Susan Russick

Susan is the Special Collections Conservator at Northwestern University Library, a Professional Associate Member of the American Institute for Conservation and holds a MLIS with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Conservation from the University of Texas at Austin. She has over 20 years of experience including positions at the Newberry Library, the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History and Nishio Conservation.

Sep 012016
 

Ever wondered from what animal your parchment came? Researchers at the University of York in the UK want to know. They started the Books & Beasts project, which is a study to identify the animal origin used to produce a parchment document. It involves a minimally invasive method for sampling; white vinyl erasers (the type used in conservation to surface clean dirty documents) are gently rubbed against the parchment. The eraser crumbs are gathered in vials and sent to the University of York. The samples are analyzed through protein mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF) of the collagen molecules extracted from eraser waste. Other participating institutions include Yale, the New York Public Library, Harvard, and MIT.

After hearing about this project, I approached administration and was pleased that they shared my opinion that the risks to the objects were few, participation in the project would complement the collection, and that the time and monetary costs dedicated to the project would be acceptable.

Sarah Fiddyment and Matthew Collins at the University of York were enthusiastic about Northwestern’s possible participation, especially as we have documents from the West Indies that might yield some interesting results. They sent some information about the project and a kit with 72 tiny vials for samples. They explained that if a single leaf is being studied, only one sample is needed, however if a book or multi-page item is studied three samples are typically taken, more if the parchment is not visually similar throughout. A log of item identification information (date, country of creation, etc.) of each document is kept for each sample.

The University of York’s website has posted updates and information about the process: Getting Under the Skin of a Medieval Mystery and a Vellum Gallery.

Sigrid Perry of Special Collections worked with us to identify 53 objects to be sampled as part of this project.  These materials included several New World documents, which are less represented in the study. Collection of each sample, recording the needed information and photographically documenting the location of the sample took about 15 minutes per item. Several members of the Preservation Working Group participated in the project including Katie Risseeuw, Basia Stanek, Scott Devine, Ann Duncan-Gibbs, Patti Swanson, Carlynne Robinson, and Tonia Grafakos.

While collecting little bits of eraser crumbs only sounds fun to conservators, having a chance to dig through the parchment collection materials could give anyone that materialist thrill of history. All are available in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

Although it took a while to collect the samples and record all of the information, the only monetary cost for this project was mailing the samples back to England. We should get the results back during the late fall. The skins sampled are likely to be calf, goat and sheep, but could reveal intriguing patterns of animal selection and skin preparation.

An in-depth article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America by Sarah Fiddyment, Matthew Collins, and may others, provides more information about analyzing and identifying vellum through this testing: “Animal Origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting.” Find it here.

 

An Avant-Garde Approach to the Exhibit of Objects in the Charlotte Moorman Archive

 Posted by  Conservation Treatment, exhibition preparation, Exhibits, Outreach, Preservation Management, Uncategorized  Comments Off on An Avant-Garde Approach to the Exhibit of Objects in the Charlotte Moorman Archive
Apr 292016
 

Northwestern University Libraries’ Preservation and Conservation department was caught up in a seven-month whirlwind of activities in preparation for the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art’s current Charlotte Moorman exhibits, “Feast of Astonishments,” curated at the Block Museum, and “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” organized by Special Collections Curator Scott Krafft.

Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art publicity poster for "A Feast of Astonishments"

Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art publicity poster for “A Feast of Astonishments”

Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections holds Charlotte Moorman’s extensive archive which includes thousands of items: correspondence, posters, films, objects, notebooks, answering machine tapes, photographs, and artifacts from the many avant-garde art pieces that she performed. Currently, 243 of these objects are exhibited at Northwestern’s Block Museum and will travel to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library and then onto Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne.

Some of the most problematic materials for display were a pair of motorized propellers, a doorbell-operated electric bikini, and three masks used by Moorman when performing Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique.” Six violins shattered by Moorman when performing Paik’s “One for Violin” were also tricky. The objects are not considered “art” themselves, but rather props for or evidence of performance art. Because of this status, the exhibit curators did not want traditional looking mounts. Afraid it would take away from the ephemeral nature of the items, the curators preferred that the objects just lay inside of the cases.

However, we were concerned that the handling of these fragile multi-piece materials would be safer and easier if mounted. We needed innocuous exhibit mounts for non-traditional objects that would also keep the items safely in place during travel. In addition, the collection had not been fully processed so the objects would not have appropriate storage housings once back at Northwestern. Creating one plan that would encompass exhibition, travel, and storage needs was a little avant-garde.

After creative brainstorming, multiple mock-ups, and consultation with curators, we had a plan. We sewed the objects onto padded panels and then used the panels to secure the objects inside their boxes.   Mounting panels 1” larger than the objects were constructed using Tycore boards, topped with Volara® foam, and covered in cotton cloth.

The objects were sewn on using various colored and transparent threads and some discrete Volara® supports. The storage boxes were stable enough for travel but compact enough to fit on the shelf.

When we unveiled our work to the Block Museum staff, they were suitably impressed by our craftsmanship and inventiveness. And frankly, so were we. For the Charlotte Moorman exhibits, we ventured into a level of exhibit preparation new to us. We gained new skills, enjoyed working closely with each other, and shared in the avant-garde spirit of Charlotte Moorman.

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.

storageexample

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.

GowlerRussick_AnnotatedImage_Fig1

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.

GowlerRussick_AnnotatedImage_Fig2

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.

GowlerRussick_AnnotatedImage_Fig6GowlerRussick_AnnotatedImage_Fig5

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.

 

Apr 302015
 

 

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.

When this animation cel from Walt Disney’s 1939 The Ugly Duckling was brought to the attention of the Preservation Department, the duckling (spoiler alert: cygnet) and frog characters had detached from the background illustration and were floating loose behind a layer of warped and yellowed plastic.  The cel packet was taped to the signed mat using both water soluble and pressure sensitive (sticky) tapes.

An investigation of the materials used for animation cels reads like a horror novel to a conservator. Recent research about animation cels done by the Getty Conservation Institute and the Disney Animation Research Library has shown that the plastic films from this time period are most likely cellulose nitrate or cellulose diacetate.   Both of these films yellow, distort and become brittle as they age. The uneven shrinkage is especially bad because the inks attached to the films do not shrink at the same rate, often resulting in the media flaking off of the film. The watercolor background was painted on an acidic board and the adhesives used to attach the duck and frog have failed and discolored. In other words, treatment options to repair the object that involve water, solvents, heat or pressure are prohibitively risky due to the likelihood of paint and ink bleeding or flaking and the plastic film fogging, dissolving or cracking.

Conservation treatment recommendations have not yet been well established for these materials, so a very cautious approach was taken. In order to preserve the look of the original art with minimal disturbance to these fragile materials, Special Collections Conservator Susan Russick encapsulated the duckling and frog characters between two sheets of polyester film. The characters are positioned properly in relation to the background and held in place with microdots created using an ultrasonic welder.

Ultrasonically produced microdots seal the two layers of polyester film together in several spots surrounding the duck.  Two dots are visible on either side of its neck and a third is seen between the wing and the foot.

Ultrasonically produced microdots seal the two layers of polyester film together in several spots surrounding the duck. Two dots are visible on either side of its neck and a third is seen between the wing and the foot.

Ultrasonically produced microdots seal the two layers of polyester film together in several spots surrounding the duck. Two dots are visible on either side of its neck and a third is seen between the wing and the foot.

The encapsulated characters were placed in a window mat that holds them relatively flat but will allow some movement of the brittle film as deterioration continues. This non-adhesive window mat sits invisibly between the original signed Disney mat and the background illustration. The polyester film provides some level of protection to reduce interaction between the acidic background and the degrading film. No solvents, moisture, heat or pressure were used and the appearance of the object is similar to the original.

Like all conservation treatments, the decision to proceed with this one was made after careful consideration of the risks and benefits by the Special Collections Curator and the conservator. This solution is not perfect. Polyester film carries a static charge which could exacerbate paint flaking and the object format was significantly altered. While some risks remain, the many restrictions dictated by the materials of the object made this the preferred and most cautious choice in our efforts to slow degradation and preserve the object.   Although our duckling (cygnet) may never turn into a swan, we hope to prevent it from turning into a toad.

 

Apr 292015
 

 

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.

Obama Lollipops_bt07

Lollipops with wrappers featuring Barak Obama. Kenafric Industries Ltd., Kenya, 2010.

Nations across Africa celebrated Barack Obama’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency with a profusion of commemorative paraphernalia, from T-shirts to comic books to cookies.  The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies began collecting such items in 2007, with a resulting collection of over 500 objects from 34 countries.

A variety of edible ephemera such as lollipops, biscuits, chewing gum, water, beer, and whiskey was included. These materials present a unique storage challenge, since food in collection areas can attract pests and liquids can spill. Some of the materials, like the water and whiskey bottles, were drained at the time of collection, so no decision was needed.

 

Water and other liquids can attract pests, allow mold growth or spill in storage.

Water and other liquids can attract pests, allow mold growth or spill in storage.

Because of risks to the rest of the collection, the curators determined that the value of the items was in the packaging, not the food itself. Conservators removed the food, cleaned the packaging materials, and filled the wrappers with archival foam in an effort to replicate the look of the original items, providing a more authentic understanding of the object and its cultural context.

While the wrappers publicized Obama, none of the food inside appeared to be specially shaped or manufactured.  Some samples did not survive the suitcase ride between Africa and Evanston, Illinois intact. Obama Biscuits, United Biscuits Ltd., Ghana, 2010.

While the wrappers publicized Obama, none of the food inside appeared to be specially shaped or manufactured. Some samples did not survive the suitcase ride between Africa and Evanston, Illinois intact. Obama Biscuits, United Biscuits Ltd., Ghana, 2010.

 

Cookie sized pieces of  Volara® foam were inserted into the wrappers to simulate the missing food.

Cookie sized pieces of Volara® foam were inserted into the wrappers to simulate the missing food.

While this collection was featured in Africa Embracing Obama, a 2010-2011 exhibit, most materials have never been exhibited. Additional Obamarama has been acquired since that time thanks to the enthusiastic support of many students, faculty, and friends who have enjoyed scoping out the local markets on trips to Africa. And who but the library would consider an empty whiskey bottle a great gift?

 

 

Apr 282015
 

 

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.

Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing, first developed in Mesopotamia c. 3400 BCE. A blunt reed was used as a stylus to press wedge-shaped marks into clay tablets. The Library’s collection of 17 cuneiform tablets, available in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections is frequently shown to students as examples of early writing technology, but until recently little was known about these particular tablets.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

Cuneiform tablets must be viewed in raking light to read the text.

There is little provenance available related to these tablets and at least two different incomplete and overlapping numbering systems were previously used. In order to establish authority over the collection, a new numbering system was developed. The new numbering system needed to be distinct from the old numbers, but without obscuring either the old numbers or any of the cuneiform writing. It needed to be small, legible, easy to apply to a bumpy surface, and not damaging to the tablets.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

Two tablets marked “5” in the previous numbering systems.

NUL Special Collections Conservator Susan Russick, while specializing in book and paper conservation, has some experience with archeological materials. As a summer intern, she worked with ceramic materials of a similar age at the Gordion Archeological site in Turkey. After some consideration, each tablet was given a tiny paper label. Labels were laser printed on archival paper and adhered using Acryloid-B72, a method described by Thomas Braun, who was also at Gordion that summer.

Tablets in box

A box with foam sockets and removable trays was constructed, allowing the tablets to be viewed and passed around the classroom without being directly handled.

Tablet in box with label

The individually labeled sockets aid in security of the tablets.

Digital images of the tablets were submitted to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, an international group of Assyriologists, curators, historians, and librarians working to make available online over 500,00 cuneiform tablets. Northwestern’s participation in this effort will allow our collection of tablets to be viewed, studied, and translated by scholars around the world. As an initial result of this collaboration, we have learned that the majority of our tablets are accounts from the 21st century BCE and a few are neo-Babylonian texts.

 

Apr 272015
 

 

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.

Dr. Dale T. Mortensen (1939-2014) won the 2010 Nobel Prize for economics and is known for his work on labor economics and frictional unemployment. He taught at Northwestern from 1965 to 2011. After Dr. Mortensen’s death in 2014, his chalkboard was removed from the wall of his office on campus. It is included in his archive – along with documents, correspondence, computer files, and other personal effects – as a physical manifestation of his process.

Dale Mortensen's chalkboard awaits treatment in the conservation lab after having been removed from his campus office.

Dale Mortensen’s chalkboard awaits treatment in the conservation lab after having been removed from his campus office.

Before the chalkboard could be stored in University Archives, a method needed to be devised to affix the chalk to the board so that the unbound media would not dust off. Special Collections Conservator Susan Russick researched various adhesives and application methods to determine the best one to keep the chalk in place. Funori, an adhesive made from Japanese seaweed, was chosen based on its good aging properties and the fact that it dries matte, thus retaining the visual aesthetic of the chalkboard.

Funori in three forms: dried seaweed, purified as a film, and rehydrated in solution.

Funori in three forms: dried seaweed, purified as a film, and rehydrated in solution.

To prepare the funori, 6 g of dried seaweed was rinsed and then soaked in 200 ml water overnight. The funori-water mixture was heated to just below simmer for about 90 minutes and strained through a silkscreen fabric. The resulting viscous liquid was dried on silicone coated Mylar, resulting in a translucent film. The funori film was stored dry and later reconstituted to a 0.5% solution by warming in deionized water.

A John Bunn Neb-U-lite EV™ machine, normally used for delivering medicine for respiratory ailments, was used to apply warm funori as a mist to the chalkboard. This very delicate application method was the only one found that did not disturb the fingerprints, erasure marks and smears of chalk.

In this brief video, Susan applies a layer of funori to one chalked letter using the nebulizer.

 

After treatment, Dr. Mortensen’s fingerprints and smudges are still visible on the surface of the chalkboard.

After treatment, Dr. Mortensen’s fingerprints and smudges are still visible on the surface of the chalkboard.

Multiple coats of funori were applied as a mist, each taking up to 15 hours to apply. The chalk still looks like just chalk – not shiny or slick – and without drip or brush marks. The chalk could still be removed if directly rubbed, but is now well adhered enough to tolerate the vibrations of being placed on a cart and moved for storage.

Mortensen_AT23

Chalkboard in custom-made box.

 

Mortensen_AT26

Detail of fall-away walls.

To prevent the chalk surface from being touched in storage, a special box was fabricated using Tycore® board, foam and cloth. The box grips the chalkboard around the aluminum edges using fold-away “load bearing” walls. Even if the lid warps a bit, it will not touch the surface of the chalkboard and Dr. Mortensen’s notes will remain intact for future scholars.