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Thomas Jefferson tombstone prepped for trip to Smithsonian for repairs

Thursday, January 31, 2013 | 8:38 p.m. CST; updated 6:00 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 30, 2013
Marianne Marti, president of Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc., prepares the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson for shipping to the Smithsonian Institution for repair Thursday on the fourth floor of Jesse Hall.

COLUMBIA — With focus and gentle hands, Marianne Marti worked to stabilize damaged areas of the marble epitaph stone that once marked Thomas Jefferson's grave. 

The roughly 180-year-old monument, which has rarely been publicly displayed since it was dedicated to MU in 1855, will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution for repairs on Friday.

After Jefferson died in 1826, visitors to his grave at Monticello took pieces from it and marred the slab, which was originally part of the six-foot-tall granite obelisk that now stands on Francis Quadrangle, according to a historical booklet by William Peden.

Marti, president of Russell-Marti Conservation Services, Inc., which was hired by MU to prepare the stone for shipment, said the monument is delicate.

The stone, inscribed, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independance of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia," was surrounded by computer parts in the back corner of a fourth-floor hallway in Jesse Hall on Thursday.

The edges were broken away, and dust lined its wooden storage box. Surface marks indicated where the stone had been broken into three pieces and put back together.

Alex Barker, director of the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, originally contacted the Smithsonian.

“We’ve known for years that the Jefferson tombstone needed conservation work done,” Barker said. “It really requires a very skilled conservator, specializing in works of this kind, to treat it.”

Carol Grissom, senior objects conservator at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institution, conducted a preliminary assessment of the stone and expressed interest in repairing it. The Smithsonian is covering the cost of repairs, though MU is paying for the preparation of the stone and the shipping.

Barker said the cost to the Smithsonian will not be known until the stone has been evaluated further.

The anticipated high cost of any repairs led MU to put it off for so long, said John Murray, assistant director of MU business services.  

“When the Smithsonian agreed to do it for free, that price was right,” Murray said. “That certainly sped up the process.”

Back at Jesse Hall, Marti cut small pieces of tissue paper to size before dipping them in cyclododecane, a material that acts as a binding agent, but will change from a solid to a vapor when it is unpacked at the Smithsonian. This will allow conservators there to easily remove the tissue paper and begin repairs.

Once Grissom receives the stone at the Smithsonian next week, Marti said conservators will likely X-ray the stone and begin to take it apart and determine what material is original. 

“Depending on the extent of loss, decisions will have to be made as far as what to reconstruct,” Marti said.

The Smithsonian estimates the repair will take one year. MU will then display it in the first floor lobby of Jesse Hall. Students also might design its new display case as they did for the cornerstone display in 2010, Murray said. 

“Where we’re thinking of displaying it," Murray said, "You’ll actually be able to see the obelisk (near the Thomas Jefferson bronze statue) through the window.”

Kee Groshong, vice chancellor emeritus of MU administrative services, who worked with Barker during the initial planning, said he's excited to see the epitaph restored.

“It’s a piece of history so everyone should get to see it,” Marti said. “After the restoration, everyone will get to.” 


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