There are few situations where it is acceptable to read other people's personal papers, much less pore over their handwriting, daily observations, and occasional witticisms. Fortunately, archives work is one of them. That's why I am very happy to be working as a Field Notebooks Intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives for the summer thanks to funds from the Comer Foundation. For the most part I've been rehousing and conserving botany field books for the Smithsonian’s Field Book Project (a project that makes field research materials available online) and digging through the Archives’ Record Unit 305, which contains the accession records of the US National Museum, circa 1850-1958. These records—documents that identify the contents, provenance, and disposition of material brought into the Smithsonian’s collections—are fascinating on a number of levels; they can, for example, give contemporary conservators clues as to how best to approach historic objects. Even a simple accession form reveals vital information that may be useful in preserving one of the museum's pieces.
Amidst the piles of accession cards and memoranda to the Smithsonian’s registrar, I found little gems such as the image above, a cyanotype photograph of a Hupa (a Native American tribe in northwestern California) basket offered for sale to the Smithsonian in 1901. Compared to the other documents stored with it, the cyanotype was in remarkable condition, with little discoloration and still retaining a very sharp image. This is perhaps due to the fact that cyanotypes remain blue in slightly acidic enclosures. Many other papers, however, make an enormous fuss and deteriorate into yellowed, brittle sheets as the paper fibers (which are responsible for the paper’s strength and suppleness) degrade in contact with acidic file folders I placed the cyanotype in a protective inert sleeve. For the acid-damaged papers, I flattened and mended the ones I could, and then interleaved them with archival quality paper to prevent further acid transfer to surrounding items. Some of the letters and documents are covered with pressure sensitive tape, and I’ve learned to remove the tape with small heated tools.
The basket above was offered to the museum by Frank M. Covert, a dealer in Mexican and Native American items. In the accompanying letter, Mr. Covert writes that the string "at the top was all originally made from the oiled flax but about one third of it is gone and is replaced with common twine." Repairing or adding to existing pieces to increase market value or aesthetic appeal is nothing new, but at least Mr. Covert was frank about it. At the Museum Conservation Institute's Conservators' Conference in June, I heard a presentation by Ms. Luba Dovgan-Nurse on the proper treatment and conservation of Sitka spruce baskets. Dovgan-Nurse is a conservation fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. She explained that in the past (and before conservators knew better), treatments used to restore Native American artifacts weren't suited to fibers used in woven objects. And frequently the restoration work was disguised as “original” workmanship, complicating additional curatorial and conservation actions.
Conservation science is a continually advancing field. Dovgan-Nurse's presentation highlighted the dilemma conservators face with any object. Should we mend (or do other work on a document) with the knowledge and technology we have, even if someone in the future might seethe at our possibly inappropriate methods or materials? One important difference between past restoration efforts and contemporary conservation is the requirement that any treatment activity is intentionally documented, as the code of ethics of the American Institute of Conservation states. Another concept that I’ve learned is the idea of reversibility, which is that anything I might do could be undone with minimal difficulty. Pondering the photograph alone has enriched my understanding of the role of conservation for museum collections, and my part in it.
I imagine (as I spend hours removing tape from assorted accession papers) that the person who taped the papers meant well. At least, that's what I tell myself. I hope the work we do with Record Unit 305 and the field books in our collections, will keep these papers in good shape for future researchers. Some future conservator may need to review the original accession file for a clue about the mysterious accretions and fibers on otherwise pristine 19th century baskets. For me, having a hand in preserving Record Unit 305 was nothing short of awesome, since reading about researchers bickering over who gets to collect a whale shark carcass is just my kind of thing.