The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
With nineteen museums and research centers, the Smithsonian Institution is so much more than just the buildings on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In fact, if you drive about 33 miles east of the National Mall, you will find the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), located in Edgewater, Maryland, and this year, the site is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.
SERC was originally established in 1965 as the Chesapeake Center for Field Biology after Robert Lee Forrest bequeathed the land to the Smithsonian upon his death in 1962. The original land donation was 365 acres, but additional grants allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the surrounding land and increase the site to 933 acres by the end of 1969. Further funding and acquisitions have allowed SERC to expand to the 2,650 acres it currently occupies today.
Even though scientists began conducting research on the site shortly after it was acquired, SERC did not hire its first full-time resident scientist until 1974. By that time, more than 15 scientists were already conducting research at the center on everything from tidal marsh plant communities to water quality in Muddy Creek River on a regular basis. In 1975, the visitor’s center, now known as the Reed Education Center, officially opened as the first new building constructed on the site. In the early 1980’s, a laboratory building was constructed as a more permanent facility in which scientists could conduct their research on the area. The area was officially renamed the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in 1985.
A few years ago, SERC began remodeling the original laboratory, and last year they opened the brand new Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory, the Smithsonian’s first LEED-platinum building. The remodeled laboratory includes roof-mounted solar panels to provide hot water for the building, as well as additional panels which provide a portion of the building’s electricity. Also, 100 percent of the water used in the laboratory is recycled with all greywater being processed through an onsite treatment plant and then reused for things such as fire suppression and bathrooms. Additionally, three large cisterns, and a series of cascading wetland pools containing native plants, capture rain water for use in irrigation. The remodel included expanding the original building to more than four times its original size to make space for the ever-growing number of scientists conducting research at SERC.
In addition to the laboratory and education center, SERC has three different trails for visitors to explore. There is also a floating dock where visitors coming by water along the Rhode River can tie up before coming ashore to visit the facilities. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is open to the public Monday through Saturday, so be sure to check it out!
Mathias Laboratory Fact Sheet, The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
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]