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A police officer guards the vandalized Lincoln Memorial.

The Lincoln Memorial was previously vandalized in 1962, a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Harmony Huskinson

National Geographic

Published July 31, 2013

Yesterday police charged a 58-year-old woman with defacing a pipe organ at the Washington National Cathedral. She has been questioned about similar vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial and Smithsonian Castle last week.

All three locations were spattered with green paint, and police will test samples from each.

While the cost of the damage at the Lincoln Memorial has not been estimated, the removal and repair at the Washington National Cathedral could cost $15,000. It turns out that cleaning off paint from an artistic or historic icon is not as simple as grabbing a sponge and some dish soap.

National Park Service spokesperson Carol Johnson has been overseeing the cleanup at the Lincoln Memorial, where 90 percent of the paint has already been removed from the statue. She spoke with National Geographic about the conservation process.

Why is it so difficult to remove the paint?

Mostly because it is a historic icon that is made of white Georgia marble and has to be protected. We always start with the gentlest cleaner. We started with a first washing with water. Then we started using products that are conservator-approved. And this is all being overseen by an architectural preservationist.

Also, the workers are not just laborers. They're people who have worked on these taller memorials for years and years. We have to be very, very gentle with the stone so it isn't harmed at all. We leave the cleaner on for 24 hours, wash it off, see how it is, and then we go to the next level.

If you started with a stronger cleaner, would there be more of a risk to the stone?

Yes. We don't put anything on that we haven't evaluated and analyzed. All of that takes time.

What we're using right now is a substance that actually puts oxygen under layers of paint and then you can wash it off. Each layer is going to take some time. So they're going to have to do several applications to make it work.

What are the workers using now?

Right now they're using something called MasonRE. What they use is dependent on the stone. This is marble, but they also work on granite.

They brought this one in for this particular job. But they're evaluating other ones. And they've got to look at the literature, make sure they do tests on it before. So it's a very painstaking, deliberative process.

How do you test and analyze these products?

We wouldn't take something and test it on the statue. We would test it elsewhere to make sure it does what we want without harming the marble.

Is it tested in a lab?

That's done by the company that makes it and then we look at their test results. And a lot of this is stuff we've used in the past too.

How many people have been working on cleaning up Lincoln?

There's a lot of man-hours that have gone into this. Right now we have a special events crew putting up the finishing touches on the scaffolding. We have the preservation crew. We have an architectural preservationist. We have somebody doing historical photography. So it's a lot of man-hours.

Is vandalism of the memorials common?

We get graffiti in some places, but this one in particular is highly unusual, not only because of the location but because of the amount. Quite a bit of it was splashed on the statue.

What other famous monuments have been vandalized like this?

The Lincoln Memorial was vandalized in 1962, a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. There was a racial epithet put on the back of it in big pink letters. Generally the kind of things we clean are much smaller and not as serious.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Harmony Huskinson on Twitter.

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