Hermes Knauer, Part III

by Michelle Millar Fisher, October 2012.

In the third and final part of Michelle Jubin’s conversation with Hermes Knauer, the Met armorer discusses the “respect and reverence to the object” that must accompany the privilege “to handle and touch history.” To end, he shares “the Aladdin’s lamp moment,” one of the great revelations of his career. Audio and transcript below.

Hermes Knauer: And so, there are times that you step away from a piece, there are times when I’ve walked around a piece and I learned this from the old Italian guy. I walk around it fifty times before I approach it because you don’t want to do any harm. So when you see these things glistening… Not even all of them are bright and shiny, they show age, they show wear, they show character. That’s the thing, they have character.

Artwrit: They show their history!
We don’t want to remove that!

The history of their use, the history of their function, the history of their making. I’m really aware of our time and there’s so many questions and I have so much stuff that I want to ask, but that’s perfect in terms of the day-to-day work you do. So it’s really kind of soft, gentle… It’s not about using the great array of tools that you might have at your disposal.
No, and people think, “Well are you putting it in the forge and you’re putting fire on it?” We do use heat, but not on the objects.

How has the technology changed? I’m making an assumption there. Has it changed that much, or is it really still about having a very careful eye and thinking carefully about the work?
We’ve moved more into what was done years ago where more restoration might have been done. For that Doctor Dean was instrumental in getting wonderful armorers from Europe who were trained armorers. These were people, these were hammer-men, these were people… Tailors in steel! Because that’s what a suit is.

It’s so closely aligned with costume.
Oh yeah! And there is a fashion statement here. If you look at the sabaton, saw the shoes, come on! Some are pointy, some are flared, some are stubby. I mean, they were well aware what was fashionable, and to bend metal and to form it in the way you want it to be formed takes a lot of thought and effort and skill. Part of that again is the apprentice system, these fellows were apprentices then they were journeymen, and it took a long time until they did their masterwork and became a master.

So not so much in terms of the technology then, much more in terms of the way one thinks about conservation institutionally now, that’s what’s changed.
Right. We talk about reversibility in conservation… And reversibility, again we document what we do, we photograph it. What was wonderful about the armorers who were brought over is that they had a direct connection, again through the apprentice system, and there were collections of armor, usually in royal collections, and people who apprenticed and worked on cleaning armor, armor can rust! Now today we would be very reluctant to use anything that’s abrasive, and we’re also concerned about coatings that we might put on the surface. Is it reversible? Now if you take polished steel and leave it in an environment, in a basement where there’s a lot of moisture, it will rust. If you handle metal with hands, bare hands, sweaty hands, it will have fingerprints etched into it. So we’re aware of that, so quite often when you see us we appear to be wearing not just cotton gloves but surgical gloves. We may even be wearing a mask because we don’t want the moisture from our breath to settle on a Japanese blade.

Okay, yeah. Especially on a Japanese blade, yes.
And so it’s a form of respect and reverence to the object. So the difference was, if you were working on your own object or creating something, you can apply heat to it, you can form it any way you want. We are respecting the integrity of the objects, it’s not for us to add to it. What we want to do is save what is original. And that is a change in the way conservation is done. Again, restoration you might go a bit further, conservation you respect the integrity of the object and what you do should be reversible and documented.

So the next group of school children can come see it.
Right! So that it’s good for another generation!

So I know we’re getting close to the end of the time. Do you have things you want to… If you’re talking about the history of your time here or the stories from here, that you particularly want to share, are there memories? I have a question, you’ve worked at the Met for forty years so you have a special knowledge of the institutional history, do you have favorite memories from your decades? Or are there favorite objects? That’s kind of a connection between two of the questions, are there favorite objects you’ve worked with?
Well I’m going to talk about I think two objects. There are many objects in the museum and I would just say to you each person has objects to discover for themselves, what those objects are and what they mean to them. If I said to you, “There are two objects that in recent memory, within the last three years that I’ve worked on that have been high points,” they will be in arms and armor. One is a sword that I had seen since I was a little kid, and that sword belonged to a sultan of Turkey and it’s Murad V. It’s a gold scabbard, it’s covered in diamonds, it has emeralds, the grip is made of jade and there are pearls. The blade is Persian from the 17th century, a wonderful piece! A piece that dreams are made of, right?

I saw that for many, many years. It was only three years ago that I got to work on it. It was given to me to clean, very gently clean, to remove any corrosion or any tarnish or any old polish residue. And in the process of me cleaning it I found one tiny little brown spot, under the microscope, near a bezel which was holding an emerald. And that brown spot was basically an iron oxide, a little spot of rust! And I couldn’t figure out why there should be rust on a gold scabbard. And I dug out that little corrosion and I realized that there was a little iron pin, and there was old polish residue kind of encasing this area underneath the bezel. And I cleaned it some more and I found these little tiny tubes, which are little barrels with the pin in it, but basically I’m describing to you a tiny hinge. Well if there’s a tiny hinge… Is there a door? And this is the secret compartment.

I’ve seen this since I was a child, it’s been in the Met collection since 1923… And three years ago…

You cleaned it. So did it open?
And I got it to open, very gently. And I’ll tell you that was, you know, the Aladdin’s lamp moment.

Something you’ve seen for so long and then it has place…
And it opens up.

Was there anything in it?
There’s an inscription on the inside of the emerald that says, “Allah.” And then there’s a gold coin on the inside from Suleiman.

Yeah! It was like… You just know something is being revealed to you! Why was it being revealed to me? I spent a lot of time with this object! A lot of intimate time.

Yeah, and not just cleaning it but also being with it through childhood and adulthood.
Right. But that’s where I had seen that. Another story arms and armor related. The Met purchased a mail shirt. It was severely rusted, but it had also metal plates attached to it, which are decorated in two colors of gold. And there are all these inscriptions, and I began cleaning that and it took me three months, and each one of the rings has an inscription on it. Each one of the rings on this mail shirt.

So how many rings within a shirt?
Oh, I didn’t count!

Yes, yes, thousands! What happens is, it was a difficult time in my life, my father was dying and I would come to work and come back to work at night and just focus in on this. It took me three months to clean each ring individually. The inscriptions inside the shirt, in this mail shirt, basically explain who this was made for, and it’s the Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal.

Yeah, wow!
So that’s where you get to basically, as a conservator, to handle and touch history. And I did remember one other story. In 1969 when I was in college I did a woodblock print, I did many woodblock prints, but I did one of King Tut’s death mask. By 1978, I was holding that mask in my hands. To me, that’s epic foreshadowing.

Something happened there. It’s being shown to you way before, your fascination with it is more than fascination. So, it’s an interesting trip. And this you know, this is history. I would just say, I guess we’re cognizant of the time here, but… We’re all just passing through. This is history. And there are generations after us that will also learn from these pieces. So many years later.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been in the same department as you, Hermes. Thank you so much for sharing the history.