n Saturday, June 16th, 1934, the marionette production of Alice in Wonderland performed by students from Robert Gould Shaw Junior High School was such a hit, it was repeated twice at the Phyllis Wheatly YWCA in Washington D.C. [1]. Orville Crutchfield, a Shaw student, played the roles of the Mad Hatter and Tweedle Dee, deftly working the two marionettes made by his class under the supervision of their teacher and director, Alma Woodsey Thomas [2].  The Mad Hatter and Tweedle Dee/Dum are two marionettes of a group of five that were brought to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center from
The Columbus Museum
in Georgia for treatment this past winter. These marionettes are being stabilized and treated for the upcoming exhibition
Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful
opening on July 9, 2021, at
The Chrysler Museum of Art
in Norfolk, Virginia.
Alma Thomas was a prominent African American artist and the first graduate of the Howard University Fine Arts department. Best known in the art world for her abstract, tessellated colorist paintings, Thomas received lifetime solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art where she was the first African American woman to have a retrospective, in 1972 [3]. Before committing to painting full time, Thomas was a strong proponent for arts education at Shaw Junior High School from 1924 [4] until her retirement in early 1960. In addition to teaching art classes, she established an arts community within the school, encouraging her students to develop a passion for performance and visual arts. In 1935, Thomas spent her summer learning every aspect of marionettes and puppeteering from
Tony Sarg
. Known at the time as “America’s Puppet Master,” Sarg was the father of modern puppetry in the United States and gained notoriety in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair with his own production of Alice in Wonderland (1933) [5]. Thomas integrated these skills into Shaw’s arts program and furthered her students understanding and work with marionettes [6].
Marionettes, or string puppets have been used as a form of entertainment and performance for centuries across many cultures. In South Asian mythology there are
two such legends
regarding the creation of puppets and puppeteers [7]. The divinity of these myths implies a great importance on the traditional use of puppets. This importance is echoed in other cultures across the world. When in motion, a marionette can mimic the most human of behaviors and emotions. The fluidity of the movements that can be achieved is astounding. Marionette performances are often as complex as any play or musical. Sets and props must be fabricated, lines and songs must be memorized, and musical accompaniment must be integrated. The puppets themselves move in a lively fashion across the stage and over the course of several performances, a single puppet will see a considerable amount of use. The construction of a marionette can vary greatly depending on its’ creator and purpose. Generally, the puppets are suspended by strings that are grouped at the top and manipulated by a handpiece the puppeteer controls. The puppet is made of segments composed of wooden, metal, plastic or fabric parts that allow it to move. The segments are articulated to one another with a flexible material such as string or leather straps. The motions are stabilized by adding springs, elastics, and weighting segments with a cast metal, such as lead [8].
FIGURE 1 . "Tweedle Dee/Dum", 1934, Before Treatment
FIGURE 2 . "The Mad Hatter", 1934, Before Treatment
The Tweedle Dee/Dum (fig. 1) is constructed of a variety of materials. The head and hands are carved in a soft-grade wood. The torso is a stuffed plain weave fabric, soft in the chest and more solid and heavy at the waist. The feet are likely cast lead weights, wrapped in fabric and painted black. There is an eyelet joint at the neck connecting the head to the torso. The arms and legs are connected to the torso with soft fabric joints. Soft solder residue is apparent on the hands and was likely used to hold strings in their holes.
The figure wears a green long-sleeved shirt with a yellow collar and red bowtie. Three mother-of-pearl buttons are fastened to the waist of multicolored striped pants. The face is painted in pinks and reds with black and blue around the eyes. A red and white paneled hat is painted directly onto the carved wood head. Two small eyelets are mounted on either side of the head for affixing strings. The Mad Hatter (fig. 2) is made of similar materials. The head and hands are carved in a soft-grade wood. The torso is a solid weight wrapped in a plain-weave fabric. The legs are made of three carved wooden components: A thigh, shin, and boot. The wood components of the leg are joined with pins and bent wire. The feet are cast lead and the carved wooden boots are fixed overtop them using soft solder. The boots are painted black and at the toe, an eyelet is fixed in place for a string. The figure wears a hat made of tin with a paper brim. The hat and brim are both painted black with a white painted “card” on the front reading, in red letters, “In This Style 10/6.” The hat is fixed to the wooden head with brads. Below the hat, short stiff fiber hair is adhered to the top of the head. The puppets face is painted in pinks and reds with blue eyes. An oversized beige bowtie with green polka-dots, likely made of rayon or silk, is tied to the collar of the figures yellow long-sleeved shirt. The upper torso is wrapped in a green fabric that acts as the undershirt. The yellow shirt is attached to the torso with two metal snap buttons on the chest. Beige and black checkered pants are likewise attached to the waist with four, metal snap buttons. The head is joined to the upper torso with an eyelet joint. The arms are joined using fabric, adhered to the wooden hands with what appears to be soft solder. The upper thighs are joined to the lower torso with thread sewn through the fabric of the waist and two eyelets on each thigh.
Tweedle Dee/Dum is in generally good condition. There is fading and wear to the textile components, abrasion to the paint film on the head and face, and a layer of grime on the mother-of-pearl buttons. In addition, the adhesive attaching the fabric boot to the foot is failing, causing some of the fabric layers to delaminate. Most significantly, the red and white paneled hat is abraded to the point of being unreadable. The Mad Hatter has a more complex condition arising from a number of structural issues. Most notable is the separation of the figure’s right leg from the lower torso and a broken boot on the same foot. Additionally, the paper composite that was used for the brim of the hat is deteriorated and delaminating. The checkered pants have several holes on the left pant leg. The paint film has faded overall and there are minor paint losses on the hat, nose and boots.

Though the differing conditions of the two marionettes required different treatment steps, the goal remained the same for each. Both puppets were used in at least three performances and in numerous practice sessions [9]. The signs of wear and age, in this case, do not detract from the inherent value of the puppets; rather those imperfections add to their significance and historical context. Therefore, the treatment goal was focused on the desire for the marionettes to be shown in a traveling exhibition with the ability for the figures to be transported and displayed safely without causing further damage. The treatment of Tweedle Dee/Dum consisted of two parts: cleaning and consolidation. The grime layer on the surface of the mother-of-pearl (nacre) buttons was reduced using a 2% (w/v) triammonium citrate solution in deionized water. Nacre is an organic material but is composed almost entirely of calcium carbonate [10]. Water and moisture will not cause damage to nacre but as little moisture as was necessary was used to reduce the grime layer.

Reversible Lascaux 498 HV™ [11] was used to adhere the delaminating fabric on the boot in place. Heat and light pressure applied with a Willard™ heated spatula was used to set the adhesive and ensured the fabric was well positioned. The final decision to make for the marionette regarded the aesthetic disfigurement of the red and white paneled hat. In order to make the hat readable, an inpainting intervention would be required. A primary concern for all interventions is reversibility. Generally, conservators use thin barrier coatings as a means of protecting the original surface from any intervention [12]. However, due to the porous nature of the wooden head, any barrier film applied to the surface would be absorbed by the wood, cause discoloration, and would be irreversible. It was decided, with input from the collection staff at The Columbus Museum (the stewards of the object), to leave the hat in its current state. This decision was made with the treatment goal in mind. The abrasive losses were stable and the ability for the marionette to travel and be displayed was not put at risk. Additionally, the abrasions to the head display the artist’s hand as well as evidence of the age and use of the marionette (fig.3).

Detail of the abrasion to Tweedle Dee/Dum's head
Due to the structural issues, the treatment of The Mad Hatter was more complex. Beginning with consolidation, a 25% (w/v) AYTEX-P™ [13] wheat starch powder in deionized water was prepared and allowed to dry slightly. The dry paste was applied between the delaminating paper layers on the brim of the hat, using a thin tool cut from a sheet of double-sided silicon mylar (figs. 4-5). Along with light pressure, the paste was able to reposition the layers of paper while minimizing the risk of creating tide lines or any discoloration.
Pre-program intern Jonah Jablons consolidating the paper hat brim on Mad Hatter
Pre-program intern Jonah Jablons consolidating the paper hat brim on Mad Hatter
Thanks to the ingenuity of Alma Thomas, the checkered pants were easily and safely removed from the figure by gently releasing the four snap buttons that attached the pants to the lower torso. Due to the age and fragile nature of the fabric, traditional darning of the holes would cause further tearing. In order to reinforce the holes, Tetex TR™, a thin polyester fabric generally used as a backing material for fragile textiles [14], was toned with watercolors and sized with revisable Lascaux consolidating medium. A section of the fabric was cut to size and rolled into a tube that fit within the pant leg. Light pressure and heat were applied with a Willard™ heated spatula around the holes with a mylar protection. The adhesion focused only where most necessary. The Tetex TR™ provided stability and reinforcement to the holes while also allowing flexibility and enough room for the wooden leg.
The boot on the detached leg was broken in half, revealing the cast lead foot below. In order to fabricate a replacement for the missing half, a soft-grade wood was carved to fit the remaining space. The whittled replacement was carved several times and each one was more accurate than the last. However, the stress of sliding the boot over the lead foot was too much for the thin walls necessary for the proper visual fit. The carving was an excellent exercise in replicating a whittled object; for this treatment however, it proved to be ineffective. In place of wood, Milliput®, a two-part epoxy putty was chosen because of its flexibility and long working time. A thin layer of Milliput® was shaped around a silicon form that acted as a placeholder for the cast lead foot. The details were carved into the malleable putty and the silicon was removed. A 20% (w/v) Paraloid®-B72 in acetone barrier layer was applied to the lead foot and acted as both a protective film and adhesive to hold the Milliput® boot in place. Once dry, the final details were carved into the boot. Golden® Acrylic paints were brushed on to match the wood tones and abraded black paint surface of the remaining boot (fig. 6).
Reattaching the leg to the lower torso was accomplished by replicating the method of joinery on the extant leg. An appropriately weighted and toned Gϋtermann™ thread was chosen to closely match the thread used on the left leg. The thread was sewn through the two eyelets on the thigh and into the fabric of the lower torso. Once the leg was secured in place, the pants were replaced and attached by locking the four snap buttons (fig. 7).
Detail image of the Mad Hatter's boot after treatment

The final step of this treatment will be to fabricate display mounts for four of the five marionettes in the group. Although this quartet of marionettes will no longer grace the stage and perform, they are now prepared to travel and be displayed safely in the upcoming exhibition,
Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful
on view at the Chrysler Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Frist Art Museum and The Columbus Museum.
After treatment image of Mad Hatter
After treatment image of Tweedle Dee/Dum
I would like to express my gratitude to Christine Puza for her guidance and support throughout the treatment. Thanks is also due to Dr. Jonathan Frederick Walz at the Columbus Museum for his invaluable knowledge on Alma Thomas and her marionettes and for sharing with me his recent publications on the topic.
Photography Credit
| Matt Hamilton and M
aggie Barkovic (Cover)
[1] The Afro-American. “Marionette Show to Be Given Again.” Washington, D.C. June, 16th 1934. From Archives of American Art. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001.
[2] From the playbill for the marionette performance of Alice in Wonderland. From Archives of American Art. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001.
[3] Alma Thomas. The Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed September, 17 2020.
[4] Until 1928, Shaw Junior High School was the William McKinley Manuel Training School
[5] Abrams, Steven. “Tony Sarg.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts. 2012.
[6] Diploma, signed by Alma Thomas, from Tony Sarg’s summer puppetry course.
[7] Autiero, Serena. “An Introduction to Indian Puppetry” Sahapedia. September, 17 2018.
[8] Violette, Marcel. “String Puppet.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts. 2009.
[9] Walz, Jonathan Frederick, "Alma W. Thomas: “The Marionette Show as a Correlating Activity in the Public Schools”" (2019). Living Objects: African American Puppetry Essays. 17.
[10] Jackson, A. P., J. F. V. Vincent, and R. M. Turner. "The Mechanical Design of Nacre." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 234, no. 1277 (1988): 415-40. Accessed September 10, 2020.
[11] A thermoplastic, reversible adhesive

[12] Ellis, Lisa. Heginbotham, Arlen. “An Evaluation of Four Barrier-Coating and Epoxy Combinations in the Structural Repair of Wooden Objects.” Journal of the American Institute fo
r Conserv
ation. Vol. 43, Number 1, Article 3 (2004) 23-37.
[13] An organic, reversible adhesive designed for works on paper.
[14] A lightweight, open weave fabric made with very fine polyester filaments.