The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
This summer, Sarah Casto and I interned through a partnership of the Archives of American Art (AAA) and Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). Our project to stabilize the Macbeth Gallery Scrapbooks, a collection of twenty scrapbooks in the collection of AAA, was generously funded by The Smithsonian Women’s Committee. More can be read about the history of the scrapbooks and the valuable information they contain here. Under the supervision of SIA’s senior conservator Nora Lockshin and AAA registrar Susan Cary, Sarah and I were presented with the unique challenge of working primarily in an office at AAA rather than in a conservation lab. We employed our ingenuity to make the simple office into a functioning pop-up lab, our "conservation station."
Scrapbooks are known within archives and libraries for the range of challenges they present as objects, and the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) Book and Paper Group has assembled reference materials about the conservation of scrapbooks in a wiki. The Macbeth Gallery Scrapbooks are a series of commercially produced scrapbooks of varying type and condition, and they primarily contain newspaper clippings and other items related to the gallery. Our initial survey of the scrapbooks revealed inherently brittle wood-pulp paper pages, many of which cracked at our touch, as well as failed adhesives, leaving loose clippings and gallery catalogs.
With the conditions of the scrapbooks ranging from fully intact to entirely disbound (with all pages separated from the book's original binding), we found that some books remained only tenuously intact. Simply turning pages resulted in pages cracking away from the binding, so laying the book flat to image the pages for digitization would have been impossible. We determined with our supervisors that the best thing for five of the scrapbooks was to purposefully disbind them, storing the loose pages in folders with buffered interleaving papers. To stabilize the scrapbooks, Sarah and I needed to clean the pages, readhere all loose items, reinforce and repair torn pages with adhesive and paper, consolidate covers, collate pages, and rehouse the collection.
Before we could begin treatment, we had to carefully select the best combinations of adhesive and paper to use for repairing the scrapbooks. The traditional method of paper repair - Japanese paper applied with wheat starch paste and dried under weight - was not feasible for this project for a large percentage of the albums due to their extremely brittle state and time constraints. These weakened papers do not always respond well to the stresses of mending even with extremely careful application, wetting and drying – new breaks can result at repair boundaries where the binding is restrained, or where pages are turned at corners, as example. Sarah and I were faced with twenty scrapbooks, and our ultimate goal was stabilization for digitization, not full conservation treatment, so we needed a more efficient method for mending. Thus, we turned to solvent-set and heat-set tissues. Sarah and I made our own mending tissues, turning to shared and tested methods within the conservation community. We spent several days experimenting with different adhesives and application methods, adapting as needed based on trial and error. We found the most satisfaction with a variety of weights of handmade papers, prepared with Avanse MV 100 and Plextol B 500, a mixture formulated and tested by conservators at the National Archives and Records Administration because it is heat-set and it requires no drying time when applied. This allowed us to rapidly increase the pace of our work. For loose items, where original placement was verifiable, we applied wheat starch paste where possible and dried the items under weight. We were able to stabilize all twenty scrapbooks during our ten-week summer internship.
For our final task, we rehoused the books in their original boxes with the addition of custom inserts to fill out excess space in the box, securing the books in place which serves to reduce shifting and thus breakage and further losses. Our work ensures that these books will withstand the handling required in the process of digitization which will ultimately provide the Archives of American Art and their researchers with high resolution images of the scrapbooks. This will reduce the future handling of the actual books, and ensure the long term preservation of their content and original physical material.
- Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks, 1892-1952, Archives of American Art
- Accession 96-012: Smithsonian Institution, Office of Development, Smithsonian Women's Committee, Records, 1971-1993, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 267: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Records, 1881, 1895-1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It is that scrappy time of year where we ask you to nominate your favorite Smithsonian collection, experience, or in the Archives' case, people. We typcially refer to them as groundbreakers. We have some stiff competition in the science category with the Hope Diamond and the 3D Lincoln Life Mask, however, we feel Smithsonian female scientists have made such a significant contribution to scientific knowledge that they deserve your vote.
Need we say more? Vote now.
In 2009, we launched our first blog post and were a small team of 4 bloggers with contributors from across the Smithsonian. Today, we are 19 bloggers and have published over 2200 blog posts! We would like to hear from you; what features do you come back for and what would you like to see going forward? Please take 5 minutes for our survey so we can bring you the best archives news and resources.
The Archives is made up of wonderful, helpful, and hard working individuals who strive to acquire, preserve, and make accessible records that document the history of the Smithsonian Institution. Some of our staff have been at the Smithsonian for 30 plus years, while others are just beginning their tenure here. There will be some changes in the office as we welcome new staff members coming on board this summer who bring their expertise and new ideas to the Archives.
Continuing our series on introducing new staff, I'd like to welcome our new Program Assistant for our Institutional History Division, Lisa Fthenakis.
What's your educational background?
I have a Masters degree in History with a concentration in Public History, and a BA in History as well.
What do you do at SIA?
I am the Institutional History Program Assistant, so I work with Pam Henson, the Smithsonian Historian, to share the history of the Smithsonian Institution. I work with our oral history collection, conduct research, and share information about the history of the Smithsonian.
What is the strangest/most interesting thing you have discovered at SIA so far?
Perhaps the most interesting thing I have encountered so far are stories told by Sammy Ray in his oral history, RU 9628. He collected birds in the Pacific for the Smithsonian during WWII and you can really hear his personality as he tells stories about chasing rare birds and how much fun he had collecting them.
What is the most unexpected thing you have learned about working here?
The incredibly wide variety of things I get to research. The Smithsonian does so many things, from the hard sciences to the arts and seemingly everything in between, and I get to learn about all of it. So far I’ve researched things as diverse as natural history collecting, women in science, WWI history and the military history collections, and the men and women of the early support staff.
Favorite spot in DC to recommend to visitors?
My favorite spot to recommend is the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. It’s a beautiful garden, and on a hot summer day, the fountain helps keep things cooler.
When asked what the Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, we say we hold records about the history of the Smithsonian and its people, programs, research, and activities. While accurate, this doesn't really give anyone a clue about what is actually in those records.
The Smithsonian Institution Archives Reference Team handles an average of around 6,000 queries per year, and if you us what people have been researching at the Archives recently, you'll get some pretty interesting responses. Although not comprehensive, here's a snapshot of the diverse range of information encompassed by the history of the world's largest museum complex!
Over the past three months, researcher queries have included:
- Harry Ladd and the Great Barrier Reef
- History of computers at the Smithsonian
- The Handbook of North American Indians
- National Museum of Natural History construction
- Enola Gay exhibition
- The racehorse Lexington
- Galapagos Islands colonists
- Influence of Smithsonian on bird egg collecting
- The Columbian Institute
- Impact of nuclear isotopes on the coral structures
- Smithsonian Meteorological Project
- Society for Marine Mammology
- David Griffiths cactus photos
- American Encounters exhibition
- Elk migration
Permissions to upcoming publications using our photos or documents include:
- Dan Eatherly for Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper.
- Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly - Publication of Smithsonian Journeys which organizes tours around the world used our image of archaeologist, Ephraim George Squier.
- E. Samantha Cheng used our image of Ruby Hirose in a public service announcement for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.
- Susan Bullers, images of women scientists for promotional material for The Buddy Study.
- Australia’s Wildbear Entertainment used our image of French inventor, engineer and chemist Georges Claude in a documentary film on the history of neon.
- The Linnean Society of London used our image of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in their newsletter, Pulse.
Most unusual lreference request
We were contacted by Wyoming State Prison for a photograph of Mary Preston Slosson that will be featured in a permanent exhibit at the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site.
- Reference services at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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