43rd Annual Meeting – Book & Paper Session, May 14, "The Book as Art: Conserving the Bible from Edward Kienholz's The Minister by Todd Pattison"

Todd gave a thought provoking talk on the biases a conservator brings to treatment proposals. His primary point was that while conservators have a responsibility to bring their expertise and ethical considerations to every treatment they do, they must also be flexible and considerate of curators’ wishes. He contended that while there were always wrong treatment decisions that could be made, there was no one right treatment decision. Every book is a living object. Treatment should be as unique as the treated item and should be considered in context with the item’s purpose and environment. To support his argument, Todd shared four examples from the NEDCC’s experience.

Edward Kienholz’s The Minister

Example 1: Edward Kienholz’s The Minister
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery approached the NEDCC to treat a damaged bible. The bible was just one small part of a larger artwork by Edward Kienholz entitled The Minister. Like many of Kienholz’s artworks, The Minister was comprised of found objects, including the damaged bible. The NEDCC had been contacted because an overly enthusiastic patron of the gallery had accidentally separated the text block from the bible’s cover. Even before this catastrophic event, however, the bible had been in damaged, dirty and weak structural condition. This evidence of use in the bible’s pre-artwork past was an integral component of The Minister. As such, the NEDCC’s proposal for a standard treatment was not acceptable because it would have altered the appearance of the bible (and thus The Minister as a whole) too much. Instead, the bible’s structure was stabilized while carefully retaining all of the original spine linings and visible signs of damage.
Example 2: Riviere binding of Ben Johnson’s Works
The NEDCC quoted a 17th century copy of Ben Johnson’s Works which had been rebound in the early 20th century by the Riviere Bindery. During the rebinding, the text block had been bleached, oversewn, and bound in a tight red morocco binding. There was absolutely no question that the binding was causing further damage to the text, however the curator considered the piece to be a valuable teaching tool – not only for the original content of the text, but also as an example of an expensive personal possession from the early 20th century. It was important to the curator that the binding be preserved, not replaced with a binding sympathetic to the century in which the volume was published, regardless of the fact that disbinding the volume to address the structural problems would have provided stronger protection to the weakened paper of the text block. As a result, the NEDCC repaired the Riviere binding and otherwise left the binding and sewing structure as they received it.
(For those interested, Princeton University Library has a lovely collection of Riviere bindings online.)
Example 3: A View of Antiquity by Jonathan Hamner, et al
The discussed copy of A View of Antiquity came to the NEDCC in beautiful disrepair. The binding had parted way with the pastedowns, the sewing thread was missing entirely. All in all, it could have served as a wonderful teaching tool on bookbinding structure of the 17th century. As such, the NEDCC’s first instinct was to quote nothing more than a box to protect the volume; however, this volume was central to the institution’s identity. The volume was an important marketing tool for the institution, and it needed to look the part, so the NEDCC did a thorough and aesthetically pleasing restoration of the volume.
Example 4: Battlefield Bible
Todd’s last example was a bible covered in mud to the point of textual illegibility. As a conservator, one’s first instinct would be to wash the text block, but that would have destroyed the history of the volume – for its provenance was that it had been recovered from the battlefield at Gettysburg.
This last example reminded me strongly of the recent Preserving the Evidence: The Ethics of Book Conservation Symposium held at the Newberry library in April. Jeanne Drewes of the Library of Congress discussed a copy of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech that was found to have a fingerprint on it. They are currently doing DNA testing to find out if the fingerprint belonged to Lincoln himself. Had that document been cleaned, the evidence would have been destroyed.