Conserving The Ephemeral

This summer we have a wonderful opportunity to work with our colleagues at the Smithsonian Latino Center to undertake a rare and important project, the conservation of a raft used by Cuban balseros in the 1990s – balsero is a term given to thousands of individuals who left Cuba aboard homemade vessels called balsas (rafts).
The raft, constructed of Styrofoam, wood, textiles, and other found materials, measures 78 ½” in length and 34 ¾” in width. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) rescued two men from this raft 35 miles southeast of Miami in July 1992. Humberto Sanchez, a member of Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), acquired the raft from USCG and donated it to the Museum in 1996. For a number of years, the raft has been stored undisturbed inside of a custom-built crate.

Raft before conservation. Object no. 1996.0008.0001. Photograph by Grant Czubinski, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

This spring, we opened the crate to assess the condition of the raft. Given its provenance, construction, and age, signs of use were readily visible on its top and sides. The wooden dowels used to anchor the support rails to the raft’s body were both broken, had shifted over time, and deformed the foam around them. The foam support structure for one of the rails had collapsed and caused a foam fragment to detach from the body. We also found that the textile wrapped around the body had torn and separated from the body in several places.

Before undertaking conservation work, we took stock of the raft’s significance. We knew that its use, history, and symbolism were of paramount importance. The Museum’s intent was not to restore, but rather to stabilize the raft and preserve the human story of its use by two men who fled Cuba during the summer of 1992.

Raft following conservation. Photograph by Steven Pickman.

To stabilize the raft, we chose to repair the dowels supporting the wooden rails and to fill in the foam around them. We also reattached a foam fragment and filled in gaps to avoid further breakage and to better support the railing.  We reattached the textile wrapped around the raft’s body in areas where it risked tearing from the foam and becoming completely detached. These repairs restored the raft to a state where it was stable and solid, but still looks well used.

During the project, we lifted the raft onto two sawhorses to observe its bottom. We discovered wooden planks that are connected to the railings at the top. Evidently, the foam is built onto a makeshift wooden structure that holds everything together, top to bottom, while the textile holds things together around the sides.

Conservator Steven Pickman shows Anacostia Community Museum Collections Manager Miriam Doutriaux areas of interest in the conservation of a raft hand-built by Cubans. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Following conservation, we built a new storage platform that supports specific areas of the bottom of the raft, to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the newly discovered wooden planks. It will remain stored on the platform until it goes on display.

Now that the conservation is complete, we are moving forward with our next exciting project: 3D scanning and digitization. Stay tuned for future posts, as we work with our Smithsonian colleagues to document it further in the coming weeks!

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