There are the mysteries you know about, and then there are the ones lurking in your midst. For the staff at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, it was a bit of both.
The site, run by the National Park Service, is the estate of Gilded Age sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens is behind many iconic monuments still standing today, most famously of Civil War heroes in Chicago and Boston.
Like at most museums, visitors to the historic site see only part of the collection. There’s shelves and shelves of storage in backrooms. Here, one of the things occupying those shelves is sculptural molds, made of white plaster and wrapped in plastic for protection.
The molds were used by Saint-Gaudens to cast sections of his sculptures -- he’d pour bronze inside. But after he used them, he often sealed them shut for storage. Many have remained that way ever since. You can guess at what shapes they may have cast by their external geometry, but, as curator Henry Duffy points out, it’d be just that – a guess.
The objects had been sitting around, little mysteries, for a century, when last year the park superintendent had a thought: What if you could somehow see inside without damaging them? What if you could scan them, x-ray them like a human body?
So he reached out to the largest hospital in the Upper Valley, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Specifically, he reached Jocelyn Chertoff, chair of radiology at the hospital. “I was really excited,” she said. “It reminded me of the projects where they image mummies. And I thought it’d be really cool to do.”
The first step was to see if it would even work, and they had no idea -- these machines are built for human bodies, after all. But Duffy and his team loaded some molds into the car and drove the half hour up to the hospital one morning. They went early, before 8 a.m., to try to get in on the CT scanner before the rush began with patients.
“We got some funny looks walking through the hospital with these things,” Duffy said. “I’m sure there were people wondering who we were with these lumps of plaster.”
They got the first mold situated, and watched a monitor as the picture started coming in.
“Immediately we could see it was a person, but it was clearly something we had never seen,” Duffy said.
In fact, it was a small bust, the head of middle-aged man in a suit. You could feel the excitement in the room. “There were some whoops and hollers I think when we first started to see this thing showing up,” Duffy said.
They ended up scanning a total of 16 molds. That first one, remarkably, remains a true mystery to this day. They have no idea who it’s a sculpture of, or if any physical version of the bust exists.
And that could have been the end of the story if it weren’t for a man named Jeff Volckaert. He works in IT at the hospital with the radiology department. He got looped into the project because of a hobby he has at home, 3-D printing. He wanted to take the digital images they were getting from the scans, and use them to print new versions of the sculptures.
It took a lot of tinkering to get the digital files in good enough shape, Volckaert said, and hours and hours to do the actual 3-D printing itself. The longest print took a total of 35 hours, he said. He started it at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and it finished Sunday afternoon – “just in time for the Patriots game if I remember right,” he said.
His 3-D printed recreations are now on display in the main lobby of the hospital.
Duffy, the curator at the historic site, said for his team, the whole experience was a reminder to think outside the box and keep an open mind. “I remember, as a grad student, people would tell me to do a paper on Monet,” he said. “I’d think, what am I going to do? Everybody knows everything. But then you start to look, and you think no, there are still things to be discovered.”
The team is submitting their results to conferences both in the medical and museum fields.