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 262015
 

 

Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovitz Library of African Studies holds an important collection of Arabic Manuscripts, including the intact library of Nigerian scholar-trader ‘Umar Falke (1893-1962). Falke’s collection of over three thousand original 19th– and 20th-century manuscripts was collected on his travels through Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. The documents span all aspects of Islamic learning, and provide a unique opportunity to study the tradition of manuscript production during this time period in Western Africa.   Very little has been recorded or published about the material history of this tradition, or the practices of scribes and copyists who created these documents.

During a recent survey of the Falke collection, a single instance of the yellow pigment orpiment (As2S3) was identified. While some literature states that yellows in manuscripts of this time and location were made exclusively with locally sourced yellow ochres (various iron-oxide and –hydroxide pigments), it is possible that orpiment was still in use, consistent with the practices of earlier centuries. Conservation Fellow Graham Patten is currently undertaking a research project that focuses primarily on the yellow pigments, as well as the binding media used to make the inks.

The main questions raised at the outset of the research are: what are the identities of the pigments and binders, how did they come to be in Western Africa, why were specific pigments chosen for various specific uses in the texts, and what can these issues tell us about the nature of trade and manuscript production during the time period in question? These ideas will be addressed in terms of their social, religious, and economic contexts.

In order to determine how commonly yellows occur in the collection, locate examples for chemical analysis, and aid future research on other colors, Graham made a visual survey of all colors used in the collection, looking at a random sampling of about one-third of the collection. His survey predicts that approximately 4% of the manuscripts contain yellow pigment, a finding consistent with the earlier preservation needs assessment survey.

Currently, Graham is conducting Raman spectroscopy on the pigments at Northwestern University’s Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experiment Center (NUANCE) to identify the particular yellow colorants used. Raman spectroscopy is well suited to the study of minerals and other inorganic materials, and has been used successfully in recent years for the identification of artists’ pigments. One aspect of this technique that is particularly attractive for library and archives materials is that analysis can be performed in-situ without the need for destructive sampling. The results of this analysis will add a great deal to our knowledge of materials used in this relatively undocumented tradition, and bring us a step closer to answering some of the questions we have about this unique collection.