VENICE — Two of the world’s foremost print conservation experts help restore everything from 600-year-old manuscripts to decades-old presidential documents at their Venice facility.
And sometimes, Frank Mowery and Sonja Jordan-Mowery restore recent artifacts that reflect a darker side of human history.
The Venice couple is currently restoring about 250 artifacts left behind in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016.
The massacre by Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. Police officers shot and killed Mateen, 29, after a three-hour standoff.
“The items we’re restoring were not created for posterity,” Jordan-Mowery said. “They were written and drawn on a variety of materials, from poster board and banners to T-shirts, with all manner of instruments. They were created for immediacy, to express their shock and sorrow and to express their sympathy.”
After the tragedy, thousands of people flocked to the nightclub to share their grief and to leave mementos. Signs posted stated if people wanted to keep the items, they should retrieve them at the end of the day. Left items were collected each evening by the Orange County Regional History Center.
Many left notes.
Kirsti, a Swede living in Shanghai, China, wrote: “When the news of this horrid night reached us who live in Shanghai, the LGBTQ community and other engaged people organized a vigil in one of Shanghai’s bars. It was a beautiful night where people shared poems, stories, songs, memories and sent so much love your way.”
She closed her note by adding: “We are humans, nothing else! I love you! I cry for you! I will fight for you! With love! As long as I live!”
Another person who signed a letter C.W. said they drove all the way from San Francisco to pay their respects and help with the healing process.
The letter said: “You may have gone to a better place, but you’ll never be forgotten. I will remember each of you every time a rainbow appears in the sky… Be strong. In the end, we will prevail.”
“When we think of historic documents, we tend to picture famous works by great artists and documents signed by important people from throughout history,” Jordan-Mowery added. “But these expressions of sympathy and compassion, they are just as important. They are the fabric of our humanity.”
The artifacts were originally stored in a warehouse. And then the roof of the warehouse was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, resulting in the artifacts suffering water damage.
“The building’s insulation, which had a yellowish tint, discolored many of the items and had to be removed,” Jordan-Mowery said. “Our challenge was to remove any of the water damage from the roof leak, but we did not want to remove any of the other signs of wear that occurred at the site. For example, some of the items had footprints from being walked on. Others had residue from candle wax. These items were left exposed to the elements and they show that wear. That is part of the story they tell.”
Jordan-Mowery said the Orange County Regional History Center requested for assistance in December 2017 and they were selected to do the restoration. They received the artifacts in December and plan to complete the project in the next couple months.
Pulse is being converted into a museum and some of the items they are restoring will likely be included in it, she said.
The owner of Pulse created onePULSE Foundation in 2017 and wants the memorial site and museum opened in 2020.
“First of all, we had to get the surface dirt removed. We call it dry cleaning, but mostly, it’s like an eraser to get the grit and grime, the particulate matter that’s on the surface and then ground into the paper. We remove that first. Then, the items were disinfected. ... Almost all of the stuff that came to us has evidence of having had mold on them. ... Therefore, it’s important to remove any mold that is currently on the paper.”
While a lot of the messages left at the Pulse site were created on all different types of paper, Mowery said he was surprised to find that on most of the artifacts they have restored, the paper did not contain higher amounts of acid.
“It’s usually been photocopy type paper. The acidity of the paper has not usually been the problem. Most of the writing instruments that were used were felt-tip pens. And those kinds of things will bleed in water. So that has been a substantial part of the problem, trying to minimize the bleeding that has happened on some of these items.”
Before retiring, Jordan-Mowery headed conservation programs at the University of Notre Dame and Johns Hopkins University. Mowery spent 35 years as a conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The couple serve clients worldwide, ranging from people with family treasures and book collectors to museums, galleries and libraries. One project they recently completed was to restore some paintings by famous artists that suffered water damage in the wake of Hurricane Michael that blew through the Florida Panhandle last fall.
“Even though we sometimes think we’ve seen it all, we have to stop and take stock of what we are working on,” Mowery said. “A history of the world passes through this workshop.”