The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Behind the Scenes
Fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott, is arguably most famous outside the Smithsonian for his panoramic photographs of the Canadian Rockies, taken during his geological expeditions in the early twentieth century. Therefore, it was somewhat mysterious when an indenture from 1740 turned up in Walcott family papers donated to the Smithsonian Archives in 2015 by Walcott’s great-granddaughter. Folded into a small packet and somewhat worse for wear with broken folds and missing areas, the wax seals were nonetheless intact. The indenture also features a beautiful fleur-de-lis watermark.
What is an indenture? An indenture is an archaic legal term for a contract. Like many, my only exposure to the word was as part of the concept of indentured servitude, and as a result I related “indenture” more to the service than the binding nature of the agreement. In fact, the word indenture comes from the wavy line or indent cut at the top of the document, which was an early security measure—the copies of the indenture matched exactly, providing a quick way to detect a forgery. So, from the material object—the paper contract—the word expanded its meaning to include the concept as well as the document.
What is this document about? This indenture is a property transfer between a young couple in New York City, presumably of Dutch origins based on their names—Pieter and Susannah Bosh—and a widow, Elizabeth Carpender. Elizabeth paid them 252 pounds, 10 shillings for the property. From the signatures and official seals we learn that while Pieter was literate and signed his own name, Susannah was not; she made her mark and a scribe penned her name alongside it. Susannah was also carefully consulted in the sale—a “memorandum” on the outside of the folded document states that she participated in the transaction of her own free will. The notary who ascertained this and served as one of the witnesses, Philip van Cortlandt, was son of Stephanus van Cortlandt, the first American-born mayor of New York City.
The indenture had been folded multiple times, and exterior folds were heavily abraded with breakages and losses evident. To facilitate mending of the document and to enable flat storage, the folds were locally humidified using Gore-Tex compresses. After initial relaxation was complete, the document was lightly humidified overall using an ultrasonic humidifier and left to dry sandwiched between blotters and weighted beneath a Plexiglas sheet, leaving the portion with the seals uncovered. All humidification was performed from the verso or back of the document to avoid catalyzing degradation of the paper by the corrosive iron-gall ink, which is sensitive to moisture. The thickness of the paper made it less likely that contact would occur, and it was deemed an acceptable risk.
A three percent weight/volume solution of gelatin was prepared to use as an adhesive owing to its free-iron-ion isolating characteristics, as the indenture is written extensively in iron-gall ink. The cooled and set gelatin was then sieved through a horsehair strainer to create a gelatin mousse. Scarfed tears were realigned and gelatin applied to the scarfed areas, then left to dry under weight. Broken folds and non-scarfed tears were realigned and mended with the gelatin mousse brushed through Berlin tissue pieces. Scarfed tears needing additional support were treated in the same way.
A sympathetic paper was chosen to fill the loss areas, with a similar color, weight, and chain-and-laid-line pattern—a Mitsumata Japanese paper. A light sheet was placed beneath the indenture loss areas to clearly illuminate the shape of the losses. The repair paper was placed to cover a fill, with chain-and-laid lines aligned, and the fill was traced with a mechanical pencil. These were then cut with an electric perforating pen and placed in the losses. Pieces of Berlin tissue were shaped to mimic the loss areas with a small overlap, then placed atop the fills. Gelatin mousse was then brushed through the tissue to attach the fills from the rear. The mends were then allowed to dry under weight.
Though the connection to the Walcotts is still unclear, this document from New York Colony only a few decades before the American Revolutionary War is a fascinating look at this particular period of history that is not often represented in the Archives, and was an excellent opportunity to hone conservation treatment skills.
Accession 06-062 - Charles Doolittle Walcott Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Re-mounting the American Bison, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
It is once again time to come together for a day of Wikipedia! Join Smithsonian and U.S. National Archives staff, as well as local Wikipedian volunteers, for a Women's History Month/Museum Day Live! edit-a-thon on Saturday March 19th, 10am-3pm, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. We will work on improving and creating new Wikipedia articles about notable minority women, some of whom worked at the Smithsonian.
For example, take a look at Jeannine Smith Clark, a longtime Smithsonian volunteer who served on the Smithsonian's Board of Regents as its first volunteer and minority woman. A longtime Washingtonian, Clark worked to expand D.C. Public Schools’ tours of the Smithsonian’s museums and helped to provide transportation to the museums for local children. Clark also served as the chair of the Smithsonian Women's Committee, a fundraising group, and became the Smithsonian's first head of its Cultural Education Committee which worked to increase diversity in Smithsonian staff and leadership.
All that said, she has no Wikipedia page and we'd like to solve that on March 19th. During the edit-a-thon, you will have a chance to learn from and interact with Smithsonian and U.S. National Archives staff, learn how to work in Wikipedia, and enjoy complimentary lunch and coffee which is generously being provided by Wikimedia DC.
Related, on March 12th, you can also join us for Museum Day Live! which is being held specifically to welcome young women and girls of color, their peers and their families, and inspire them to discover the arts and sciences through a series of exciting programs, including leadership opportunities, vibrant performances, special tours, and interactive activities.
RSVP now for the edit-a-thon. It will be a supportive environment where beginners are welcome!
- Sign up for Color History with the Smithsonian Wikipedia Edit-a-thon
- Museum Day Live! Programming
One of our recent projects, these photographic crayon enlargements, associated with founder of the National Zoo William Temple Hornaday, were made on sensitized paper that was then adhered to a linen “canvas” stretched around wooden frames. The paper had become brittle, and handling at some point in the past led to a number of punctures and tears through both the paper and the linen support. Water damage was also evident from visible tide lines, as were various discolored areas. The goal of our treatment was to remove the enlargements from the wooden stretchers, stabilize the damaged areas, and devise a suitable new mounting method.
The wooden stretchers caused three issues: first, tannins present in the wood had discolored the adjacent linen backing and had potential to migrate into the sensitized paper, further weakening the already brittle paper; second, the nails attaching the linen to the wood were rusted and flaking; third, the frame had trapped a large amount of debris. To remove the stretcher, a Preservation Pencil (a hot air gun, coupled with a ultrasonic humidifier to provide local, low humidification) was used to soften the adhesive holding the paper and linen in place, and the enlargement was gently lifted away from the rear of the frame with a microspatula. Once the edges were accessible, the microspatula was used to carefully free the linen out from behind the rusting nails. Once the linen was freed, the stretcher could be lifted away from the enlargement and discarded. The detritus that had accumulated behind the frame was removed by hand first and followed up with a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner.
Temporary bridge mends had been applied to the verso of the enlargements to stabilize the free edges of the tears and losses. These were removed mechanically with a microspatula where adhesion was weaker and softened using the hot air humidifier elsewhere.
A heat-set repair tissue made of medium-weight Japanese tissue coated with Plextol B500 acrylic adhesive was then prepared to mend the enlargements. Plextol was chosen for its good adhesion and excellent flow, which allowed the adhesive to securely grip the somewhat open weave of the linen backing while still offering easy reversibility. Mends were shaped for each tear with a perforating pen and made wide enough to provide support to the enlargement. The mends were then applied using a heated spatula through silicone release paper (preventing sticking or scorching), paying particular attention to the edges.
The enlargements were mounted on backing boards of corrugated E-flute board using a series of Japanese paper strips that would hold the objects lightly taut and provide necessary stability. Mounting strips were prepared by applying Plextol to one edge of a strip of the same medium-weight Japanese paper employed for mending. These were then cut into smaller strips, leaving five-inch-long pieces that were one inch wide, with about 1 square inch of the strip coated in Plextol on one side. These strips were applied to the verso of the enlargements.
Once all strips were attached, the backing board was put in place and registered. The enlargements were worked on with an elevated clear Plexiglas sheet as support, which enabled viewing of the recto and facilitated centering the backing board on the enlargement. The strips were wrapped around the backing board and fixed in place with cast-out films of Lascaux 498 HV acrylic adhesive, reactivated with the heated spatula. Strips were adhered beginning with the centrally positioned strips on each edge to prevent shifting.
Once the enlargements were mounted, areas of the image where the paper was lifting away from the linen backing were tacked back down using more of the Lascaux films. Detailed maps of the placement of these Lascaux pieces were made so future conservators know precisely where the Lascaux was applied.
Now stable and mounted securely, these historic images can be safely handled and displayed as necessary.
Accession 12-570, National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Division of Mammals, Specimen Records, c. 1887, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Home Sweet Housing: Creating a Unique Enclosure for a Historic Photograph, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Taxidermist Turned Conservationist: The Man that Saved the Bison, A Castle of Curiosities, Smithsonian Mobile App
Between September-December 2015 I had the opportunity to undertake a research project on the conservation of eighty letterpress copying books of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) RU000053, under the supervision of Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin.
The Baird volumes are currently restricted for use (although greatly desired by researchers) because the collection is affected by a severe iron-gall ink corrosion and ink fading. Microfilm is available, but is not entirely legible.
In 2011, Smithsonian Postgraduate Fellow Beth Antoine analyzed the Baird’s letterpress copying books, and investigated conservation treatment using antioxidant tetrabutyl ammonium bromide (TBABr) and raised new research questions in her conclusion. My project proposed to design experiments for the new research questions : to compare two non-aqueous conservation treatments; and to develop risk assessment and practical workflow guidelines, in order to stabilize and digitize the collection in the future. I took into consideration the further developments in the conservation of iron gall inks since Antoine’s publication, so I designed a study to investigate three major new research questions related to the conservation of letterpress copying books.
First of all, I further analyzed the effects of TBABr on the paper and compared also treatments with another similar antioxidant: 1-ethyl-3-methyl imidazolium bromide (EMiMBr). Secondly, in the meanwhile, I experimented with different sizing agents and repair tissues both commonly used in conservation or recently developed, such as an Avanse/Plextol heat-set tissue studied by the National Archives and Records Administration. Finally, I investigated the application of the best materials on the volumes with the use of a book suction machine, to minimize risks for the collections and the conservator during conservation treatments.
Different combination of materials were tested on paper strips sacrificed from one of the Baird volumes from unused sheets at the back of volume 4. Moreover, I created mockups with a gampi paper, which is similar to the original types of tissues that were used to create copying books, and three different inks (with different solubility characteristics ) that simulate inks that were used in writing letters copied into letterpress copybooks.
To check the results of the treatment and predict their behavior over time, I put the mockups through artifical aging studies, measuring the following factors: the acidity or alkalinity levels (pH), color change using a colorimeter (in CIEL*a*b* colorspace), migration of iron (II) ions, tensile strength of the samples, and visual examination under ultraviolet light.
The tests were conducted in two different locations: the conservation laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Mecklenburg Materials Archive facility at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.
At the end of the tests, we discovered that, if combined with deacidification, Bookkeeper (a proprietary deacidification solution), and either of two possible sizing agents, the antioxidants TBABr and EMiMBr are effective in stabilizing degraded inks of letterpress copybooks, and the behavior of the two is very similar. However, it is necessary to test the solubility of the inks extensively before planning any treatment. Concerning repair tissues, we selected three possible heat set/solvent set tissues that may be used to stabilize tears and losses. By using a suction table and turning the pages gently with Mylar/Melinex sheets, it is possible to effectively stabilize pages of letterpress copybooks that are affected by severe tears and losses. The results of this research project will help the conservators of the Smithsonian Institution Archives in planning a stabilization and digitization project for the Baird letterpress copybooks over the following years. Moreover, the findings will help archivists and conservators of other institutions in the United States and abroad in preserving this kind of archival collection. A poster of the project will be presented at the American Institute for Conservation 2016 joint annual meeting in Canada.
I wish to thank the Anne Van Camp, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Nora Lockshin, Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Eric Woodard, Director of the Office of Fellowships and Internships, and Dawn V. Rogala, Paintings Conservator of the Museum Conservation Institute for their support of this project. As an emerging Italian paper conservator, completing this research was an extraordinary opportunity to grow professionally and personally, in a rich and stimulating environment!
Record Unit 000053 - Spencer Fullerton Baird, Smithsonian Institution Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum, Correspondence and Memoranda, 1850-1877
"The Conservation of Letterpress Copying Books: a Study of the Baird Collection." Antoine, Beth, Mecklenburg, Marion F., Speakman, Robert J. and Wachowiak, Melvin J. 2011.The Book & Paper Group Annual, 30: 9-27
In November, Smithsonian Institution Archives successfully moved over 3 million photographic negatives from a cold storage unit that had reached end of life to a new state of the art facility at the Smithsonian Institution Support Center (SISC) in Hyattsville, Maryland. The new space consists of two climate and humidity controlled rooms, a large staging area, and a large processing and digitization lab. Of the new cold rooms, one is kept at 52 degrees Farenheit and accommodates glass negatives, color photographic prints, CDs, and videotape materials, while the other is kept at 26 degrees Farenheit and is for storage of film materials.
We inherited both the old space and the glass negatives in 2008, when the Archives took over all of the historic images pertaining to the Smithsonian Institution’s history from Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS). Located in the basement of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), the old cold vault, which had prevented the deterioration of film material for over thirty years, was on the verge of expiration.
For years we have been preparing the contents kept in cold storage for the move, which not only included the design and build out of a new space, but also some huge rehousing efforts. Over one thousand broken glass negatives were stabilized, housing was provided for oversized glass and acetate negatives, and 30,000 glass negatives were separated from the acetate negatives they were originally stored in boxes with. Once the build out was nearing completion, new locations for the materials were mapped and labeled.
The actual move took place over five days. Four Archives staff members were at each location with a move crew of about six to ten, and three refrigerated trucks shuttled material from NMAH to SISC. The move “choreography” consisted of 38 main steps, each divided into numerous sub-steps. In addition to the Archives’ collections, we also moved collections for other units with whom we share the space and whose collections we will continue to store.
Our new space affords us some room to grow. Though we cannot accommodate all of the Smithsonian Institution’s film preservation needs, we are able to bring on new partners and collaborators from units across the institution to provide preventive care for collections at risk. We look forward to working more closely with our historic collections and have plans to systematically digitize materials so that we can share and provide access to the Smithsonian Institution’s fascinating and abundant photographic history.
Cabinet of Curiosities, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Unlocking the Vault, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Walking on Broken Glass, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Highlight from the Photo Cold Vault: Gelatin Dry Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Putting It All Together: The Assembly and Rehousing of Glass Plate Negatives, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Care, Handling and Storage of Photographs, Library of Congress