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.

Jan 132016
 

A current paintings conservation project, made possible by a generous grant from the Alumnae of Northwestern, has opened the door to learning more about John Singer Sargent, his lifelong friendship with Charles Deering, and the story behind the creation of one of Sargent’s last large scale society portraits.

Charles Deering (1852-1927) was a renowned art collector, friend and patron of many leading artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He collected significant works by lifelong friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Lucien Simon. The library holds twelve paintings donated by the Deering family to be displayed in the Charles Deering Memorial Library when it opened in 1933. Of these paintings, John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Augustus Allhusen, a portrait of Dorothy Stanley Allhusen painted at Sargent’s London studio in the autumn of 1907, is one of the best known and most appreciated.

When the painting was surveyed in 2013 as part of a larger collection survey, it was noted that the existing natural resin varnish had yellowed, dulling the tonal qualities of the painting. It was decided that removing or thinning the varnish layer and applying a fresh synthetic resin varnish layer, a common practice in paintings conservation, would allow viewers to once again see the painting as Sargent intended it to look when he created it over 100 years ago. In addition, repairing areas of minor distortion to the canvas will stabilize the painting and allow it to be displayed once again in Deering Library or loaned for exhibitions at institutions worldwide when requested.

We have noted often on this blog that the changing nature of library collections calls for a more collaborative approach to collections conservation. Northwestern’s location allows us to work with a diverse and talented group of allied professionals in the Chicago area. In the case of the Sargent painting, we are pleased to be working once again with Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC. Cynthia Kuniej Berry and her staff have consulted on other projects at Northwestern and carried out the initial survey of the paintings collection in 2013. Associate Paintings Conservator Emily Prehoda is cleaning the Sargent and has provided treatment information and photographs included in this post.

During the early stages of treatment, the painting was removed from its frame and photographed under ultraviolet illumination.

Photography under ultraviolet light can be particularly useful, as it allows the conservator to distinguish areas of past treatment or, in this case, the extent of varnish application. In the photo above, note the hazy green fluorescence, indicating a brush-applied natural resin type varnish. Small areas of old retouching are visible as dark marks that block fluorescence of the varnish.

One of the first stages of the conservation treatment involved removing surface grime prior to thinning the yellowed varnish.

During surface cleaning, a cotton swab was used to remove dust and grime from the painting’s surface. Surface cleaning alone can have a dramatic effect on the tonal qualities of a painting. The cotton swab was photographed against a white background in order to illustrate the amount of surface grime being removed.

Discussing the next step in the process, Emily Prehoda explains, “I’ll use the term “varnish thinning” versus “varnish removal” to indicate that the thick varnish layer is gradually being reduced overall, rather than removed completely all at once. This allows me to better consider the painting’s nuances, and the balance of shadows and highlights during the cleaning process. The varnish is thicker and heavier in the dark areas. This may be due to the artist selectively applying more varnish in dark areas to increase saturation, or a previous conservator selectively cleaning and re-varnishing the light and dark areas to different levels. Varnish thinning helps to ensure that an even, consistent varnish layer is being removed, and no areas of the artist’s possible re-working of the painting are sensitive to solvents or being adversely affected in any way.”

To illustrate her initial progress, Emily prepared the following images to highlight the effects of  varnish thinning.

During varnish thinning, the area left/below the green line has been thinned, and the right/upper side has not yet been cleaned. Note the improved saturation of colors and clarity of details in the cleaned area.

As Emily proceeds with the conservation treatment, ongoing research at Northwestern has focused on learning more about the painting and how it came into Charles Deering’s collection. We know that the painting was exhibited at the National Portrait Society in London in 1919 and believe that it was acquired by Charles Deering shortly thereafter. Additional research has focused on Dorothy Allhusen and her lifelong friendship with the English novelist Thomas Hardy. Mrs. Allhusen’s correspondence with both Sargent and Hardy documents the process of sitting for the portrait as well as Mrs. Allhusen’s initial impressions of the painting itself.

Once the treatment is completed, the Northwestern University Libraries will host a reception to unveil the newly conserved Mrs. Augustus Allhusen and to recognize the support of the Alumnae of Northwestern in preserving this important painting.

 

Jul 102015
 

 

Northwestern University Library is home to one of the largest collections of original source materials relating to the Siege and Commune of Paris (ca. 1870-1871). The collection includes newspapers, books, posters, pamphlets, caricatures, and photographs. During 2013-14, a large-scale project was undertaken to digitize over 1200 of the photographs, now viewable here. Many of these photographs are housed in albums which needed to be stabilized before they could be safely handled and imaged. In order to capture information on the backs of the photos, such as photographers’ stamps and handwritten notations, the decision was made to temporarily remove the photos from the albums wherever possible and scan them individually. As Project Conservator for the Siege Digitization project, my role was to treat the damaged albums and act as the conservation liaison. I worked closely with Special Collections and Digital Collections staff to develop a streamlined workflow for tracking the albums and consulted on safe handling techniques.

The first phase of the project was to treat a dozen damaged photo albums prior to re-cataloging and digitization. As professional conservation ethics dictate, all treatment needed to be minimally invasive and retain as much of the original structure as possible. Additionally, the repairs needed to be sturdy, since the albums would be handled by multiple people during the cataloging and digitization processes. Efficiency was also important, as the goal was to have all albums treated within three months in order to stay on track with the project schedule.

No two albums in the collection are alike, making this project a nice overview of 19th century album structures. Approximately half of the albums have thick, laminate pages with pre-cut windows into which mounted photographs, like cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards, may be inserted. The remaining albums contain photos adhered directly to the pages. The albums exhibited the kind of damage one would expect to find in a collection of commercially-produced albums that have been handled extensively over the past 140 years, including worn covering material, damaged spines and endcaps, splitting joints, and detached boards.

Many of the pre-cut windows were torn at the edges, evidence that the photographs had been previously removed and replaced. In some instances the photos were misaligned or slipping out of their windows. The photographs themselves, the majority of which are albumen prints, are in fair condition; most exhibit some discoloration and fading but only a very few are bent or torn.

Treatment of the albums included surface cleaning, spine and joint repairs with toned linen and long-fiber paper, consolidation of the leather and board corners, and hinge repairs to reinforce board attachment. Some repairs, like mending the torn edges of the pre-cut windows, were postponed until after completion of the digitization phase of the project.

About six months after the treatment phase of the project was complete, we moved on to phase two, removing photos from the window albums for individual scanning. The goal was to set up a workflow that would minimize handling of the fragile photographs and allow for streamlined movement and tracking of the albums between Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Collections.

The initial plan was to place each photograph in a thin Mylar® sling, allowing for easy removal and replacement by digitization staff. However, we determined that the bulk and weight of adding so much Mylar® to the albums would strain the already weak bindings. Also, having the Mylar® slings there might encourage more handling of the photos in the future, which we are hoping to discourage by providing high-quality digital surrogates. Our solution was to have each album pass through the conservation lab on its  way to and from the imaging studio. I removed each photograph by slipping a thin bone folder underneath to help ease them out of the windows. Each photo was placed in a numbered paper folder and sent to Digital Collections for scanning.

This image below illustrates the workflow for this phase of the project. (Click to enlarge. Note: SPEC = Special Collections, DC = Digital Collections.)

Project Workflow

Project Workflow (click to enlarge)

At first glance, this seems like a lot of back and forth and possibly not the most streamlined approach, but it turned out to be advantageous in a number of ways. Most importantly, it meant that I was the only person doing the actual removal and replacement of the photos, minimizing the risk of further damage to the album pages. Another advantage of this particular workflow was that the albums were returned to the conservation lab after being scanned, which allowed me to complete treatments—like mending torn pages—once the photos had been replaced. It was also a chance to check up on treatments completed six months earlier. The albums had been handled extensively by multiple people since I’d last seen them and I was happy to observe that most of the repairs remained intact. In the few instances where my previous repairs turned out to be not quite sturdy enough, I had the opportunity to perform touch-up treatment before sending the albums back to Special Collections.

Another success of this project was improved communication between the three departments. Digital Collections shared their Google Docs project calendar with me so that I would know when to expect the next albums being routed to the conservation lab, which helped me plan my work and keep the project running on schedule. As a result of the Siege project and other similar efforts, both Special Collections and Digital Collections staff are increasingly likely to ask Preservation staff for advice on safe handling and consultation on a range of material- and condition-related issues.

Jun 302015
 

The renovation of our conservation lab has provided us with an opportunity to transform our working environment into a flexible workspace that can be adjusted to the various projects entering the lab.  This post will discuss why the conservation lab is being renovated and provide an update on the current state of the project.  A future post will include before and after photos, feature some of our ideas on how to maximize space, and discuss a few of the customized features we’ve incorporated.

Much has changed since the Preservation Department was established in 1984 with 3 full-time employees. We have significantly expanded the scope of our preservation and conservation activities, and as a result the department has grown to 14 staff members, most of whom work either full or part-time in the conservation lab. The work currently being done in the lab is a mix of single item treatment, general collections care, conservation research, exhibits preparation, large rehousing projects, and treatment of oversize items.  With only 6 built-in workbenches and 1 large communal table, staff had to share workspace on a regular basis, with little possibility of reconfiguring the space for special projects. Due to high demand and the lack of communal space, the large table needed to be reserved.  This led to multiple large scale projects that needed to be carefully coordinated and sometimes resulted in project delays.  The lab no longer functioned for the work we were doing.

Susan Russick and I conducted an assessment of the lab space in the spring of 2012.  In that report, several items were noted that needed to be addressed: modifying the workbenches, creating a permanent space for scientific equipment, increasing storage, and improving the space for chemical and wet treatment.


We began working with an architect and University Facilities on the scope and design of the lab space in late 2013.  Construction began in January 2015.  We were fortunate to gain 260 square feet from an adjoining office; it was a modest but very welcome addition to the lab.  Our biggest challenge was to find a way to maximize the flexibility and storage capacity of the additional space we had been allotted.  To that end, we created an open concept lab.  By removing 2 walls, we opened the space considerably.  The old photo documentation room will become a space for large equipment and the old dirty room will be incorporated into the new wet area.  The redesigned wet area will allow staff to fully utilize the space by having adjacency to the large communal table and to the fume hood.  An additional vent hood over the washing sink will allow us to safely use solvents in that area.


In order to move oversize supplies and objects into the lab, we have increased the width of the door.  It was important to us that the entrance doors included large glass panels.  We wanted to showcase the work being done in the lab and make the space more inviting and less hidden from public view.

To use conservation terminology, we are currently in the ‘during’ phase of renovation.  In the coming weeks, new workbenches will be installed, the additional office space will be finished, and storage areas will be reconfigured.  Our goal is to have the renovation complete in July 2015.

Jun 172015
 

I have spent the past year preparing for a course that Tonia Grafakos and I will teach on an Italian Stiff Board Vellum Binding with Slotted Spine for the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School. I am excited and honored to be a part of the program this year, which will celebrate 25 years of teaching preservation, conservation, and bookbinding history at the Seminario Barbarigo.

I attended my first course at Montefiascone in 1998. Having recently completed an internship at the Library of Congress, which included working on a pigment consolidation project for a collection of illuminated manuscripts, I was eager to learn more about the techniques used to create these manuscripts, and Cheryl Porter’s course on “Re-creating the Medieval Palette” presented an ideal combination of lecture and hands-on practice. The process of grinding minerals and boiling organic matter to create a range of color opened my eyes to the incredible value of recreating historical processes: understanding how an object was created through practicing historical techniques can lead to unique insights into how to go about conserving that object. In this sense, learning how to recreate historical processes and techniques becomes a fundamental aspect of training and professional development for a conservator.

 

Over the past 25 years, the Montefiascone Conservation Project has developed into a well-established international training ground for conservators, bookbinders and scholars: a unique place to explore bookbinding technique, book history and conservation issues in a collaborative and creative environment. The book program in particular has developed into one of the best ways to study historical structures, often in the context of a specific bookbinding selected from some of the premier rare book collections in the world.

This summer, we will be teaching the slotted parchment structure using the Northwestern Hesiod, a copy of Hesiodou tou Askraiou Erga kai hemerai (the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days), printed by Bartolomeo Zanetti in Venice in 1537. The printed text is derived from a 15th century Greek manuscript currently held by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. In preparing the course, I have been thinking about the larger issues surrounding why we study historical book structures and why the construction of historical models is so critical to the study of book conservation.

1. Developing and refining conservation skills.

Constructing historical models allows the conservator to develop bookbinding and conservation skills in a way that treatment alone does not. While most book conservators have studied traditional bookbinding techniques, such as covering with leather or constructing brass clasps, these skills are infrequently required in modern book conservation and are all too often lost. Maintaining these skills allows us to use them when needed and appropriate. More importantly, however, the continued refinement of these traditional skills allows us to spot variations in technique on the historic bindings we handle. Being able to distinguish variations can assist in dating or identifying the region of creation and lead to further insights in to the spread of bookbinding technique.

On a more personal level for the conservator, constructing a book from the beginning allows for a free expression of intent not always possible in conservation treatment. Conservation has always been an exercise in compromise and balance: artifactual value, curatorial needs, and the changing political and cultural norms that guide our work are all factors which influence the final product. At a time when so much of our work is driven by external factors beyond collections care – digitization initiatives and exhibition schedules chief among them – having the time to get lost in the details of a specific book, if only for week, can be both invigorating and rejuvenating.

2. Gaining insight into historical techniques.

There are two common approaches to recreating historical book structures: 1)constructing a facsimile binding which combines aspects of the most typical examples of the structure being studied; and 2)recreating a specific book. Both methods allow for the development of the hand skills discussed above. However, the latter approach allows us to look more closely into the physical aspects of a specific object, often requiring a higher degree of attention to detail in order to make the facsimile function in the same way.

The process of reproducing a specific binding challenges our assumptions about how the object was created in the first place and invites us to investigate specific components in detail. In the case of the Northwestern Hesiod, trying to achieve specific results has led us to a greater understanding of how the book was produced, including how the pasteboards were constructed and how the covering vellum was processed.

We look at an object and think we know how it was created, but until we try to replicate the technique, we don’t really know. With the Northwestern Hesiod, we conducted numerous experiments in order to create a modern pasteboard that mimicked the weight, feel and function of the original. The process of making these sample boards led to greater insights into the role of the pasteboard in controlling the movement of the covering vellum. As a result, one component of our course will focus on the best way to create pasteboard using modern materials.

The covering vellum also posed a challenge. After experiments with various thicknesses of vellum and various methods of application, we have developed a technique for covering with unlined vellum which greatly simplifies the process. Careful study of the covering vellum, which we believe to be a recycled 15th century manuscript heavy scraped or sanded on one side to remove the original text, led to collaboration with Jesse Meyer at Pergamena to custom produce remarkably thin vellum for our project.

 

3. Engaging in scholarly research.

In preparing the course on the Northwestern Hesiod, we had the opportunity to engage in traditional scholarly research at a level beyond what is typical of our day-to-day work. Our research with the Hesiod began as an effort to understand more about the slotted parchment structure and to quantify holdings in North American research libraries. Our goal was to build on research by Silvia Pugliese and, specifically, to determine the prevalence of slotted parchment bindings in collections outside Italy. In the process of studying slotted parchment bindings, however, our interest developed into learning more about Bartolomeo Zanetti and other books he printed during his time in Venice. We wanted to understand how these volumes fit into the larger economic and social context of the period, especially the rise of Protestantism and the effect of the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the Venetian book trade.

During a research trip to Venice, we had the opportunity to study the 15th century manuscript by Demetrio Damilas, Marc. Gr. IX 6 (coll.1006), which Zanetti used to create the 1537 Hesiod. In fact, the 1537 Hesiod is notable for the extensive scholia, or notes, which were copied from the Marciana manuscript. Zanetti’s efforts to edit and reproduce the scholia are remarkable. The way in which the printed book reflects the original manuscript is a fascinating case study of the intersection between manuscript and print culture and represents another aspect of research which will be discussed in our course.

Marc. gr. IX, 6 (coll. 1006)

Detail of the 15th century manuscript Zanetti consulted to produce the printed book.

Having the opportunity to engage in this level of scholarly research is important for the conservator. Understanding how individual objects are used by researchers, putting ourselves in the role of those researchers, helps inform the decisions we make about preserving artifactual value and makes us more aware of ways in which our collections are being used by scholars.

4. Collaborating with colleagues in other fields.

Our interest in the Northwestern Hesiod has allowed us to make connections with experts in the fields of both Renaissance Studies and Classical Studies. Learning more about Hesiod and Greek scholarship in the Renaissance has led us to a better understanding of why so many books were being printed in Greek in the early 16th century and the role of Greek language in the development of Italian Humanism. Learning more about the efforts of 14th century scholars such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca to revive the study of Greek and the importance of work by early teachers of Greek such as Manuel Chrysoloras has given us a better understanding of how and why the Venetian book trade developed as it did in the early 16th century and why the study of Greek texts was so important at this time.

In addition, our interest in the covering vellum and what the recycled manuscript might reveal has led to consultation with NU-ACCESS and the possibility of research using multispectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence to uncover the text on the manuscript.

We are particularly interested in the manuscript text as it may shed new light on the kinds of manuscripts which were being dismantled during the early 16th century. It is possible that the extensive marginal notes on the manuscript may reveal unique commentary, even if the principal text is not itself unique.

 

The making of historical book models represents one of the best ways to explore firsthand the complex nature of book structure and to develop insights into conservation technique. Moreover, the study and construction of historical models represents a unique opportunity for anyone, from amateur bookbinder to experienced conservator, to engage with history in a way that few people can.  If you have never experienced the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School, I invite you to join us for this year’s extraordinary anniversary program.

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.

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.