a document and take them in the microscopy lab and identify…if it’s wood or linen or cotton. We have different kinds of light sources — infrared, ultraviolet — to use for examination. That’s usually to find inconsistencies in the paper.”

Often times, the documents she treats require removing tape. Different methods, including heat and solvents, are used with different kinds of adhesives.

The conservation called for by a project can find her doing everything from tamping down loose pieces of a collage to removing an insect infestation from a print. In the case of the collage, she said, “the artist used a spray adhesive that over time lost its tack, resulting in pieces popping up. So, I had to go in basically and tack them back down. A lot of times, artists will use materials that aren’t necessarily the most stable.” With the print, she said, “the glazing on the framing package was plexiglass, which has a lot of static, and the insects might have got sucked in during framing. I don’t think they were actually alive.”

The objects she examines and treats may be valued at anywhere from a few bucks to millions of dollars, although, she said, there can be no favorites. “We are expected to treat all objects exactly the same. We have to take great care with everything because it means something to someone, whatever it might be.”

But applying the same dispassionate approach to the priceless Louisiana Purchase Proclamation, which she examined at the center, or to a Jean Miro print, which she conserved last year, as she does, say, to just another birth certificate, is not easy. “It’s hard to separate out your emotions sometimes. But no matter what the monetary value of a piece, I’m still like, ‘Oh, it’s only a piece of paper.’” The exception, she said, comes “if I have a particular passion for an artist. Then, I think it would be very hard for me to do treatment. I almost have to remain detached.”


For the Thomas Jefferson-signed Louisiana Purchase Proclamation, owned by Walter Scott, Jr. of Omaha, Kennedy did a technical exam to authenticate it. “I took very, very tiny pieces from the document and examined them to determine what kind of paper pulp was used. It was a certain kind of paper I would not have expected in a document from 1803, so I was a little suspect at first. But it turns out it was an extremely early version of what’s called wove paper. The determining factor was a water mark on the paper. We did research on water marks, and there was an English manufacturer of paper that Thomas Jefferson did use and so that became a direct link to him. That really solidified it on top of the fact the paper was made of the right material and there were no inconsistencies in the writing and other types of tests I did, including whether any fillers used might be modern.”

The bound, 16-leaf Proclamation was treated by other conservators over the years, sometimes to its detriment. “A ribbon once woven through three binding holes had been removed and the holes filled…and that’s a shame,” she said, “because that’s lost information. That’s the kind of information that as a conservator you want to retain because it’s part of the object. And considering what it is and the history of it, you want all its pieces intact.” Despite its pedigree, Kennedy said the document is “very unassuming…only because it’s the proclamation for the Louisiana Purchase, which basically means it was a fancy press release.”

More Jeffersonian documents came her way when she was commissioned to assess and conserve the Lewis and Clark papers she’s now working with. “We’re thrilled to have these documents in her hands and to have them conserved in a way that gets them in appropriate condition for exhibition,” said Jeff Briley, assistant director of the Oklahoma State Historical Museum in Oklahoma City.

Then there was the painting she treated by contemporary realist Andrew Wyeth, a superstar among artists. “That was pretty intimidating, but very exciting, too,” she said. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to do a very invasive treatment on it. It’s great to see an artist’s work up close like that. Wyeth actually roughed up the paper and made it almost three-dimensional by scraping and cutting it to bring out the grasses. It’s things like that I need to be sensitive to because that means there are some undulations in the paper and I have to see that’s an artist’s technique that needs to be maintained in the piece, even if that means I’m not able to do certain things that might help conserve the object overall.

“If it’s an artist I’m not familiar with, I will take time to find out more about that artist’s working techniques before I proceed with treatment.”

Prestige, big-ticket items like the Wyeth painting used to make her anxious, but now they are par for the course. “I don’t get nervous anymore about it. Besides, I can’t really be frozen in fear. I have to do my work no matter what. But something’s sure to come along that will make me nervous.” She already knows which artist’s work would test her composure. French post-impressionist Edouard Vuillard, a leader of the avant-garde Nabi movement, “is an artist I adore,” said Kennedy, keenly aware a private collection of his work is in Iowa. “His compositions are very warm. He worked in really horrible media, though, so I’m not sure I’d want to treat one. It would be an incredible challenge.”

Her affection for Vuillard, who used oils, inks, washes on everything from boards, panels and screens to theater programs, is such she recently traveled to a retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. “I venture to go see particular works of art I haven’t seen in person. For example, I make it my life’s ambition to see every Vermeer before I die. A couple years ago I went to London to see one at the Kenwood House. I sat there and cried staring at this piece. The serenity in his figures is just unbelievable. I’m amazed at how anyone can capture that. Nothing prepares you for the beauty of something in person you’ve only seen in books.”

Epiphanies like those only reinforce why she’s dedicated to preserving, as conservators like to say, the cultural heritage. “I feel very good and proud about what I do every day,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily define me, but it fulfills me.”

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