WOBURN (CBS) – Inside a Woburn studio, conservators are hard at work giving new life to a marvel of a sculpture. The painstaking process is laborious as sculptors take off layers of wax, dirt, and varnish to reveal the bronze of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial.
“Without all those layers, you’re just seeing the fresh bronze. And it’s just sculpted so beautifully. The whole project is a whole treat right now,” said Barbara Mangum, the team’s bronze conservator, inside Skylight Studios Monday.
The project is a partnership between the National Park Service, Friends of the Public Garden, the City of Boston, and the Museum of African American History and calls for a $3 million preservation of the high relief bronze monument, from the plaza level up.
In 2015, a survey team discovered cracks in the monument’s brick core. The stone that surrounds the bronze is also being renovated and a new concrete foundation will be built. The conservation is considered of high priority to the National Park Service.
Work began this summer and should wrap before year’s end. Plans are in the works to re-dedicate the monument next fall. The undertaking has exposed little known details about the bronze, like how much it weighs.
“It probably weighs 15,000 pounds and nobody really knew that until it was picked up by the crane. What is really exceptional about it, is the craftsmanship that it took to make something of this complexity,” said Sculptor & President of Skylight Studios Bob Shure.
Conservators uncovered that the sculpture was fused together mechanically and it is comprised of several pieces, bolted in place during a time when welding wasn’t an established practice.
“It’s kind of like looking at a battleship from the back, it’s just so well bolted together. That’s a thrill,” said Mangum.
Also striking to the team was Augustus Saint Gaudens’ carving technique. “If you look at the portraits of the infantry men, you see the intensity and determination on their faces,” said Shure. “Just to have this here, and to see every little detail, and to see around the back, which nobody has really never seen before when it’s up in place, it’s an unbelievable honor and privilege.”
Opposite the State House, the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment was unveiled in 1897. It’s one of the most celebrated pieces of American art and it depicts the Boston abolitionist alongside his volunteer infantry; the first military unit of Black soldiers raised in the north.
“It represents a troop of men who have been, many of them, have been formally enslaved, who are fighting for their right to participate in the dialogue of citizenship and they’re right to have it,” said L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of American American History. “As a tribute to them, this monument stands with the value of their honor and courage against the odds.”