Object Conservation

Most of the 1,600 objects in the museum’s collections, and many of the 10,000 documents housed in our archives, will require conservation treatment at some point during their time with us. The museum has a long track record of providing high-quality care for these objects and documents, but this care and conservation is not inexpensive. Below are some of our recently completed major conservation projects.

Irish Lap Harp

Eliza Monroe's Irish Lap HarpThis lap harp once belonged to Eliza Monroe, the eldest daughter of James and Elizabeth. It is one of the most well-documented pieces in our collection; in a letter written to his daughter (which we have in our archives), Monroe expresses the opinion that Eliza should learn to play the harp, as it will be a useful skill and a mark of refinement. He goes on to say that he will purchase a harp for her while he is London. Sadly, while the harp is a beautiful piece, made of polished mahogany with gilt accents and carved angels, it has not played a note in nearly 100. At some point in its history, its original strings were removed and replaced with simple cotton twine, intended only to give the impression of playable strings. The structure of the harp has also suffered over the years.

In the summer of 2011, a professional conservator examined the harp and made some interesting discoveries. He learned that our harp was never, in fact, a playable instrument! Rather, it was a toy harp – more of a decorative object. This could mean that this is not the instrument Monroe mentions in his letter (and that perhaps that harp is still out there), or that Monroe was duped into buying a harp of lesser quality. Or perhaps he felt he couldn’t afford the real thing.

This is an example of why conservation work is so important – it helps us learn more about the objects in our collection, so that we can present the most accurate interpretation of Monroe, his life and times.



 French Gilt Chair

Conserved gilt chair

In 2008, the museum celebrated the return of a French gilt chair, conserved at the studio of Richmond-based furniture conservator Rick Vogt. The chair is from a set believed to have been purchased by the Monroes during one of their trips to Paris, circa 1803. Other pieces from the set are owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and are on view at the White House.

The chair’s structure has been stabilized, its gilt finish has been restored, and it has been reupholstered with replicated period fabrics. The chair is now a major component of the museum’s permanent exhibitions.

Many thanks to our Friends for their support of this major project!



Astor Pianoforte

Astor pianoforte (shown post-conservation)

In 2005, the museum welcomed home a pianoforte, which had been undergoing conservation for more than a year. Tim Hamilton, a renowned historical piano conservator based in Massachusetts, completed the work. The pianoforte is made of beautiful mahogany with fruitwood inlays and ivory and ebony keys. We believe that Mr. Monroe purchased the instrument in London while Minister to France, Spain and England (1803 – 1807) from the George Astor Company, and used it in several of his homes, including possibly the President’s House. Although the pianoforte has been in the museum’s collections since the 1920s, no one had heard it played for decades. It was missing its soundboard and its internal workings had suffered serious deterioration.

After extensive treatment and restoration, the pianoforte returned to the museum in full working order, producing music just as the Monroes would have heard it. Since its return, the instrument has been played on several occasions by University of Mary Washington graduate Leslie Marangoni.