The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
At the Archives, much of the treatment we undertake is driven by need and request: in this instance, the Board of Regents requested that their historical meeting minutes be digitized for easy consultation, requiring that conservation staff survey and treat the collections in question to ensure they are stable for scanning.
The majority of the volumes were in stable condition with few interventive needs; however, volume 1, covering the meeting minutes from 1846 to 1856, required some structural reinforcement before it could be safely handled during digitization.
Volume 1 is an oversized book measuring 19.5” by 14”, and is 4” thick; it is bound in plum-colored leather, decorated in a style similar to one known as the Cambridge panel. The first volume begins with a transcribed version of James Smithson’s will and the Acts of Congress that created the Smithsonian Institution; after these items, the minutes of the Board of Regents meetings start, carefully written across penciled grid lines to ensure straight text.
Despite the overall fine condition of the volume, there were a few obstacles impeding its quick send-off to digitization. These were structural, based on the style and girth of the binding. As described above, the book is quite large and weighty, with heavy covers that stress the joint of the volume as the book is opened and closed. It also appears that when the book was made, the spine of the book was not fitted closely enough to the paper textblock; as a result, when the volume is opened, it wants to pull further than the textblock is able to move, causing the textblock to break at various points and leave loose pages. The book’s leather spine is heavily cracked, another result of the overlarge spine trying to open further than the textblock can. The stress of opening the book also caused the leather to break along the joints, particularly at the head of the front cover board where the joint is broken through completely. The headcap was heavily damaged as well, probably because it is a natural place to grip a book when removing it from the shelf; the leather was broken, exposing the heavy cord used to strengthen it, and revealing a large unsupported cavity that contributed to its damage.
Attention was devoted first to the textblock, with some light surface cleaning. Loose pages were reattached with V-shaped Japanese paper hinges: one side of the V was adhered with wheat starch paste to the textblock and allowed to dry before pasting out the other side and laying the loose page atop it. This ensured that the page edges aligned properly. Once all loose pages were in place, the dilemma described above needed solving—how to connect the separated pieces of the textblock but allow the binding to open fully, preventing the textblock from breaking anew.
The solution arrived at is a modification of the V-shaped hinges. A W-shaped piece of Japanese paper, carefully scored and folded in advance, was created. This gusseted joint leaves the central peak of the W left free to flex across the opening of the book, distributing the stress and preventing future breaks. Each leg of the W was adhered in place along the spine edges of the pages facing across the break and left to dry under weight.
With textblock repairs completed, focus moved to the broken leather exterior. A simple but effective method of treatment, known as the Etherington hinge, was employed: strips of pre-colored Japanese paper, chosen to match the leather, were placed under the leather of the covers and of the spine to span the joint and adhered in place with wheat starch paste. Once this was set, the original leather was re-adhered atop the paper hinge. Slightly damaged endcaps can be repaired in a similar fashion.
The heavily damaged headcap needed more attention. As mentioned above, a large space inside the leather left the headcap without adequate support and resulted in significant damage. To fill this gap, a new core was created by wrapping the same Japanese paper used to repair the joints around a short length of linen thread; this was inserted beneath the leather on top of the original cord. A second, narrower one was created in the same manner to fill in the space left between the two cylindrical pieces, before re-adhering the original leather.
Finally, abraded and deteriorating areas of the leather were consolidated to prevent further loss of material.
Now in a condition to be digitized, the book was given a new Mylar wrapper prior to being returned to collection storage. However, in the process, something intriguing came to light: leather removed from a different book, lined with linen, and bound in to the rear of this volume. There is evidence of water damage as well as a repair done to fill a section of missing leather. But where did it come from?
Based on research in the Mary Henry diaries and conversation with Pam Henson, Smithsonian Historian, it appears that after the Castle fire in 1865, few to no records were saved, including the original minutes of the Board of Regents. This volume is in fact a sort of facsimile prepared from the edited and published versions of the minutes, copied into a new volume to create a similar effect to the original book. The style of the decoration is very similar and was possibly an attempt at reproduction.
Regardless of the “originality” of this volume, the minutes it preserves make up a valuable piece of the Smithsonian’s history. With a digital version forthcoming, it will be of even greater use to the Regents as they shape the present and future of the Institution.
- Smokin' Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Instituion Archives
- The Burning of the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Color image of Smithsonian Castle on Fire, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 1 - Smithsonian Institution, Board of Regents, Minutes, 1846- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
- A first for the Smithsonian - "Reboot the Suit" - The National Air and Space Museum has turned to Kickstarter to help fund the conservation, digitization, and display Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- We're going on a field trip - The Getty will provide any Title I school that is within a 30-mile radius of the Museum and can fill a bus with 50 students a free bus for their field trip. [via The Getty Iris]
- Before Rosa Parks there was Irene Morgan, who on July 16, 1944 made a decision that would later turn into a movement of bus boycotts, and eventually the Civil Rights Movement. [American History Through an African American Lens tumblr, NMAAHC]
- With the help of visitor feedback, the National Museum of Natural History continues to work on the new National Fossil Hall. [via Unearthed blog, NMNH]
- The Associated Press will be uploading more than 550,000 historical video clips to YouTube. [via PetaPixel]
- The power of MARC - Making the Russell E. Train Africana Collection more accessible at the Smithsonian Libraries. [via Unbound blog, SIL]
- The National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, organized and supported by the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, works to revitalize endangered languages. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- The British Library takes you inside Europe's oldest intact book in the video below. [via InfoDocket]
Over the last several weeks, the Archives has welcomed Heather Weiss, an intern with Project SEARCH. Heather Weiss came to us from successful experiences at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Office of Fellowships and Internships, and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, and has been assisting the archivists and the conservators with a pair of different ongoing initiatives: a finding aid data entry project with the archivists and a rehousing project with the conservators. We wanted to highlight Heather's valuable contribution to our work at the Archives, and have invited her to share her thoughts about working with us.
Hi, my name is Heather Weiss. I am an intern at a program called Project SEARCH at the Smithsonian Institution. Project SEARCH, or PSSI, is a 10-month program designed for people with disabilities who are looking to find full-time jobs. As a part of the PSSI program, I have recently been gaining a positive experience in learning about the art of preservation. So far, I have discovered that preservation comes in many different forms, such as repairing an art sculpture, checking the lighting in an art gallery, dusting picture frames, and polishing the Plexiglas on artworks. But, my most recent positive experience to date is learning about preservation at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Archiving is important, because when you preserve art and documents, then that means that you’re preserving a part of history. And while I am learning about archiving, I have also learned about data entry and rehousing folders into new boxes. When you’re rehousing folders, that means that you’re transferring older historical documents from older boxes and folders, and then putting those documents into new and more stable boxes and folders that will last longer. Data entry is when you take the data from a paper source and then digitize that source by putting it on the computer. Eventually, people will be able to look at the information once it is available. My favorite part of this experience is getting to see the history that’s been stored from different decades within the folders. I find it very amazing.
Heather's data entry for the archivists was a testament to her detail-oriented nature. It was meticulous work, and Heather's efforts will lead to improved finding aids of our collections. She moved quickly through that project, leading the archival team to work speedily to keep her busy! Heather also accomplished the conservators' first rehousing assignment in record time, changing out all the nearly one hundred acidic boxes of one collection (Record Unit 158: United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, 1881-1964). After completing both of these tasks, Heather moved on to the next portion of the finding aid project, as well as a more complex rehousing assignment (Record Unit 137: Office of the Under Secretary, Records, 1958-1973) that involved replacing both boxes and folders, necessitating careful copying of folder information from old to new, as well as removing bulky and harmful clips and staples, safely rehousing photographs in photo-safe enclosures, checking the condition of documents and flagging them for later attention as needed.
We have appreciated Heather's willingness to learn new skills, attention to detail, and inquisitive mind. It has been a pleasure to watch her take on more difficult tasks as her time with us has progressed, and to play a part in her personal growth. We wish her all the best following her graduation from Project SEARCH, and know that she will be successful at whatever she puts her mind to. Good luck, Heather!
- Digital images and prints aside - The art of the collotype is a fading process that remains the best way to duplicate artwork and historic documents. [via Open Culture]
- For the love of the ledger book - Delving into the 900 pages within the ledgers of merchant William Ramsay which detail the mercantile activity in the town of Alexandria, Virginia, from 1753 to 1756. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- Comming soon most papers authored by Smithsonian staff and affiliates will be made available to the public at no charge, while some will be available after an embargo period. [via Unbound blog, SL]
- Some video guides to understanding how JPEGs deal with color and compression. [via PetaPixel]
- Now available: ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation, Copublished by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and The Library of Congress. [via CLIR]
- The search for the perfect marigold. [via Smithsonian Gardens blog]
- Making a splash! - A behind-the-scenes look at the National Museum of Natural History ocean-related collections and their importance to research and discovery. [via Ocean Portal, NMNH]
- At the Archives we like boxes, boxes to hold manuscripts, boxes to hold prints and drawings, boxes we've got. That's why the video below of custom boxes being made is special to us. [via Core77]
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