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