The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
The Archives was recently gifted an 1860 letter from Spencer F. Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian, to George N. Lawrence, fellow naturalist. The donor requested that, along with a digital version, a transcription be provided, which I undertook alongside a simple treatment.
The letter was in overall excellent condition: the thin paper exhibited only a pair of small tears. These were mended from the reverse with heat-set tissue, prepared from Berlin tissue and Avanse MV-100 acrylic adhesive. The thinness of the tissue allowed for nearly invisible mends, which was especially desirable with such a thin, translucent paper.
I turned next to transcribing the letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of Baird’s correspondence his letters—including this one—were often written in a hurried fashion, making them mildly illegible to modern readers. The immediately obvious presence of scientific names for the various animals discussed made this doubly challenging. With a bit of legwork, assistance from my Institutional History colleagues, and the help of several online resources (including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website), I determined that the letter between Baird and Lawrence details various ornithological specimens being passed back and forth between the two colleagues, several of which appear to have been collected on an expedition to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico.
One particular name proved simple to read and transcribe but difficult to verify—Demigretta rufa. Try as I might, I couldn’t find this species in modern resources. In the end I simply Googled the name as a last resort, and to my surprise a result appeared from the Smithsonian Transcription Center. The project in question was a set of bird head drawings from the personal papers of Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway. Within these drawings was the scientific name I’d had no luck finding elsewhere, and the image it was linked to helped me correctly connect the obsolete name with the modern Egretta rufescens, the reddish egret.
This was a fascinating opportunity to explore a side of the work of the Archives that I normally don’t see. It provided a chance to see the work of digitization and transcription at a closer view, and to make use of the full breadth of resources that the Smithsonian has to offer.
- Volunteer to transcribe primary source documents on the Smithsonian Transcription Center!
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
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