May 292015
 

 

Earlier this month, Preservation Department staff attended the American Institute for Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works (AIC) annual meeting in Miami, FL. Conservators Stephanie Gowler and Susan Russick presented two 5-minute talks during the pre-conference STASH FLASH Tips Session. STASH – which stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History Collections – is a website where collection care professionals across all fields can share tips on creating safe and appropriate storage solutions for collection materials.

Stephanie and Susan shared examples of how the Preservation Department at Northwestern adapts traditional methods of documentation, housing, and labeling for non-traditional library materials. Last week’s blog post summarized the first presentation, outlining the department’s protocol for housing objects in the library’s distinctive collections. Today’s post summarizes the second presentation, about using a smartphone app to document condition issues during a collection survey.

As highlighted on this blog during Preservation Week, a comprehensive survey of Northwestern’s painting collection is underway. Phase One of the survey assessed approximately a dozen of the most significant paintings – those collected by Charles Deering. These paintings have high exhibition value and are considered “Special Collections” paintings. Since conservators on staff are trained in book and paper conservation, the library contracts with local paintings conservators and art handlers to survey, treat, and store these paintings.

Phase Two of the painting survey, currently underway, is focused on the roughly 75 “General Collections” paintings stored throughout the library. These are primarily portraits of former professors, deans, and university trustees painted by local artists. The university has no plans to display them and they are likely to remain in permanent storage. If that situation ever changes, paintings specialists will be brought in; in the meantime, these paintings are cared for in-house. The Preservation Department is documenting their condition and improving storage.

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As last week’s post explained, everything in the library’s collections has to fit on standard size shelves. This means that, until long-term specialty storage plans come to fruition, large framed oil paintings are stored on pallets in many different areas and buildings. Staff traipsed to the storage areas instead of bringing the painting to the lab. Because of this, a streamlined way to annotate images of the paintings was necessary in order to indicate the most significant condition issues. These images would be included in a FilemakerPro database alongside the completed survey form, as well as printed out and attached to the wrapped paintings where they would serve as cautionary labels for anyone handling the works in the future.

Articheck, an app specifically designed for documentation of museum collections, was initially considered. The app’s advantages included allowing notes to be made directly on the digital image and indicating the severity of damage. However, many of the features were either redundant or too specific for this particular project.

Notability, a note-taking app that is frequently used in educational settings, offered more flexibility. It is easy to use and is very customizable.

For the survey of “General Collections” paintings, preservation staff members take a photo of the painting with a smartphone or tablet, open the Notability app, create a new note, and import the photo.

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Next, the custom-designed “stoplight” key is imported into the same note. Creating this key took some time to develop, but the advantage of creating a key that reflects the level detail needed for this specific project is that a new key could easily be developed for a different survey or disaster response situation.

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The red, yellow, and green colors indicate priority or severity of the condition issue. The highlighter tool is used for media issues, a dotted pencil line is used for support issues, and a solid pencil line is used for stretcher or frame issues. Once the image has been annotated, the note can be exported as a PDF. A digital copy of the file is saved in the FilemakerPro database record for that painting, and a hard copy is attached to the wrapped painting alongside the identification label.

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The painting survey is ongoing, and the department continues to experiment with various features of the app. Using Notability has streamlined the survey process considerably and it has a lot of potential for efficient note-taking and labeling, especially in disaster, triage, and large collection survey situations.

 

May 222015
 

 

Last week, Preservation Department staff attended the American Institute for Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works (AIC) annual meeting in Miami, FL. Conservators Stephanie Gowler and Susan Russick presented two 5-minute talks during the pre-conference STASH FLASH Tips Session. STASH – which stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History Collections – is a website where collection care professionals across all fields can share tips on creating safe and appropriate storage solutions for collection materials.

Stephanie and Susan shared examples of how the Preservation Department at Northwestern adapts traditional methods of documentation, housing, and labeling for non-traditional library materials. Today’s blog post will summarize the first presentation, outlining the department’s protocol for housing objects in the library’s distinctive collections. Check back next week for a summary of the second presentation, about using a smartphone app to document condition issues during a collection survey.

As discussed in the inaugural blog post, the collections at Northwestern University Library are changing. More objects are being acquired and curators want them to be interfiled with the books and papers on the shelf. Housings are also changing as new products are available and are being used in new ways. Unfortunately, the library building, with structurally integrated shelves that can’t be moved, is not changing.

This situation has led to the development a boxing protocol which takes into account the object needs, storage location, use, and marking. While neither the protocol nor the boxes produced are groundbreaking, considering these factors before beginning a project has resulted in safe, easy to manage, and versatile housings for the collection.

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Petri dishes sent from Nam June Paik to John Cage. Correspondence files, John Cage Collection, Northwestern University Music Library.

The first step is to determine the needs of the object. Special consideration is given to irregularly shaped or multi-part objects. For example, the above “letter” written on a petri dish from Nam June Paik to John Cage needed to be interfiled with other correspondence in a legal size document box. This glorified folder made of corrugated board and Volara® foam with a Velcro® closure is stored vertically, like a file folder in sequence with the rest of the correspondence.

Fragile or reactive materials also get special consideration for housing. When chemically reactive materials are present, such as the tarnishing silver foil used for stamping this book, a chemical absorbent can be included in the housing. The cards that line this traditional drop-spine box can be easily detached and replaced when exhausted.

After determining the object’s needs, the storage location is identified. The department created a document that records all measurements for the various shelving and filing furniture around the building; it is critical for planning. Shelf and object dimensions are used to determine standard sizes for each housing project.

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Flat file drawer dimensions that inform folder sizes.

 

The use of the objects is also important. The library’s Commedia dell’Arte masks made by Antonio Fava are the only materials in Special Collections to circulate. The handles are laced through box tops to keep parts of the housing together and make them easy to carry.

Students may check out these Commedia dell'Arte masks for performances.

Students may check out these Commedia dell’Arte masks for performances from the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

Objects and boxes are marked in several ways. Items themselves often get ownership marks, call numbers, or donor information. Boxes are marked with ownership, item identification, and other information. Photographs on labels allow browsing in the stacks without opening boxes.

While handling is usually intuitive, sometimes more complex housings require instructions. This box was produced for a very heavy glass and wood award. It was given a “sewing machine” style of box to manage the base weight, so labeling on both the interior and exterior was needed.

The condition, context, and use of an item is balanced with storage limitations when creating housings. Northwestern’s continual acquisition of all shapes and sizes of objects will bring more opportunities to hone the department’s skills at building creative housings.

 

May 112015
 

 

During Preservation Week, we featured daily posts about the department-curated exhibit, Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections. Aspects of digital preservation are also included in the exhibit to represent the increasing amount of audio, visual, and born digital materials coming into the collections and the pressing need to care for the physical and digital content. The exhibit highlighted five library collections of varying formats that have been digitized – films of Northwestern football games, audio tapes of a clarinetist, videos of improv classes, and two flat paper collections.

Film, video, and audio materials have a special set of issues that complicate preservation. Acetate film and magnetic media are made of materials that are inherently unstable and degrade. As the physical object deteriorates, digitization is the best preservation option to keep the contents accessible. Old media formats need playback equipment that can be hard to find, such as reel-to-reel tape players. After digitization, the audio and visual files are much larger than a JPEG or text file and require more storage space on a repository server. Digital files must always be monitored as technology and best practices change. Of course, the physical objects are also kept and stored in archival housings and environmental conditions.

University Archives is home to 2,400 film reels of Wildcat Football games dating back to 1929. The ongoing “Game Savers” initiative is raising funds to preserve these films. Digitized films are available on AVR, the Library’s recently-launched media repository. This video from October 1970 shows Northwestern’s first win of that season, beating Illinois 48 to 0.

Magnetic media is represented by both a video and  an audio collection. Videos of workshops led by improvisational theatre innovator Viola Spolin are just one part of the extensive Viola Spolin Papers housed in Special Collections. Audio recordings from the Robert Marcellus Master Class Archive were digitized are also available on AVR . The audio here is the master class from July 1, 1977.

Highlighting the importance of access to these library materials to students, faculty, and researchers is an underlying theme of the exhibit. Digitizing collections that aren’t readily available or cannot be easily handled is a good way to make them accessible. The Melville Herskovits Library of African Studies digitized almost 600 South African posters that are available to the public through the Digital Image Library. The Transportation Library Menu Collection includes over 400 menus from 54 national and international airline carriers, cruise ships, and railroad companies. Digital images of these menus are available through the online finding aid.

May 012015
 

 

This spring, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department curated the exhibit “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlights some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.

Charles Deering (1852-1927), for whom Deering Library was named, was an avid art collector and artist in his own right. In addition to collecting Spanish and Catalan art, Deering formed lasting friendships with many of the leading artists of his day and amassed a rich collection of portraits by close friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Ramon Casas. Many of the paintings from Charles Deering’s personal collection were chosen to decorate Deering Library when it opened in 1933 and remain important works in the University Library’s collection.

The library’s painting of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas (El Bohemio, 1891) is one of our most requested paintings for loan and exhibition and recently underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Northwestern contracted with a local fine art conservator to perform the treatment.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

In addition to repairs to the canvas, a varnish layer applied in the 1970s was removed. Polyvinyl acetate (PVA) was commonly used to varnish paintings in the 1970s. Over time, the PVA becomes gray and opaque and, as a result, the painting had taken on a hazy appearance. After conservators removed the PVA varnish, they noticed that there were still areas of the painting with a dull gray appearance. Sample testing and examination using a range of analytical tools, including scanning electron microscopy and Raman spectroscopy, indicated that these gray areas were likely a result of lead sulfate migrating up through the paint from the ground layer. The lead sulfate, which is insoluble in alcohol and other common conservation solvents, could not be removed. In order to minimize the visual disturbance of the lead sulfate, the decision was made to apply a thin wash of translucent pigment on top of the new Paraloid B-72 varnish layer in the gray areas. This is a reversible treatment that reflects the artist’s intent and allows the true colors of the painting to show through.

 

The painting was featured last year in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The exhibit, Esprit Montmartre: Bohemian Life in Paris around 1900, looked at Montmartre as a center of artistic life with a particular focus on individuals like Satie and Casas.

The Esprit Montmartre exhibition provided an opportunity to share El Bohemio with a large audience at an international venue after its recent conservation treatment. The exhibition also promoted Northwestern’s unique library collections in a global environment.

The Preservation Department is currently working on a comprehensive survey of other paintings in the collection in order to develop a plan for preserving Charles Deering’s legacy as an art collector.