A Medal-y of Materials: Preserving a Small, yet Robust, Collection

As another summer intern cycle comes to a close, SIA Preservation intern, Rita Rushanan, discusses the preservation challenges found in the Doris M. Cochran Collection, which she had the chance to work with during her time at the Archives. 

Archival document held by weights with artist brush nearby.As the Preservation Intern at the Archives this summer, my main project was part of a massive re-organization of the oversized map cases at the Archives. An introduction to that project can be found in blog posts by previous interns, Caitria Sunderland and Margaret Rose Hunt. However, when taking breaks from the cool climate of collections storage, I worked on rehousing the Doris Mable Cochran Papers.

As a recent college graduate exploring the field of conservation, this small collection about an eclectic woman scientist ended up giving me a chance to learn and practice several new skills. In these twelve document-sized boxes, I employed dry surface cleaning on about three dozen pen and pencil original illustrations, created housing for a commemorative medal, performed localized flattening on flagged documents, and preserved numerous newspaper clippings.

With advancements in preservation science, practices, and materials, collections occasionally need revisiting to update their housing. Such was the case for Dr. Cochran’s papers, which over the course of a few weeks received new archival boxes and folders. Additionally, the various materials stored inside were stabilized using several preservation techniques, such as removing abrasive objects such as staples and paperclips, and isolating materials such as photographic prints and negatives in uncoated polyester film (also known as Mylar) sleeves and buffered paper envelopes, respectively. 

Conservation tools alongside archival illustration.The Cochran Papers also contained quite a bit of newspaper clippings, which present a constant preservation challenge. Mylar and acid-free, buffered paper were used to isolate the newspaper from making direct contact with other documents. However, due to the inevitability of the degradation of acidic newsprint, all clippings were also photocopied onto acid-free, buffered paper. More details on preservation photocopying in the Cochran Papers can be found in a post I wrote for the Archive’s Facebook page here

A selection of anatomical illustrations for Dr. Cochran’s dissertation on blue crabs were dry surface cleaned using vinyl eraser shavings. Amounting to about three dozen drawings, these proved to be good candidates for cleaning because they were on stable paper not readily susceptible to surface abrasion, and most of the dirt was localted in the margins of the drawings. 

Dry surface cleaning was only performed on the margins of the drawings, taking care not to get too close to the image area.

Side by side of archival documents.

A commemorative medal found in the last folder of the collection received its own, folder-style housing to prevent it from floating around the box or falling out of the folder and frightening a researcher. Using acid-free E-flute corrugated board and closed cell polyethylene foam, this housing adequately supported the medal while allowing it to be safely stored in a folder with the rest of the collection.

Medal embossed with side view of man in archival enclosure.

In my spare time, I then performed localized flattening on documents I had flagged as folded during my first run-through of rehousing. A 50/50 ethanol and water solution was applied to the folds of the paper using a small brush, followed by weight placed on top of a reemay/blotter/corrugated board sandwich to prevent tidelines and promote flattening. 

Side by side of archival documents.

After all the rehousing was complete, the collection was a bit larger due to the preservation activities. Also, some folders were shifted to other boxes to prevent over- or under-filling. The finding aid for this collection will soon be updated to reflect these changes.

Thanks for a great summer!

Related Collections

Related Resources

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.