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 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 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.

Apr 232015
 

 

The ‘Umar Falke Collection is the largest of the four Arabic manuscript collections held by the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies and consists of over 3,000 items, the majority of which are 19th and early 20th century manuscripts written in a wide variety of inks on single unbound sheets of paper. The collection, which is housed in traditional leather wrappers, represents the intact library of ‘Umar Falke, a prominent Nigerian trader, scholar and author, and contains manuscripts on all aspects of Islamic learning and protective medicine. The collection is particularly strong in works on Sufism and in almost all the branches of Islamic sciences as well as Maliki law and jurisprudence, theology, literature, and grammar.

ArabicMS2049_BT03amened

An example of a manuscript page with colored inks

The Falke Collection was chosen for an extensive preservation needs assessment survey. The purpose of the survey was to gather a complex range of information about the condition of paper, inks, and housings that would impact the conservation and digitization of such a large manuscript collection. A subsequent pilot project included repairing and digitizing selected manuscripts to determine treatment protocols and guidelines for image capture. At the 2014 conference of The Islamic Manuscript Association held at University of Cambridge, Scott Devine, Marie A. Quinlan Director of Preservation and Conservation, and Chief Conservator Tonia Grafakos presented a paper about the history of the collection, results of the survey, and potential for new research initiatives.

The uniqueness of the Falke Collection, coupled with growing scholarly interest in the intellectual history of West Africa, make it a prime candidate for both scholarly research and digitization. Ongoing work with the collection is underway, including a rehousing project and the development of research initiatives related to materials analysis. NUL’s Conservation Fellow, Graham Patten, is currently analyzing the yellow pigments found throughout the manuscripts; details of this investigation will be featured in upcoming posts.

Treatment documentation of losses

Treatment documentation of edge repairs

Apr 152015
 

 

In recent years, Northwestern University Library conservators have seen an increasing number of unique and unusual objects – from neckties to paintings to lollipops –  in need of preservation. Integrated with traditional books and papers, these artifacts exemplify the breadth and depth of the library’s collections and act as primary source materials that support both undergraduate education and advanced scholarly research.

The Preservation Department is often where research on these objects begins. Though the fundamental principles remain the same, the specifics of how to best care for such a wide variety of artifacts require investigation into both the physical structure and cultural value of each item. In order to determine the most appropriate course of action for preserving and providing access to these objects, conservators must understand the production materials and techniques, patterns of deterioration, historical and cultural contexts, evidence of past use, and predictions of future use within the context of Northwestern’s distinctive research collections.

In order to highlight some of the rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years, the Preservation Department curated the exhibit, Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections, which is on view in the Deering Library lobby through May 8, 2015.

This blog, an outgrowth of the exhibit, is an effort to document and share continuing treatment and research projects that reflect the changing nature of library preservation and the potential for what conservation research can offer in terms of broader collaboration across the academic community.

During 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.