The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
As people versed in Integrated Pest Management, we're used to urgent emails that start, "can anyone identify this beetle invading my collection?" Recently, I received an inquiry regarding a very different species of invader. In February, everyone was talkin' 'bout the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Invasion, or their arrival on the American shores to play the Ed Sullivan show (complete with its own hashtag #Beatles50). Beatlemania was alive again, especially in D.C., where the Fab Four had performed their first concert in the United States at the Washington Coliseum. Over at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, "on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the concert . . . archivists discovered a personal note on the back of a photo . . . written to [Harry Lynn, the owner of the Coliseum] and signed by the band." The only trouble was the archivists couldn't read it because the photograph was mounted to thick board – they could only see the impression of a couple of words, as you can see when Zachary Levine turns it in his hands as he shows it to the reporter in this news video (at about 1:23). So they contacted us to see if we could be of assistance, and sure enough I thought this would be a great way to test the limits of some techniques over at the Museum Conservation Institute's Imaging Studio.
I asked my colleague E. Keats Webb, if Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a technique that enhances dimension of surface features in low profile, could be used to augment the profile of signatures. Essentially, RTI uses multiple images of the same object photographed with raking light from multiple angles, and then with software, layers and interpolates them to create a moving image that can be adjusted to enhance the visible dimensionality.
As Keats moves the green virtual mouse ball to change the direction of the raking light, and changes surface interpolation filters, you can watch the writing below the boys' heads emerge. You can observe that the largest, but also deepest, signature is John Lennon's. His signature literally makes a strong impression – in a detail at high resolution in the Flickr set, you can see that the pressure he exerted created almost arrow-like cracks in the baryta layer below the silver. From this we can surmise that either he had a naturally heavy hand, or possibly he signed his name over a softer surface than all the others – allowing the pen to sink deeper.
Showing opposite characteristics, you can see relatively how much less deep George Harrison's autograph lies; he either wrote with a light hand, or on a hard surface. Another interesting feature is seen in in Paul McCartney's autograph. Can you guess what it is? Not being the biggest Beatles fan in the room, as the image became clearer to my eyes, I gasped and asked aloud, "Is Paul McCartney left-handed?" This is apparently a well-known fact to all those who are saturated with images of Sir Paul holding his bass guitar in the opposite direction to his bandmates. I guessed at it by observing the slant, direction and loops in which the 'P' and 'a' and other letters were started and continued across his name, and confirmed my speculation with a swift Wikipedia search. This observation is of an individual characteristic of Mr. McCartney's handwriting. Lastly, from the matching directional slant, and the center placement of Ringo Starr's autograph, the evidence suggests that Ringo wrote the full dedication: "To Harry Lynn | with fond memories from the | BEATLES", signed it himself and handed the photograph off for others' signatures, seen below.
We also used hyperspectral imaging but the silver and the baryta layer blocked the non-visible wavelengths of light from passing through the photographic print to the ink. However, ultraviolet induced fluorescence photography did reveal a history of adhesives. Also in the Flickr set, you'll see both the residues of a typical address label on the front at lower left corner, and on the back, traces of the damaging so-called "magnetic" adhesive that is common to some photo albums. In fact, the item had been stored in "the sticky embrace" of one, as colorfully described in this lovely article about the provenance of the photograph.
This was a really fun project, but also one which raised serious philosophical questions. Some may ask, but why didn't you just take the backing off to see the autographs? Well, excavation and solvents carry risk for both the object and the conservator. In modern archaeology, sites may be investigated with remote sensing equipment, uncovered, documented, and recovered to protect the integrity of the site. Do we really need to dig for what is definitely there when we have non-destructive ways of seeing? Seriousness aside, can anyone tell me what is going on in this image with the bow and the stuffed cow?
- Coming soon in July 2016 - The National Air and Space Museum will have a revised and updated Milestones of Flight gallery to welcome its visitors. [via AirSpace, NASM]
- Preservation at its best the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History has experienced little to no physical degradation since moving into its new space in 2008. [via O Say Can You See?, NMAH]
- The basics of scanning from the Library of Congress. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- An honored April Fool's tradtion at the National Museum of American History is its annual Conference on Stuff, this year's topic was "salt." [via The Torch, SI]
- A spotlight on digital collections at museums and the people behind them who create and preserve them: Marla Misunas, Collections Information Manager for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- My that's a big bird sculpture - Check out the The Lost Bird Project presented by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens on view March 27 to March 15, 2015. [via Unbound, SIL]
In the late 1800s, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway sat at his desk, surrounded by watercolors, papers, pens, crayons, and dead birds, carefully preparing the illustrations that would make it into the seminal multivolume History of North American Birds: Land Birds and its companion The Water Birds of North America: Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College
Ridgway spent countless hours bent over his drawings, agonizing over how to most realistically portray the birds. It was no easy feat trying to illustrate a waterfowl in the plushest, deepest shade of blue so that it exactly resembled the specimen on his desk or perfectly capture the subtle hue of a crow’s glossy black sheen. But Ridgway succeeded! And over a century later, his bird drawings are still life like, with colors so bright, feathers glistening and eyes shining, that it is hard not to be mesmerized by their brilliance. In fact, he was so meticulous with his colors and color theory that he spent years experimenting with pigments to create a color dictionary, testing for colors that would not fade over time. Which is why it was so very peculiar to stumble upon a few strange Ridgway illustrations with almost haunting, mysterious shadows obscuring the painstakingly colored birds…
You see, recently, I had the privilege of conserving a set of these beautiful and richly drawn bird illustrations in preparation for a rapid capture digitization project. This meant carefully mending tears and flattening folded corners so that the illustrations could be safely handled and photographed. But about half way through the treatments, I came across something unusual: a mysterious shadow covering some of the birds. Whatever, I wondered, could have happened to these particular illustrations? And stranger still, while some shadows were composed of sharp and defined lines, other shadows were more relaxed and loose, creating soft, abstract shapes over top of the birds.
Thinking it might be discoloration from mercury, we set about testing the darkened shadowy areas with X-ray diffraction technology at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) “open lab day”, but alas, this revealed nothing. Aside from slightly elevated levels of Ca (calcium) and Fe (iron) on the image, there appeared to be no discernible elemental difference between the background and the dark area of interest. Confusing us further, the darkened areas did not come off with mechanical cleaning, nor have they rubbed off on the papers lying over top of them for decades.
Perhaps you can help us figure out what happened to them. To assist you, here are a few background details and a slideshow of some of the shadowy illustrations. Ridgway’s illustrations were often re-engraved, electroplated, and hand colored, as detailed in Daniel Lewis’s wonderful biography of Ridgway The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds. While Ridgway drew birds on various types and sizes of paper, the “shadows” only appear on birds illustrated on lined notecards, some of which have the shadows only on the back. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ridgway was also experimenting with color fastness and dye stability, testing the fading of hundreds of different types of pigments in order to standardize the color nomenclature of birds and produce a color dictionary. Do these markings have anything to do with his experimenting with color stability?
Or perhaps it occurred during the printing process? Ridgway’s son was an amateur photographer and often assisted his father. Did he experiment on these illustrations? Maybe these particular illustrations were discarded copies that Ridgway used as scrap paper . . . but what are the shadows? Any ideas are welcome!
- Meet Robert Ridgway - Ornithologist and Artist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Rapidly Capturing Ridgway, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7167 - Robert Ridgway Papers, circa 1850s-1919, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- True history with a little dramatization thrown in: Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, and the Union Army's balloon corps in comic book form. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- In honor of Chinese New Year, which for 2014 is the year of the Horse, the Archives of American Art highlights some equine materials from their collections. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Getting an intimate look - British World War I diaries are being digitized and made available online. [via Parallels blog, NPR]
- Where were you when I was a undergraduate studying art history? The Getty has made available over 250 artbooks for free download from their virtual library. [via The Getty Iris]
- Coming soon, in March the National Air and Space Museum will be displaying its latest restored aircraft, a "Battling Beast," the Curstiss SB2C-5 Helldiver. [via AirSpace blog, National Air and Space Museum]
- A new tool to promote reading is available from the Library of Congress, "Readers to the Rescue" is an interactive game where readers are asked to help save book characters. [via InfoDocket]
- Currently in production is the first feature-length animated film made only through hand-painted canvases, Loving Vincent, explores the life of Vincent Van Gogh. [via Colossal]
- 10 years and still going strong! The National Air and Space Museum's exhibition: Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars explores the efforts of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. [via AirSpace, NASM]
- Looking to learn something new? Check out the Smithsonian Institution Libraries new offerings at iTunesU. [via InfoDocket]
- As you are warming up from the weeks freezing temperatures, the Smithsonian's gardens have an abundance of plants and trees to explore. [via Smithsonian Gardens blog]
- Keeping it alive, the unique needs of born digital scholarship. [via The Chronicle of Higher Education]
- Update . . . 4 years after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many helping hands have made a huge impact to save and conserve Haitian artifacts and artworks. [via Around the Mall, Smithsonian Magazine]
- Ancient ancestors come to life through paleoartist John Gurche's realistic human likenesses for the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins. [via Smithsonian Science]