AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 9 “The Conservation of the Jefferson Bible at the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution”

The Conservation of the Jefferson Bible at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.  Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator, and Emily S. Rainwater, Post Graduate Fellow, NMAH; Laura A. Bedford, Assistant Book Conservator, NEDCC.

The Jefferson Bible is an assemblage of texts from the New Testament created by Thomas Jefferson, and bound into a book by Frederick Mayo. Jefferson titled this work The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  According to the presenters, it has been in heavy demand and exhibited frequently during its lifetime.

This project was a team effort between conservators and curators. Before beginning treatment,  the conservators in consultation with the curators, thoroughly analyzed  its condition, materials and sewing structure, and together developed a plan for treatment and materials testing. As  the folios were separated conservators and curators examined each one before it was professionally photographed, and together decided where paper repairs should occur.

The treatment goal was to not improve the appearance of the folios (through flattening, for example) or to change Jefferson’s work.  Aqueous treatment and humidification were deemed too risky. Treatment consisted of removal of the textblock from the binding, replacement of the stubs, page repair, resewing and replacement into the original binding. The original endbands and their tie-downs were retained.

It is to the Smithsonian’s (and the conservators’) credit that they were willing to share the treatment of this artifact. The Smithsonian produced a facsimile and documentary, both for sale from the Smithsonian Store, and digital images are available online. An exhibition was installed in 2011, and the conservators allowed tours of the lab while work continued.

The UVA magazine has an illustrated description of the treatment:

The presentation also included a description of the conservation of 2 of the source books for Jefferson’s work. It was exciting to learn more about the life-cycle of this unique work.