Hidden Secrets of the Hides


In the close confines of a Palace of the Governors gallery, a group of scientists wearing ultraviolet protective goggles aimed some of the most modern equipment in the world at some of the oldest artifacts in the state. Wires, laptops, and cameras designed to conduct hyperspectral digital imaging joined people crowded into a room containing the 300-year-old Segesser Hides.

What could a seventeen-foot stretch of animal hide have done to deserve such attention?

“We have two conservation goals,” said Mark MacKenzie, director of the Museum of New Mexico Conservation Department. “One is to preserve the Segesser Hide Paintings as a 300-yearold organism that’s no longer alive but very much reacts to its environment and is aging, as all things do. We need to understand how it’s aging in order to know how to best preserve it. The second prong is that there’s a lot of information hidden in the hides—as in, wouldn’t it be nice to know what this looked like when it was newish, in its first fifty years of life?”

MacKenzie and his staff shoulder the responsibility of keeping the museums’ artifacts, maps, paintings, and textiles safe from pests, mold, light damage, and other dangers, as well as restoring them for exhibit. They employ a Santa’s workshopful of techniques to remove layers of grime and improve the objects’ ability to withstand further damages. As such, they’ve taken to calling themselves CSI: Santa Fe. Rather than running out to a scene of the crime, these CSIers task themselves with “Conserving, Saving, Investigating.”

Over the last five years, the hides have drawn the conservators’ interest as emerging technology created avenues of investigation that had been previously impossible or that would have exposed artifacts to further damage. The mid-April investigation into the hides was another step in that process, one that used what MacKenzie called “the biggest, best scientific toy on the block” to learn more about a portion of Segesser I.

Much of what we know about the hides consists of educated guesses: they may be buffalo or elk, for example; the paints may be natural dyes; perhaps more than one artist worked on each hide. Getting precise answers requires equipment with a bit more intelligence than your average smart phone.

Michael B. Toth, president of R. B. Toth Associates in Bethesda, Maryland, developed the hyperspectral imaging process that he agreed to bring to the Palace for the pilot project. Joining him were Fenella G. France, chief of the Library of Congress’s Preservation Research and Testing Division; and Eric Hansen, France’s  predecessor in that post. The Segesser work isn’t a project of the Library Congress; France and Hansen just liked it so much that they decided to participate. The scientists donated their time and use of the equipment. The New Mexico History Museum and Conservation Department split the cost of their travel expenses.

Toth’s photo-imaging equipment has examined documents as diverse as copies of the Gettysburg Address and the Archimedes Palimpsest, a medieval manuscript containing seven of the Greek scientist’s mathematical treatises, now on loan to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

The Segesser work required closing the gallery to the public and shrouding it in complete darkness for two days. The camera then took pictures of small sections of the painting with enough overlap between them to later “stitch” them into one very much larger image. Unlike other investigative imaging equipment used in art-conservation research, its extremely precise and narrow band width LED lights provided a range of imaging illumination from ultraviolet to infrared, with each light-band step filling the gallery with eerie casts of blue, green, and purple. MacKenzie also took samples of fibers to conduct the collagen-aging tests required every ten years to determine how much longer the hides can prevail in their current environmentally controlled casework. The last time the aging study was done, the fibers had to travel to England, but thanks to equipment upgrades and expertise, the Conservation Department can now do the work here.

The imaging study could determine what types of dyes and pigments were used on the hides, what the original colors looked like, whether a “cartoon” or under-story drawing exists, and how the artists diverged from that plan.

Lasting relics of a time when Spain’s northern colony sat on the edge of a frontier fraught with danger, the hides portray excursions that likely started at the front door of the Palace. Segesser I shows an encounter between rival tribesmen, possibly accompanied by a Spanish leader. Such skirmishes occurred between 1693 and 1719, though where this particular one happened and whom it involved remain unknown. Segesser II, along the north wall of the gallery, depicts the disastrous 1720 rout of Spanish troops and their allies in present-day Nebraska while under the command of Pedro de Villasur.

Some scholars believe the paintings were created in New Mexico, where imported canvas was rare. Processed hides were commonly used for reposteros, or hide paintings, which were exported to Mexico by the wagonload. Today, only about sixty are known to exist. Because the Segesser paintings show several distinct styles, some scholars think as many as three artists painted various details—likely indigenous New Mexicans who were taught European painting techniques. Other scholars argue that the artists were Spanish craftsmen descended from participants in the battles.

“The tradition of hide paintings was important to the art of New Mexico and its economy, as paintings were exported to Mexico for sale,” said Josef Diaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Art and History Collections at the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. “Besides being the only known surviving hides that depict a narrative, the Segesser hides are an important testimony of early battles in the United States. They serve as documents for the study of clothing, weaponry, ethnography, and European and Native American alliances.”

The hides got their name from Philipp von Segesser von Brunett, a Jesuit priest who purchased them while stationed in Sonora, Mexico. In 1758 he sent them to his family in Switzerland. In the 1980s, supporters of the Palace mounted a “Save Our Hides” campaign to bring them “home” and succeeded, piece by piece, with a few chunks yet to come.

For all the effort the hyperspectral imaging work required, the team only photographed about a fifth of Segesser I. Should the work produce the kind of results that MacKenzie expects, he hopes to raise enough money to purchase the equipment for the Conservation Lab. Besides noninvasively investigating other artifacts, it could help create a digital reproduction of the Segesser Hide Paintings in the terabyte range (i.e., really, really, really big), which may allow virtual versions of them to visit other museums.

Most critically, the information could ensure the hides are still around for museum visitors to enjoy 300 years from now. “What was top-end museum practice twenty or thirty years ago isn’t today,” MacKenzie said. “Technology moves on, and so does good museum practice. This is all intended to preserve and better understand this artifact. Every artifact has a story, and we want to better tell the unique story of the Segesser Hide Paintings. With this project, we’re adding a few more pages. We’re helping the paintings speak for themselves.”

Kate Nelson is marketing manager for the New Mexico History Museum and a frequent contributor to El Palacio. She is currently writing a biography of the New Mexico painter Helen Hardin.