No one asked Barbara Wolanin if she was afraid of heights when she interviewed to be the Capitol curator nearly 25 years ago.
Lucky for her she’s not.
But her job description also includes having bubble gum removed from benches inside the Rotunda, some of which have been around since James Buchanan was president (the benches, not the bubble gum).
A former art history professor at James Madison University and Trinity College in Washington, Wolanin oversees the preservation, restoration and conservation of the Capitol and its surrounding buildings, including the Library of Congress. However, she doesn’t work alone. She has two colleagues: Farar Elliott, the House curator; and Diane Skvarla, the Senate curator. They handle jobs that requires museum-like care of objects in a very non-museum-like setting.
“Because the Capitol is both a symbol and a working building, and the fact that it has both of those aspects, it’s something that people visit because it is a temple of democracy, and it’s also a museum with architecture and frescos,” Elliott says. “And Barbara’s done an amazing job of balancing and recognizing both aspects of the building.”
The three curators often work in tandem on projects, with Elliott leading House efforts and Skvarla leading Senate jobs. If the project doesn’t fall clearly under one chamber’s jurisdiction, Wolanin takes the lead. (Wolanin is in charge of the Statue of Freedom inspection or works in the Rotunda, for instance.) They meet frequently to bounce ideas off one another for restorations. Wolanin, the longest-serving curator of the three, is the informal leader and often offers the others advice.
“We all work extremely well together,” Elliott says. “Our abilities are increased geometrically by being able to work together.”
In the early 1980s, before Wolanin arrived in 1985, the Capitol contracted a conservator to assess the damage levels of nearly everything in the buildings, from murals to staircases. Wolanin and her two deputies continue to use those assessments to re-evaluate the condition of the objects.
Something is considered “urgent” if there is structural damage and that damage is getting worse, like it was for the Statue of Freedom in the early 1990s, when it had extensive corrosion and a large crack in its pedestal.
In 1993 Wolanin oversaw its removal from the top of the Capitol Dome. It then underwent a $780,000, privately funded conservation effort before being returned to the top of the Capitol. A helicopter was used to raise the 15,000-pound statue, and hundreds of spectators crowded around the Capitol to witness the feat.
“That was the most dramatic moment for me, getting the Statue of Freedom back on top of the Dome,” Wolanin says. “Definitely the most heart-in-throat moment.”
From time to time, Wolanin checks on the Statue of Freedom, climbing a stairway to the top of the Rotunda and then using a ladder and lights to assess the inside of the hollow statue, looking for leaks or other damage.
The statue is affixed with 10 bronze points tipped with platinum to provide protection from lightning, and periodically Wolanin’s office has to take them down.
“They actually do get hit by lightning quite a bit, and dulled,” she says. “We take them down to the sheet metal shop and sharpen the points.”
Wolanin’s job, while not partisan, does require a certain amount of tact when dealing with lawmakers, as some of the conservation work takes her to committee rooms. She says she and her staff have developed relationships with the chairmen and ranking members to coordinate their work around the committees’ schedules.
When Wolanin started working as the Capitol’s curator, she had only a counterpart in the Senate.
Adding a House curator has eased the burden on her office, she says. She has four full-time employees; Elliott has 14 and Skvarla has 10.
“The House has something like 200 committee chairmen portraits, which my staff was trying to keep up with,” she says. “But it’s really good that they have their own curator now, because it was really a lot.”
With nearly 2 million visitors having come to the Capitol so far this year, one of the greatest difficulties for the curators is balancing the preservation of the Capitol with its continued use, she says. A good example is the benches that they restored to their original color in the Rotunda, Wolanin says.
“When I first saw them I thought they were just benches that could be found out in a park somewhere,” she says. “But then I did some research and found that some of them are original to 1859 and were made for the House chamber. And the hard thing is that we’re not a museum; we’re the office building for the Congress. And so those benches get sat on, and we’ll find bubble gum stuck on them. It’s one of the big challenges.”
Another one of the threesome’s dilemmas, Skvarla says, has to do with the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which opened in December.
With the high levels of traffic, the CVC’s two dozen statues have begun to wear from people leaning up against them and resting coffee cups on their bases, the curators say.
So Wolanin’s office put up “Do Not Touch” signs and has asked CVC staff to be extra vigilant about guarding against the careless or exhausted visitor.
They deal with problems from the past, too. Though smoking is now banned in the Capitol, the building’s art and objects have suffered from politicians’ and visitors’ longtime habit of lighting up cigarettes indoors.
“The nicotine leaves the yellow coating, which we’re now cleaning off everything,” Wolanin says. “But for many years, a lot of things turned brown.”
No matter what the job is, the curators have found various ways to schedule their work around the buildings’ occupants. The best times they’ve found are when the rest of Capitol Hill is away — during recess, on the weekends and late at night.
“It’s tricky sometimes, because we have to stay out of the way of the Congress and their staff to get the work done, like if something has fumes that might be harmful, for example, during the day,” Wolanin says. “We’re kind of like the fairies working at night with their magic.”