The final talk of the June 1st RATS session was by Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator, MIT Libraries, Curation & Preservation Services. Jana has been working for several years on the subject of “letterlocking,” the many techniques by which a letter can be folded to form its own envelope. Some of these letters are folded very simply while others are outfitted with complex security features that indicate if a letter has been opened by someone other than the intended recipient. Jana’s research has even suggested that a single individual might have had more than one technique for folding letters.
Most of this research has been carried out by studying unfolded letters, examining folds, cuts, and other physical evidence in order to reverse engineering the original folded structure. Now, Jana and a team from Queen Mary, University of London are using Computed Microtomography (CT scanning) to discern the interior structure of unopened letters. A collection of 600 such letters is held by the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague, Netherlands.
The letters are part of a group of 2,600 that came to the Museum stored in a 17th century trunk. Jana explained that in the period when the letters were written, the mail operated on a “cash on delivery” system. The letters in the trunk were never retrieved, and thus remained in the custody of the postmaster. While about 2,000 have previously been opened, the “Signed, Sealed & Undelivered” project team are studying the 600 that have never been opened, using a novel application of CT imaging.
During the talk, Jana shared many videos from the project website, demonstrating techniques for letterlocking and showing the potential of the imaging technique.
It’s probably safe to say that most book conservators have encountered at least one oil-stained textblock. In many cases, the source of the oil was leather dressing, historically applied in an attempt to improve the suppleness, appearance, and longevity of leather bindings. Many different formulae of leather dressing have been documented, but one of the best known is a roughly 1:1 mixture of neatsfoot oil and lanolin.
Treating this staining is challenging for a number of reasons: while conservators can speculate about the type and age of the oil causing the stain, they can’t always make a definitive identification, so extensive testing is often necessary; oil-based printing inks can be susceptible to the same solvents that will act on the stain; treatment of any stain in a bound textblock is difficult; and finally, depending on the amount of oil still saturating the binding, there is the potential for the stain to return or expand over time.
Holly Herro, Conservation Librarian for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine presented on the development of a process to remove oil stains from book paper. The project was carried out in collaboration with paintings conservator Scott Nolley, Chief Conservator at Fine Art Conservation of Virginia, and paper conservator Wendy Cowan of Richmond Conservators of Works on Paper. Tests were conducted on a blank modern paper endsheet from a 15th century book. The sheet was stained with what the conservators suspected was a combination of neatsfoot oil and lanolin, applied approximately 30-40 years ago. Several protocols were tested, but the most successful at reducing the staining was as follows:
Pre-wash the affected page in a 50/50 solution of deionized water and ethanol buffered to pH 9 with ammonium hydroxide. In the tests, the samples were washed in three baths totaling one hour and air dried. Using suction, first apply a pipette filled with petroleum ether, a low polarity solvent that solubilizes the lanolin. Then apply acetone with a pipette, a high polarity solvent, to solubilize the neatsfoot oil. Continue alternating these solvents in a 1:1 ratio, changing the blotters regularly, until the oil is visibly reduced. Periodically view the substrate using a ultraviolet light checking for any oil residue. After the oil is reduced, wash the paper in a deionized water buffered to pH 9 with ammonium hydroxide.
The samples were examined under UV and visible light before and after treatment to determine the effectiveness of each treatment. The alternation of a polar and non-polar solvent over a suction table seems to have been an effective way to reduce both suspected components of the stain. The protocol was also tested on an endsheet in a bound book using a suction platen.
Leather dressing stains in books continue to be a common problem faced by book conservators and additional tips and tricks are always useful to have on hand. A great next step for this work would be testing of the impact of the protocol on printing inks.
To read more about the project and about techniques for reducing oil and leather dressing staining on paper, consult the following resources:
Georgia Southworth, Independent Book Conservator, and Frank Trujillo, Associate Book Conservator at The Morgan Library & Museum, closed out Monday morning’s Book and Paper session with a fascinating talk on the history and rehousing of The Morgan’s singular collection of Coptic bindings.
The story of the Coptic bindings at The Morgan Library & Museum began in 1910 with the discovery of a cache of nearly sixty volumes dating from the 9th and 10th centuries CE. Found in Hamouli, Egypt, these volumes made a circuitous journey with stops in France, the United States, and Italy, before coming to rest New York in the 1920s. During the nearly thirty years between their discovery and their arrival at The Morgan, the parchment textblocks were separated from the covers, never to be reuinited. While the textblocks were extensively treated at the Vatican Library, the covers were packed away, presumably with the intention of addressing them at a later time. Unfortunately, World War I and J. Pierpont Morgan’s death interfered with the planned project to photograph and restore the collection, extending the timeline by several years. The covers, which had been consolidated with oil and wax, and in some cases lined with gauze, were not returned to The Morgan until 1929. They remained packed away until 1984, when Deborah Evetts, then the Drue Heinz Book Conservator, found them still stored in their Vatican shipping crates.
The covers are comprised of laminated layers of papyrus covered with leather. The decoration of the leather ranges from simple cold-tooled designs to elaborate compositions incorporating layers of colored and gilt leather and parchment that have been cut, pierced, and interlaced to create complex and beautiful designs.
The condition of the covers varies widely; while some are almost completely intact, others are brittle, fragmentary, and riddled with wormholes. Attempts to devise a housing method for these exquisite objects had been ongoing since they were re-discovered in 1984. In consultation with Christopher Clarkson, Deborah Evetts performed minor stabilization treatment on a few of the covers, and tested several housing prototypes. The ideal housing would protect and support the covers, while still allowing for easy access and viewing of both sides of each board.
Previous prototypes included deep sinkmats, Plexiglas sandwiches, and simple matboard folders lined with glassine. One prototype was made of layers of Plexiglas cut to fit the perimeter of the cover to create a customized well. Unfortunately, this design was also heavy, and caused the fragile covers to rest against a hard surface.
The final housing design incorporated the idea of a custom recess, and used separate layers to allow the sides of each cover to be viewed without direct handling.
The material selected to create the well was soft, inert, non-abrasive Volara foam. Each cover was carefully traced, and the outlines were sent to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where they were laser cut into the foam. The layers of foam are sandwiched between two pieces of 1/8” Artcare archival foam board to create a light and rigid support. A full sheet of Volara is adhered to each piece of foamboard, and two inner layers of Volara are laser cut to the shape of each cover. These wells are slightly larger than the covers, providing protection without actually touching the fragile edges.
Foam pegs keep the layers aligned, but allow them to be separated to expose the sides of the covers. When closed, the layers are held securely in place by these pegs, allowing the sandwich to be flipped to show the verso of the cover. This light, rigid sandwich is stored inside a Talas e-flute reinforced clamshell box. A linen tab was added to the interior of each box to facilitate removal of the sandwich. For easy storage, three standard sizes of clamshell were selected.
This solution worked well for the covers and large fragments. Smaller fragments were stored separately in Mylar envelopes, which were barcoded to associate them with their parent binding. These envelopes of fragments were stored together in a separate box.
The final element of this project was the creation of high-resolution images of all the bindings. These images are currently being processed, and will soon be available to the public via The Morgan’s website. In the meantime, I’m sure that many of us will have ideas for applying this novel housing concept to objects in our own collections. Thank you, Georgia and Frank, for an excellent talk!
In the BPG session on Monday, May 16, Joan Weir gave voice to a question that has undoubtedly plagued the sleep of many of her colleagues: are conservation standards, particularly when it comes to exhibition, becoming too relaxed? In her role as Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ms. Weir has gained extensive experience with the challenges of exhibiting contemporary art. Noting that the range of artifacts classified as “works of art on paper” is very broad, Weir commented that it can be difficult to set consistent boundaries and guidelines for exhibition practices. Some touchstones are available to conservators, including AIC’s Code of Ethics and intellectual property laws. I was interested to learn that in Canada, artists retain “moral rights” to their work, even if they no longer hold economic rights to the work. This moral right allows artists to protect their work from changes that might compromise their original intent, including changes in how the work is displayed.*
To illustrate the challenges inherent in exhibiting contemporary art, Weir presented several case studies. The first example was Richard Serra’s 9’ by 21’ oilstick on paper, Untitled, 1974 (presented at the 2013 AIC Annual Meeting, and blogged by Karen Dabney). The artist’s intention was that the work be stapled directly to the gallery wall, and shown without any barrier. Weir and her colleagues collaborated with Serra and a studio assistant to develop a protocol for installing the work, which toured to several locations. They created mockups to practice the installation protocol, and to try to answer what Weir called “a world of nerdy conservation questions,” such as: what kind of staples should be used? What kind of stapler? Do the staple bands need to come into contact with the paper? Should existing staple holes be used? The same two-person team traveled to all exhibition venues to carry out the installation, and an agreement was reached to station a guard in the gallery at all times, to compensate for the lack of a physical barrier. While the protocol was largely successful, Weir noted that it is often the case that “once you go there, you can’t go back” – stapling is now considered an option for other exhibits.
The next case study was installation of large, unglazed wax pastels for AGO’s 2015 exhibition Stephen Andrews POV, which were hung using a temporary tab of sheer polyester attached to the work using Beva and heat, and stapled to the wall. The artist liked this system so well that he requested that the tabs be left attached to the works he loaned for the show. Low platform barriers were used for this exhibition, but AGO staff noted the presence of footprints on top of the platforms, suggesting that the barrier was not entirely successful.
Throughout her presentation, Weir emphasized the importance of dialog between conservators, curators, and artists. Natural light presents a special set of challenges. Weir cited an exhibit of Marcel Dzama’s work, in which over 100 works were rotated into 33 frames to minimize individual light exposure. She also described a large watercolor on canvas by Silke Otto-Knapp, which was shown unglazed in a gallery with uncovered windows. In that case, the artist shared information about the materials used to create the work, allowing conservators to determine that it was likely to be stable in the gallery conditions.
Through these examples, Weir made a compelling case that our job as conservators is to adapt to changing conventions and exhibition practices, while still ensuring the safety of the artwork. By engaging in early, frequent, and open communication with stakeholders, including the artist, and by thinking creatively about solutions to exhibition challenges, conservators can be good stewards not only of the physical object, but of the artist’s conceptual intent.
*I am not a legal scholar, and I apologize if I mischaracterized the implications of Canadian copyright law!
The Thursday afternoon session of Book and Paper presentations was full of talks about challenging and innovative treatments, and Harry Campbell’s paper “Conservation of Johannes Herolt’s Sermones de tempore, c. 1450” was no exception. Mr. Campbell, Book and Paper Conservator at The Ohio State University Libraries, talked the audience through the steps in treating a newly-acquired manuscript with extensive damage.
Known as one of the most prolific sermon writers of his time, Johannes Herolt was a Dominican friar of Nuremberg and vicar of the Katharinekloster. There are approximately 500 known manuscript copies of his collected sermons, some of which are fragmentary. This copy was re-bound at some point in the 20th century in a less-than-sympathetic binding, and pressure sensitive tape had been applied over areas of badly degraded iron gall ink. Because the manuscript was anticipated to receive heavy use, the decision was made to completely rebind the manuscript in a 15th century German style.
The manuscript was disbound, and the tape was carefully removed from each page using a heated tool. After reducing adhesive residue and staining with acetone, Assistant Rare Book Conservator Molly Carlile worked with Mr. Campbell to line the damaged pages. A lining of very thin tengujo tissue was adhered to one side of each page with dilute paste, and then loose fragments were put back in place using before treatment photographs as a reference. Once all the fragments were replaced, the second side of the page was lined, forming a sandwich. In some places the ink was so highly acidic that nothing of the original letter forms remained.
The mended pages were resewn using the original sewing holes, and two-color endbands were sewn in a style appropriate to the period. New covers were made from hand-shaped American beech boards. The wood, along with the work of milling, drying, and delivering the boards, was donated by William “Bill” Bear, who has also done extensive work to preserve the Fort Salem Indian Mound in Lynchburg, OH. After the new boards were laced on, the spine was covered in alum-tawed leather, and the exposed boards were fitted with metal clasps. The finished product was housed in a custom box, along with binding fragments that were not re-used.
Such extensive treatment is not always possible, or even desirable. However, in this case treatment allowed for the manuscript to be safely handled by students and researchers, and prevented the loss that would have otherwise been inevitable as the tape deteriorated. Thank you to Mr. Campbell for a fascinating and well-presented paper!