On Saturday, July 23, the Read House had quite possibly its very first entries in the guest book of visitors from Erbil, Iraq. The small group of Iraqi visitors visited New Castle as part of their tour of American cultural and heritage institutions. Their stay in the United States was sponsored by the Iraq Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH). The program is a partnership between the University of Delaware Art Conservation program, the Winterthur Museum, the U. S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Walters Art Museum, The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq and the local government of Erbil in northern Iraq (the Kurdish regional Government) and brings cutting edge educational opportunities in conservation and preservation to Iraqi professionals. According to IICAH, these “courses achieved the goals of introducing students to current conservation and preservation concepts and techniques and empowering them to better care for Iraq’s cultural heritage.” You can learn more about IICAH here: http://www.artcons.udel.edu/public-outreach/iraq-institute.
The Delaware Historical Society agreed to share its perspectives on issues in preservation and conservation that house museums often must deal with. The students started with an introduction on the history of the Read House and the evolution of interpretation and educational programs. After learning the basics, Michele Anstine, Chief Program Officer and Assistant CEO of DHS, led the group on a room-by-room tour of the basement and first floor levels of the house. The participants had many excellent questions about the house, especially when it came to preservation and conservation issues. One participant asked why the climate inside the house was not strictly controlled as it would be in a museum or collections storage area. Michele explained that many considerations must go in to deciding what is best for the historical integrity of the house. Museum staff must be aware of the risks that a variable climate can have on the historic objects in the house as well as the house itself.
The participants, who were understandably tired after a long day of museum hopping, were glad to have a chance to take a seat in the Read House kitchen, which features an open hearth cooking fireplace. While Michele explained historic open hearth cooking methods, one participant likened the cooking techniques with traditional Iraqi cooking techniques. And when Michele explained that visitors could participate in open hearth cooking demonstrations, Lois Olcott Price, Head of Conservation at Winterthur, compared the program to preparing an historic Assyrian meal at an Iraqi museum. The participants all agreed that a program focusing on the experience of historic cooking is a wonderful way to teach visitors about history and culture.
After the tour of the house and gardens, archaeologist Lou Ann De Cunzo of the University of Delaware spoke about the archaeological excavations at the Read House. Many of the participants were professional archaeologist and had many excellent questions and observations for Lu Ann. While the archeological collections recovered at the Read House may seem very “young” in comparison to the ancient materials that the Iraqi archeologists routinely work with, one participant reminded the Americans in the group that age is no way to gauge the importance of an object. What matters, she said, is how that object fits into the history that it can help us tell.
While the students were from a country that is geographically distant to us here in Delaware, they shared with us their common vision of preservation and conservation. The day was a productive exchange of ideas and perspectives. It’s safe to say that everyone learned something new.