45th Annual Meeting — Book & Paper Session, May 30, 2017 — “Removing Oil From Paper: A Collaborative Conservation Challenge” presented by Holly Herro

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:

“Oil on Paper: A Collaborative Conservation Challenge” by Kristi Wright and Holly Herro: https://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2015/06/16/oil-on-paper-a-collaborative-conservation-challenge/

“Treatment Options for Oil Stains on Paper” by Denise Stockman: http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v26/bp26-22.pdf

“The Removal of Leather Dressing from Paper” by Brenna Campbell: http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v28/bp28-22.pdf

45th Annual Meeting: Lunch Session: BPG Wiki Discussion

At the 2017 AIC Annual Meeting in Chicago, we, Katherine Kelly, Denise Stockman, and Alex Bero, gave an overview of the 2016-2017 developments in the BPG Wiki and sought feedback from an audience of about 60 interested members about how to move forward in 2017-2018. We want to thank the BPG Officers, who made certain that this discussion group had a place in a very busy schedule!

There have been a lot of changes to the BPG Wiki in the past year. We followed through on our promise to increase communication with the BPG membership, and this has led to much greater participation in return. We have a long list of contributors to thank, which we have included at the end of the post.

We undertook a reformatting campaign across the wiki. Standardization is crucial to allowing for the future growth of the Wiki, so we created a template to choose among the many variations of page design. We resolved many issues along the way, such as how to reduce numbering but differentiate between sections, how to include links and references, and how to thank new and old contributors without top-loading the page. The elimination of the original numbered outline format makes it much easier to grow and move information around.

All of the shared BPG pages and all of the Book Conservation pages have been updated in this way. For the pages derived from the original Paper Conservation Catalog, 10 pages have already been reformatted. We are looking for volunteers to re-format 16 other pages. See our Call for Reformatting on the Help Wanted Page.

Annual Tips
The first contributors to the Wiki this year were the Tips presenters in Montreal, who shared images and PDFs from their 2016 presentations. This was a great way to quickly share new techniques. These contributions were available within a month of the Annual Meeting and are now gathered together with Tips from 2013 and 2014. (There were no Tips Sessions in 2015 or 2017.)

Alex Bero spoke about the activities of the Bibliographies subgroup. A recent priority has been to update the format of bibliographic entries of the wiki, in order to bring them into line with the JAIC Style guide, with a few modifications for the online format.

For 2017-2018, we intend to build a new Guide to Resources page with information on how to get resources that are not freely available online, and on resources that are underutilized.

If you have suggested improvements to any BPG Bibliography, please consider becoming a wiki editor or sending your citations or annotations to alexander.bero@nyu.edu, who will format them and post them on the wiki.

Images Added
It has long been our goal to get more images on the Wiki pages. This year, progress was made on several pages, including the Fiber Identification page. Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton offered us the images she had created for CAMEO, the Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online, and Xiaoping Cai offered to add them to the Wiki. The result is a much more appealing and useful page.

Adhesives Recipes and Tips
The first call for content this year asked for contributions to Adhesive Recipes and Tips. This is a companion page to Adhesives for Paper, which offers a more in-depth and technical discussion of adhesive properties. With contributions from seven book and paper conservators, Adhesive Recipes and Tips now offers recipes for making methyl cellulose, Klucel G, funori, isinglass, and wheat starch paste in a variety of ways. There is also an annotated bibliography on remoistenable and pre-coated tissues.

Non-Western Bookbindings and Their Conservation
This year’s blockbuster success was a new page on Non-Western Bookbinding Structures and Their Conservation. This topic was identified as one that had very little coverage in the wiki, but that might interest many of conservators. Immediately after the Call for Content, this page took off, and in a month, ten conservators had contributed more than 130 citations on Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Islamic, Palm-Leaf, Thai, and Tibetan manuscript and bookbinding traditions.

In addition to the benefits of many minds coming together to create good content, there were collaborations between well-established and emerging conservators. This type of collaboration can combine deep experience, the perspective of someone new the field, and wiki-editing skills – with excellent results.

Culturally Sensitive Treatment
One of the contributors for the Non-Western Bookbindings page, Marieka Kaye, from the University of Michigan, saw an opportunity for an offshoot page that focuses on the Culturally Sensitive Treatment of book and paper objects. The aim of this page is to discuss the conservation ethics involved in treating materials from a wide variety of cultures and help identify components of those artifacts that should not be lost during treatment. The page currently focuses on East Asian materials, but we hope to expand into other cultures.

Related AIC Wiki Pages
The BPG Wiki is part of the larger AIC Wiki. A long-term goal is to connect BPG pages to those in other Specialty Groups, and to contribute to pages of common interest. These efforts are in the early stages, but there are some good successes to report, including Conservation Supply Sources, Oddy Testing Results, History of Conservation, and the recent ECPN page on Gels, Thickeners, and Viscosity Modifiers.

Following the presentation, we asked the audience for feedback on how the Wiki should grow in the coming year.

There were discussions about the appropriateness of moving content around to allow certain topics to grow (for example, iron gall ink might benefit from having its own topic page), removing excessive information, updating out-of-date or inappropriate terminology, improving bibliographies with software like Zotero, and soliciting images.

There was also an enthusiastic debate about how the wiki should deal with outdated treatment techniques. The pages on Alkalization & Neutralization and Bleaching have several examples of treatments that, while accepted practice at the time of their writing, have fallen out of favor (e.g. Diethyl Zinc). It was agreed that outdated techniques should be indicated within the wiki. There was a suggestion from the audience that keeping information on the same topic page was better, ideally in a separate section for historical or superseded techniques. Another audience member stressed the importance of adding a date for when techniques were moved to that section (or when the technique was in common use).

Another audience member pointed out that treatments change and are updated all the time. She recommended a review cycle for pages (perhaps every 10 years) to review the content of a chapter and provide updates.

We are grateful for the thoughtful debate on these issues and feel that this year’s discussion group has provided excellent guidance and direction for the year ahead.

How You Can Help
If you have ideas about how you would like to get involved in the Wiki, please send the Wiki Coordinators an email. You can also look at the page called BPG Help Wanted, where we list topics in need of attention, recent Calls for Content, and ideas for future growth. Please also join the AIC-Wiki listserv as this is the main way that Wiki editors communicate among themselves.

Denise Stockman, Paper Conservation Wiki Coordinator, New York Public Library
Katherine Kelly, Book Conservation Wiki Coordinator, Library of Congress
Alex Bero, Wiki Bibliographies Team, New York University

2016-2017 BPG Wiki Contributors
Linda Barone
Adrienne Bell
Alex Bero
Rachel Bissonnette
Xiaoping Cai
Susan Cobbledick
Amélie Couvrat Desvergnes
Sue Donovan
Quinn Ferris
Eliza Gilligan
Amy Hughes
Seth Irwin
Marieka Kaye
Katherine Kelly
Yasmeen Khan
Evan Knight
Natasa Krsmanovic
Nora Lockshin
Steven Loew
Terry Marsh
Debora D. Mayer
Laura McCann
Suzy Morgan
Jan Paris
Dan Paterson
Olivia Primanis
Sarah Reidell
Jennifer McGlinchey Sexton
Denise Stockman
Michelle Sullivan
Tina C. Tan
Christina Taylor
Jodie Utter
Yana van Dyke
Aisha Wahab
Stephanie Watkins
Emily Williams
Renée Wolcott

45th Annual Meeting, Electronic Media, June 1, “Establishing a Workflow for the Preservation of Software-Based Artworks.”

Warning: I am a paper conservator who knows her way around a computer, but that doesn’t mean I totally get all of this. We’re starting to consider doing work like this at my home institution, so I thought I’d better see what it was all about. Luckily, there are a lot of pictures of slides, and it was presented in such a way that I just saw it as another case of documentation of an artifact – it just happens to have many moving parts (literally).  Oh. And I apologize in advance for the photobombing microphone stand in the slides.

The basic summary is that the Tate collaborated with Klaus Rechert from Freiburg University to develop a workflow, and created a report describing a framework for the use of emulation for preservation of artworks. This was made possible by PERICLES, a European funded project which focuses on evaluating and representing the risks for long-term digital conservation of digital resources. As part of that collaboration we then tested that approach in a workshop with the participation of Dragan Espenschied of Rhizome on works from the Tate’s collection. One of those artworks was  “Subtitled Public” by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (T12565).

The emulation challenge with “Subtitled Public” (2005) was that it involved electronic and live components in addition to the operation of cameras. Good news is this is one artwork that was deeply documented, so it was a good test case for developing a workflow. Below is the extent of the documentation (BTW the computers were Mac Minis):

Selecting Preservation Strategies: These are the Essential Steps, which are complimentary:

Note on artwork’s significant properties: one of the elements of the artwork is projecting words on people. The entire artwork would need to be reinstalled in order to compare completely and properly.

Note on resources, sustainability, and application: how many artworks can you support? You need to think about the collection as a whole; resources, sustainability, and application for the long term.

Defining boundaries will help you identify commonalities among artworks, which can help with prioritization and creating systems that will work for multiple artworks.

In the emulation environment, you have the artwork itself as a digital artifact. This does not change over time and can one of any huge number of different objects. The computer system are a rather small number of different hardware environments, but they require constant replacement.

In between is the most interesting work to approach the problem: keeping the operating system monitored and functional. If the OS is interfering with artwork directly, monitor and maintain technical interfaces (OS and CS – hardware environment).

So why do it this way? Scalability!

Making emulation approachable is the ultimate goal.

  1. Image disk and normalize it. Make it work in an emulator. Unify hardware configuration. Disk controller issues may appear if moved to different emulator.
  2. Generalize disk image otherwise you’ll get the blue screen of death. Goals: All images share the same technological risks.
  3. Yay! It works! Changed a layer on top to original image to get it to work, but the original image was untouched.

EaaS: automate image ingest of disk image. Select matching machine template. Automatic check of hardware configuration of operating system.


The proposed workflow is reversible and recyclable. One can try different ways and every revision can be forked.

The operating and computer systems are not specific to the work itself. Emulation can be considered since the digital artifacts and the hardware are not tied to the artwork itself.

Unfortunately, the entire installation couldn’t be completed,  so further testing needed for this artwork. But now they understand the process, and disk images are captured and archived.



45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, “Less is More/Recapturing the Subtleties” by Adam Novak

For the first BPG Session of a treatment-themed AIC Conference this year, Adam Novak, a paper conservator at Daria K. Conservation, LLC in New York gave his presentation on a topic that is very important but not often discussed in the field: using one’s senses to determine the appropriate treatment for an item. With a multitude of treatment options available, the conservator is (ideally) able to control the outcome and intensity of the treatment by understanding the effects of time, moisture, conductivity, and expansion on the item. Adam referred to the thorough research and presentation at last year’s AIC meeting by Amy Hughes and Michelle Sullivan on minimally invasive treatments using gels as an example of how the conservator can control the treatment.

The primary concern in conservation is obviously the effectiveness of a treatment, but the possible repercussions of the treatment on an object in the future is a concern. Adam spoke of how every treatment carries with it both risks and benefits, and as conservators we can control how invasive (and how effective) we would like a treatment to be. Drawing from conservation’s relatively short past, it is apparent that reversibility is key and often “less is more.” The less invasive the treatment, the better the longevity for the object. This is of course balanced with the efficacy of the treatment as well, which Adam mentioned.

Adam gave a few examples of different paper treatments involving different kinds of media in excellent detail, describing how he approached each object with the idea that one’s “senses are as important as the science.” Which is to say, if you can detect the subtleties of the paper surface, quality of the ink, etc. then you are more able to control your treatment in such a way to retain the integrity of the work. Ideally, if the conservator is honed in on the subtleties of the item being treated, then the overall outcome of the treatment will have little trace of invasion. This quote was integral to the message of the presentation, and appeared twice(!):

As the treatment “toolbox” grows and changes moving in to the future, taking a closer look at qualities of an item to be retained after its treatment and cleaning will become more important and certainly more achievable.

45th Annual Meeting – Luncheon, May 30, “Protecting the World’s Cultural Heritage: Identifying and Protecting Looted Artifacts” by Oya Topçuoglu, L. Burgess, and Dawn Rogala

Looted or stolen artifacts are a concern all over the world. The speakers at this luncheon focused on looting in the middle east, cases of illicit imports, and notable museum thefts. As a curator and conservator of Native American artifacts, however, I found much of the talk was relevant to the looting that happens right here in the U.S., albeit on a smaller, less industrial scale.

The first talk, by Oya Topçuoğlu, was riveting. For one thing, the demonstration of the sheer scale of looting happening in the middle east was incredible (see photo below).


On 4 August 2011 (left ), the soil at Dura-Europos is relatively undisturbed both inside and outside the walled city. On 2 April 2014 (right), however, very high-density looting is present inside the ancient city wall, while portions of the archaeological site beyond the city wall have been covered with thousands of individual pits. A number of vehicles (circled in red) are visible within the walls of the site. Coordinates: 34.74 N, 40.73 E. Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS. -https://www.aaas.org/page/ancient-history-modern-destruction-assessing-status-syria-s-tentative-world-heritage-sites-7#Dura-Europos

The scale of looting and tracking of antiquities is virtually impossible to quantify, partly due to the dangers of getting people on the ground in areas of conflict, but Oya and her colleagues have begun to address some key questions in the quest to put an end to such activities, including: Where does the looting happen? How do we identify it? Who is involved in looting, trafficking and sale of antiquities? Where do looted artifacts go, how do they get there? Who are the buyers? Where do sales take place? What is sold for how much? What can we do from the safety of our offices, universities, museums, etc.?

She noted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) is not the only party doing the looting but that such activities are most prevalent in IS controlled areas. Sales are conducted through online auction sites and the dark web. Documents are often falsified and regularly contain a stock phrase such as “Property of (or from the collection of) a London (German, Swiss, etc.) gentleman. Acquired in the 1980’s.”

The question I was really interested in was “What can we do?”. For tracking artifacts stolen from museums, for example, new substances are becoming available like “smart water,” an invisible polymer than can be traced back to a certain batch. She notes it is also important to adequately train law enforcement, both local and international, to recognize antiquities. Finally she discussed a project called MANTIS (Modeling the Antiquities Trade in Iraq and Syria) about which more details can be found here: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/mantis

Looting at American archaeological sites is on a much smaller scale and probably does not fund major terrorist organizations but this talk made me think about how important it is to track the sales of antiquities and do whatever we can, including training law enforcement, to halt the illicit trade of the world’s cultural heritage.

The next speaker L. Burgess, was a lawyer who discussed issues that lawyers deal with like title, authenticity, and provenance. She highlighted some of the more famous art heist and illicit import cases. Again she pointed out the issue of falsified documents such as in the Steinhart case from the mid 1990’s in which a million dollar 3rd-4th century BC Sicilian gold phiale from Italy was claimed to be from Switzerland and worth only $150,000. She also talked a bit about repatriation and mentioned that she feels institutions are moving toward long term loans rather than transfers of ownership.

Finally, Dawn Rogala talked about some of the things to think about if you are approached to work with legal cases dealing with repatriation, art theft or forgery. She discussed what it means to be a subject matter expert, for example, you must be willing to testify. She mentioned questions you should ask yourself like, are you even allowed to testify or do job restrictions, for example, prevent it? Are you actually qualified? She says you must ask agents what is expected of you. And of course, ask yourself do you have time to do this? She also went over what language to use, how to write reports, and general things to be cognizant of.

Overall the themes of the luncheon were crucial for many people in our field. It was odd to juxtapose the discussion of war-zone looting with the delicious lunch we were eating in the comfort of a plush conference room but the luncheon format did allow some good open discussion and, frankly, kept me from getting too depressed when thinking about the vast scale and impenetrability of the illicit antiquities trade.




45th Annual Meeting – Collection Care Session, “Evaluation of climate control in Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History–energy consumption and risk assessment” by Lukasz Bratasz et al


Lukasz Bratasz et al presented about a risk assessment and recommendations made for storage of the collections at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.  Trying to get away from flat-lined standards, they are taking a risk management approach to most effectively spend their preservation resources in a pragmatic and sustainable way.  By doing a risk analysis and gathering data on current energy use across the campus (and comparing with some far-flung peers), a pretty stark result was revealed.  What struck me most about the presentation, the active question and answer period notwithstanding, was the confirmation of my gut feeling that chemical degradation is the most serious preservation risk that many collections face.  Yes, fires can be catastrophic and leaks happen frequently, but chemical degradation happens constantly and quietly at human-comfort temperature storage with extreme relative humidity swings, until one does an analysis like this and bring it to everyone’s attention.

In their relatively quickly assembled risk assessment, the notion of item value was disregarded and every item was assumed to have the same value.  This is appropriate for collections that are of value in the aggregate.  Some audience members found this to unrealistically skew the data, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It is always possible to add on the variable of value later, when one is ready to address multiple risks of similar likelihood and severity.  But to get the big picture, I think this kind of assessment is a good first step.  The most significant risks identified included mold growth, pest damage, chemical degradation, and mechanical damage.

The scope of the project was to analyze energy consumption and current environmental conditions, assess the preservation condition of the collections and determine the risks.  The risk assessment revealed that chemical degradation was two orders of magnitude above any of the other risks.  They found they could both address the most significant risk and save energy at the same time, so they prioritized on improving the climate for the collections.

Some of the comparisons for energy use seemed like apples and oranges (i.e. comparing a multi-use, aging building in New Haven with a relatively new passive-environment storage facility in Denmark).  However, it was clear that the aging building was wasting money and energy compared to other buildings at Yale.  This was due primarily to a high ventilation rate and constricted set points that did not allow for any floating.  In other words, they were bringing in too much fresh air, and keeping such a tight set point that they were constantly running the equipment to either heat or cool.  The rigid temperature set point combined with the uncontrolled humidity brought in by unnecessary fresh air meant that the indoor humidity ranged from 10-80%, extremes which cannot be safely tolerated by natural history collections without risk of mechanical damage.

They made the point that the collections had weathered temperature and humidity changes for years before the current flat-lined temperature was implemented, and thus the collections have been “proofed” and don’t require the flatlining.  Among my library conservation colleagues the proofing concept is not fully embraced…just because the mechanical damage hasn’t happened in the past, once chemical degradation has progressed to a certain point, mechanical damage due to the shock of a temperature or RH spike could still happen even to an aged object.  However, within a moderate range I suspect the Yale authors are right that some variation of temperature and humidity is not likely to cause damage.

The recommendations made were to move the most vulnerable ethnographic collections to cool storage, reduce the ventilation rate, adopt dual set point control (i.e. minimum and maximum rather than single point) for both temperature and relative humidity, control the relative humidity to eliminate the extremes, and evaluate the conditions according to long term temperature and relative humidity values.  While the recommendations at the end of this presentation did not emphasize energy savings, I’m guessing this was a selling point and was part of the bargain with facilities and administration, who juggle multiple priorities and are more likely to embrace a win-win solution.

45th Annual Meeting- Paintings Specialty Session, June 1, 2017- “Mapping a Way Forward: Bringing an artwork back from self-destruction, by Per Knutås and Samantha Springer”

Confession time. Having done my third-year intern in the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), I was already familiar with the artwork and treatment involved in this presentation. The first time I heard about it, I was shocked, then curious, then awed. The complexity of the problem and solution never ceases to impress me and make me question my previous opinion, a feeling familiar to those who specialize in the conservation of modern and contemporary art.

Mapa estelar en árbol. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Per Knutås, Paintings Conservator and Chief Conservator at the CMA, and Samantha Springer, Conservator at the Portland Art Museum and former Objects Conservator at the CMA, gave a joint presentation on the issues and treatment process of Gabriel Orozco’s Mapa estelar en árbol (Stellar Map in Tree). Their presentation was a drastic change of pace from the previous two lectures that dealt with 15th-16th century European altarpieces (the Ayala and the Monopoli altarpieces), both of which coincidentally had problems with the formation of insoluble oxalates on the surface (a possible topic for a future symposium?). Although a three-dimensional object, the thought here was to look at Mapa estelar en árbol as a modern panel painting which is how the artist conceived the piece. The treatment crossed traditional conservation specialty boundaries and required collaboration between conservators and the artist.

The artwork

Mapa estelar en árbol is a 30-40 cm thick cross-section of a salvaged mango tree trunk, 70 cm in diameter. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco wanted to resurrect the tradition of panel painting and used the tree trunk as a modern and unconventional panel. He prepared the end-grain surface in the classical manner by covering it with fabric and layers of gesso. The geometric sgraffito design was created by applying graphite all over the gesso and then incising into it with a compass, another tool that has fallen out of use. The back (other end-grain surface) was sealed with a waxy material. The work debuted at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City in 2009. A CMA curator bought the work on opening night.

Detail of the damaged surface. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The problem

Mapa estelar en árbol arrived to the CMA months after its debut in Mexico City. The work had already developed hairline cracks and delamination in that short amount of time. It was unexhibitable within a year. The wood had shrunk with changes in RH, the canvas buckled, and the gesso/graphite layers were severely cracked and lifting from the surface. No conservation treatment, however extraordinaire, would be able to mask the damage and restore the pristine surface. It would leave a scarred surface and the viewer would only see the hand of the conservator. From the CMA’s point of view, the piece was dead.


The meeting

Hoping to get a replacement or get the work re-made, the CMA team got in contact with the gallery and the piece was sent back to Mexico City to be examined by the artist and his team. The Mexico City meeting included Per Knutås, Reto Thüring (Curator of Contemporary Art at the CMA), Gabriel Orozco, his fabricator (who also happens to be a conservator), and the Kurimanzutto Gallery. While the artist initially said he didn’t mind the changes as they spoke to history of the piece, he then suggested his fabricator/ conservator carry out a restoration treatment to fix it. The CMA reserved the right to reject the restored work if the appearance didn’t meet their standards and expectations as this was an option they had previously discussed and rejected in-house. After a failed attempt by the Mexico City fabricator/ conservator, a new arrangement was reached.

The Solution

Refusing to have the work remade in the same way as the original, the CMA staff proposed the addition of a new layer to the original stratigraphy: an inert substrate that would serve as an interleaf of sorts between the dimensionally unstable wood and the fabric. After several rounds of mock-ups and testing back in the Conservation Department at the CMA using green cuts of Mulberry trees (no mango trees to be found in Cleveland) to mimic the original, they settled on the use of a stainless-steel plate that would be adhered to the wood with a custom-made silicone adhesive that could be flexible enough to move with the wood. The canvas would be wrapped around the stainless steel and adhered with BEVA Film. Per traveled to Mexico City where he adhered the canvas-wrapped stainless-steel plate to the original tree trunk. Gabriel Orozco and his team completed the rest of the recreation.

Samantha Springer doing materials testing. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Per Knutås in the artist’s studio adhering the fabric to the stainless-steel plate with BEVA Film. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.



Mapa estelar en árbol as it is currently displayed in the CMA galleries. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The second iteration of Mapa estelar en árbol returned to the CMA months later, where it was left under watch in the Conservation Department for several months (this is when I first met the piece). The new inert layer worked perfectly and no changes or damages have since been observed on the piece, which is now happily displayed in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. The original creation date was kept as they deemed it to be too confusing to list a new intervention date. Also, the artist created another version of this piece (now in a private collection), and he wanted both to be a pair with the same dates.

While the artist retained the traditional conceptual role, this treatment put the conservators in the unusual role of producers driving the process and pushing ethical boundaries. Most would question if it even is the same work of art. Many in the audience struggled to come to terms with it. The Q&A session was dominated by questions on whether they tried to do any consolidation or transfer techniques before deciding to scratch the original surface. An audience member brought up an interesting point. Where Per and Samantha acting as conservators or collaborators? They were not using their technical information as conservators. They were collaborators and technical resources for the artist and as such, the ethics of our profession didn’t apply. This was one of the longest Q&A sessions I have been in, a clear sign that the presentation provided much food for thought.

45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, June 1, “What the Folk Happened to Kitty James and other Folk Tales” by Nina Roth-Wells

Nina Roth-Wells’ talk focused on a treatment that best embodies that crashing realization that you have much more work ahead of you than you’d planned on.

The misadventures of Kitty James started out innocently enough. The portrait, an 1822 work by Ezra Ames, was one of twenty-some early nineteenth century New England folk paintings which needed treatment before inclusion in an exhibition: Colby College Museum of Art’s A Useable Past: American Folk Art. Nina begins her talk by going through some more rote treatments from the same collection, a typical smattering of mends, cleaning, inpainting, and the occasional lining. With great pleasure, she explains how she was able to reverse a drastic restoration, thereby getting as close to the conservator’s dream of time-travel as we’re likely to reach: a canvas painting which had been attached to Masonite was removed and given a strip-lining instead.

Those treatments comprised the group of paintings Nina had selected on the criteria of needing both structural and aesthetic work. The rest were determined to be less complicated treatments and were scheduled to be completed onsite at the museum. She had initially categorized Kitty James in this second set, as it appeared to be an untreated 19th century work, requiring primarily surface cleaning.

Upon beginning surface cleaning, though, things started to go awry. The child’s hair was awfully soluble for how old the paint should have been, her sleeves seemed to be revealing different sleeves when cleaned, and the background was also coming up. The curator was quickly summoned. Artist revision was ruled out as it became clear the overpaint was done by a different, less experienced hand. In search of answers, Nina and the Colby College Museum of Art dragged Kitty James to the local hospital: specifically, the radiography department. This is where the audience learned that small town Maine x-ray technicians have experience working with art because they (or perhaps just this one curious soul) have experimented on duck decoys! The whole experience was both useful and joyful it seemed, as Nina expounded on the ease of digital x-rays compared to the analog procedures of her early training. There were lots of radiography tips, both in the talk and in the Q&A afterwards: suggestions to achieve the best low contrast results included setting the machine for a finger scan (2mAs at 60 KV), or to simply go straight to the mammography department. Nina, the equestrienne, reminded us city dwellers that large animal vets are also a good resource.

Of course, an x-ray is only as useful as the information it gives the conservator, and here it revealed that Kitty James had in fact been altered at some point, and the repainted image differed in the bodice and hairstyle, just as Nina had run into. Given this image of the original to work from, and with the agreement of the curator, a campaign to return poor Kitty to her initial visage was undertaken. A fair amount of overpaint removed cleanly, revealing original details and rewarding the conservator’s effort. The rest proved intractable—and frankly harmful to the original paint to try to remove—over parts of the sleeves and on her forehead where the overpaint hid her side-swept bangs. Thus, Nina’s job became to reconstitute both the original pageboy haircut and some semblance of period-appropriate sleeves from areas which included both original paint and overpaint. A happy medium for the sleeves required some research into 19th century baby clothes, and getting her hair right required several frustrated attempts which Nina characterized as ‘Justin Bieber’ and ‘Peppermint Patty.’ Though she expressed unease with how much of her own artistic interpretation was going into the final painting, the UV after treatment photo really demonstrated her restraint despite the extensive work needed to bring the painting together visually.

Thanks to research done while this painting was in treatment, there’s a possible explanation for Kitty’s new hairdo and wardrobe. In summary: there have been two Kittys in the James family, one (Catherine Margaret James) who would have been the right age for this 1822 portrait, and one (Katherine Barber James) who would have been the right age for the 1840’s fashion and hairstyle that were added in overpaint. The second Miss James was a prominent society lady, so the theory is that the family had the portrait altered to represent to more well-known relative.

All in all, the treatment was a wild ride, but Kitty James emerged safely with the original Kitty James reinstated.

45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, June 1, “Re-engineering Broken Book Spines” by Emily Hishta Cohen

Emily Hishta Cohen presented a technique for repairing case bindings, where the case has detached from the textblock along one or both board joints. This technique was developed in the MIT Libraries Preservation Department, and continues to be used there frequently in the repair of books belonging to both special and (more recently) circulating collections.

The technique is essentially a modification of a hollow tube repair, except that the tube is gradually constructed on the book using layers of tengucho (or other very thin Japanese paper), adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste and methylcellulose. Silicone-coated Mylar is used to prevent the tube from adhering to itself as the repair dries. After the spine hollow is reconstructed, internal hinges of tengucho are adhered along the inner board joint(s) to reinforce the repair. Notably, this technique preserves all existing spine linings. Rather than cleaning them off, as with traditional re-backing techniques, here they are left in place and re-adhered as necessary. The best way to understand how this repair is executed is to watch a very thorough step-by-step video created by the MIT Preservation Department, available at this link: http://bit.ly/MITRBBS.

This technique is reversible, minimally interventive, and preserves all existing components of a binding, all of which are admirable qualities in a conservation treatment.  It appears perfectly suited to cloth covered case bindings of a relatively small size (such as the one that appears in the video). The abstract mentions that the technique can be modified for larger, heavier books by using cloth in place of Japanese paper. I would be interested in seeing how this would be done without removing existing spine linings to make room for the extra bulk of the repair cloth, which would be significantly thicker than tengucho.

Regardless of how it might be adapted to more substantial books, this “re-engineering” technique is a reminder that sometimes, the weaker repair material is the ideal choice. I’ll certainly keep this technique in mind.  A conservator can never have too many tricks up her sleeve.


45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 30, “Medium Rare: An Innovative Treatment Approach to the Space Between Special and General Collections” by Quinn Ferris

In her talk, Quinn Ferris discussed a new conservation workflow recently implemented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, called “Medium Rare Conservation.” This new workflow was initiated in response to the realities and limitations facing the conservation staff at the UIUC. The library’s holdings are massive (24 million items, including 13 million volumes), and must withstand frequent use (1 million patrons visit the library annually). Meanwhile, recent budget cuts have eliminated the possibility of hiring additional permanent staff, while services are never allowed to be reduced.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow is a response to the problem of inadequate resources facing so many university libraries. It is a streamlined approach to treatment that combines elements of special collections conservation (ethical and logistical considerations) and general collections conservation (speed and efficiency).

The term “medium rare” is not new. It was used in 1987 by Stephen Ferguson to describe a category nineteenth and twentieth-century books that, while not considered rare, were “endangered” in the sense that the poor quality of their materials resulted in rapid decay, and finding replacement copies was difficult and expensive. In contrast, the term “Medium Rare” is used at the UIUC to indicate the appropriateness of a specific conservation treatment approach. It does not describe an item’s value, priority, or rarity. A book designated “Medium Rare” in this context could, for example, belong to either special or circulating collections. Because the term has been used in both ways in recent years, it can be problematic and cause confusion. Ms. Ferris addressed this, explaining that she supported the development of more precise terminology. Specifically, she suggested more neutral or objective language for categorizing based on complexity of treatment required, such as numbers 1, 2, and 3.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow was established as a way of increasing efficiency, but as with any major change, its implementation required significant time and patience. The designation needed to be clearly defined and given a list of criteria that would allow for easy identification of collection materials to be channeled into the new workflow. For example, items requiring basic mending, flattening, or simple book repairs (such as those performed regularly on circulating items) could be categorized as “Medium Rare,” while any treatments involving leather work or the use of solvents, could not. Treatment documentation guidelines needed to be created. This involved building a new interface within the existing treatment documentation database, and developing a regimen of abbreviated photo documentation.

Once established, the workflow yielded a number of benefits, some more surprising than others. Treatment turn-around time was decreased, and a greater number of collections were served. Closer working relations with colleagues were established. Treatment opportunities were expanded for conservation technicians, interns, and student employees, who are now able to perform simple treatments on special collections materials. Meanwhile, conservators are allowed to focus their treatment time on items requiring greater care and more complex interventions.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow at UIUC is still in it’s infancy, and will continue to be fine-tuned. Still, it was clear during the lively Q&A session at the end that the issues raised by this talk are on the minds of library conservators. How should Medium Rare treatments be prioritized? Should items be treated if they are available in alternate formats? Stay tuned to see how this kind of hybrid conservation work develops at UIUC and other library conservation labs over the next few years…