Tips from World-Class Conservator, Russell Bernabo

A good repairman is hard to find, especially for a Byzantine mosaic, 15th-century statue, or Parisian horse-drawn carriage. “What’s wonderful about conservation is that you’re never doing the same thing twice,” says Russell Bernabo, a world-class conservator based in Ashland. Bernabo, a master gilder, also works with porcelain, marble, leather, silver, wood, bronze, and stained glass.

You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen his work. For the Museum of the Confederacy, he stabilized Civil War saddles, including two owned by Robert E. Lee.

At the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, he conserved the train station’s original Art Deco light fixtures. Later this year, he’ll tend to ailing memorial statues on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Embedded within each object, Bernabo finds historical data. “It’s encoded not only through the engraving, carving, and signatures—but also in the dents, breaks, and poor repairs,” he says. 

Along with museums and historical sites, antique dealers, collectors, and regular folks seek Bernarbo’s expertise. For one family, he resuscitated a set of water-damaged pâpiér mache angels. But don’t try this at home. “People always seem to glue the pieces upside down or backwards,” he says. “Leave object conservation to the pros.” 

Unlike restoration, conservation turns back time, to an object’s original glory. A statue, blackened over decades, reveals silvery finish. Or the six oversized gilt frames that had hung on the walls of the Kent-Valentine house, Garden Club of Virginia (GCA) headquarters, for over a century.

The gilding, dull and muted, was transformed. “Rusty’s skills, expertise, and meticulous attention to detail returned the mirrors to their original splendor,” says Andrea Butler, GCA executive director. “We are fortunate to have a craftsman of his caliber in Virginia.”

Virginia is fertile ground for a conservator, Bernabo notes. “Our local collections, proximity to important institutions and long history of diverse artistic accomplishments all contribute to my work.”

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