Conserving a Twenty-Year Labor of Love | The Moab Museum’s Homage to Urbanek

Tara Beresh, Curatorial and Collections Manager, Moab Museum

Longtime Moab locals, John and Anne Urbanek presented what is today referred to as “the Urbanek map” to the Moab Museum in December 2005. Originally from Kansas, John and Anne moved to Moab for employment at Arches National Park. Prior to Moab, John served as a pilot in the Korean War and enjoyed observing the world from a birds-eye view. When he retired in 1985, John began work on a sculpture, with the intention of offering visitors an aerial perspective of Moab from the ground. This extraordinary work of art is an approximately seven-foot squared geographical relief model handmade from balsawood and adhesive using a straight edge razor. The sculpture took more than twenty years to make—comprised of twenty-one sections in the 7 ½ minute scale represented by USGS Topographic Maps. It depicts the local vicinity from the La Sal Mountains to Dead Horse Point State Park, the upper end of Salt Valley and the Grand County Airport to the confluence of the Dolores and Colorado Rivers near Dewey, Utah. Anyone who has marveled at the intricacy of the map can attest to the remarkable effort that went into what is said to be John Urbanek’s “love letter” to Moab. 

A segment of Urbanek’s map, his so-called “love letter to Moab.”

When Museum renovations were completed in March 2019, management and staff enacted a new approach to collections care—one aligned with the standards held by regional, accredited cultural institutions. This new approach includes the recruitment of conservators, professionally certified and equipped to treat objects and documents in most need of special care including cleaning, repair, and reinforcement. The Urbanek map has been among the first to receive such care. In 2020, the Museum requested the expert assistance of international sculpture and objects conservator, Kimberleigh Collins-Peynaud and the first batch (eleven sections) of the map were hand delivered to her office in Salt Lake City. Kim’s in-person assessment of map sections during a mount-building training session at the museum in 2019 confirmed that the map was in desperate need of a thorough cleaning as well as repair to minor breaks in the model from over fifteen years of exposure to the public. 

Currently (as of January 2021), treatment is nearly half complete, with Kim utilizing fine brushes and a HEPA filtered vacuum with low-power suction designed for gentle cleaning. While the map is in overall good condition, closer inspection from Kim has revealed a uniform layer of dust and debris including hair and skin cells from visitors, as well as lint and casings from the debris-eating Dermestid beetle, altering the map’s visual appearance and threatening further deterioration. Were the map left untreated, other insects and pests might be attracted to feed on these particulates. The presence of this layer of debris also contributes to favorable conditions for mold-growth, which can occur under the right conditions in Utah, despite its dry climate. Once dust and debris, and/or mold, become encrusted on the surface of an object, its removal becomes more complicated and can be potentially devastating for a museum’s collections. In addition, most people are unaware that dust can scratch responsive surfaces such as balsawood. In its original state, balsawood is quite bright and has a sheen; if treated in time, a sculpture like the Urbanek map can be restored to its like-new vibrancy, also re-accentuating the water and manmade features that Urbanek once indicated with colored paper. Kim methodically treats each section of the map in increments so that every square centimeter is addressed.

In addition to cleaning, treatment includes repairing breakage from the impact of human exposure. In many places where the sculpture is most fragile, along narrow ridges and delicate peaks, fragments have broken off, left loosely scattered in the crevices of the sculpture. Kim observes each break and re-fits their disarticulated pieces to restore the map’s fine contours as closely as possible to their original state. Using tweezers to test the current stability of each tiny butte and canyon ledge, Kim can also determine where reinforcement is needed to prevent future breaks. It may be surprising to think that an object like the Urbanek Map, young by museum standards, could indeed be so vulnerable to exposure and unintended handling in an open-air display. Close observation with a magnifying lens has highlighted for Kim just how many visitors have closely admired the Urbanek Map, and how crucial treatment has been/will be for the piece:

“When I consider the many art works and objects I have encountered over the past decades in museums, churches, and private collections, I am filled with hope from witnessing the way the Moab Museum is taking care of their collections. They are extending the life of the objects for the community by providing preventive care, receiving training on possible risks to collections and learning how to mitigate these risks by adhering to best practices, creating careful and thoughtful planning of storage and display for each object, and reaching out to professional conservators for the treatment of objects in need of care. These efforts show me that the museum wants to take the best care possible of the collection, for the people of Moab, for the many visitors that come from all over the world, and for future generations. It is inspiring and worthy of recognition, hopefully setting an example for other museums to follow,” says Kim.

The Museum is honored to have Kim’s assistance and to share her process (via time lapse footage and before and after photos) of conservation. Treatment will not only prevent the deterioration of the map for the enjoyment of future generations, but further demonstrate how important it is for some objects and works of art to be protected beneath a vitrine in museum exhibitions. 

Kimberleigh Collins-Peynaud at work conserving one of the map’s sections.

The process of conservation serves to meet preservation objectives but can also inspire future generations of artists. Kim is currently instructing six classes of elementary students with hopes to connect young people with art. Per Kim, some artists like Urbanek rely heavily on keen observation skills in nature while employing tools such as maps and models to recreate what they see. Those who see the map understand almost immediately that the artist loved his subject matter. While artists can interpret their observations in numerous ways, especially with help from modern technology, there is something extraordinary about Urbanek using thin superposed sheets of balsawood, a razor blade, some glue and paper and his hands, to achieve his desired effect. Kim says the Urbanek map has served as a poignant teaching example, inspiring an exercise where students are tasked with creating their own topographic models from foam, influenced by the careful attention to detail demonstrated by John Urbanek. Due to pandemic restrictions, Kim’s classes are conducted virtually, making the map a paramount, visual example that also aligns with the curriculum’s geography requirements. The Urbanek map serves as more than an object categorized as “art”; this multidimensional piece (literally and figuratively) demonstrates for students how creativity can illustrate one’s connection to place. It was important for Kim to show her students that through mapping, we can better understand our environment, conceptualize, or identify with where we are or have been, recognize how perspectives on place can change from an aerial viewpoint, express our notions about time and geomorphology, and observe how our local terrain differs from others worldwide. According to Kim,

“I have worked on many different types of sculptures and objects around the world and from centuries ago, but this map does not cease to amaze and inspire me in a unique way, as I get to “explore” each landmark during treatment. While I remove the traces of time and visitors’ love left on the tops of theses canyons and lodged deep in the rivers, I think of the amount of time Urbanek spent creating the precise curves or jagged edges of each canyon, rock formation, or winding river. I not only share the love of the beauty of this unique land with Urbanek, but I also love Urbanek’s creation. It is clear to me that he loved this land, and I can’t help but think of all the people I know who would love to see this, all the visitors who come to share stories or plan visits to some of these places, and all the people who love and value this special place. This piece not only helps us connect to the land in a very special, awe-inspiring way, but it also has the power to connect so many people through a common love of the land.” 

Once conservation treatment is complete, the Museum will re-visit conversations with Grand County and Utah State University Moab about alternative locations to display the newly conserved map with the incorporation of an archival platform and vitrine for its protection. 

To date, the Moab Museum has invested in the conservation of several items, including uranium mining pioneer Charlie Steen’s bronze-dipped boots and an 1892 hand-drawn map of Moab from the Lily Ann Balsley Collection. The Museum anticipates an early 2021 completion of the Urbanek map, as well as permission to commence treatment on the Hidden Valley Load Bearing Basket, and two ancestral vessels from the National Park Service in lieu of consultation with local tribes. Special acknowledgements are owed first and foremost to Anne Urbanek for continuing to entrust her late husband’s iconic map to the Moab Museum, and to the Museum’s Objects Conservator, Kimberleigh Collins-Peynaud, and Paper Conservator, Stacey Mei Kelly, of Salt Lake City. Additionally, the museum is indebted to local benefactors for fiscal contributions which make these and future conservation efforts possible. 

For Museum or Collection-related inquiries, private/socially distanced tours, or details on how to contribute to these and other Museum efforts, the Museum welcomes your emails and calls to 259-7985 and/or Curatorial and Collections Manager, Tara Beresh at 355-0917. You may also submit inquiries online at