The Ransom Center’s two-volume Gutenberg Bible is on permanent display in the lobby. Every three months the Center’s staff changes which page of the Bible is displayed, allowing us to share different pages with our visitors, and also protect the volumes from over exposure to light, stress on their bindings, and other preservation concerns. The process of turning the Gutenberg’s pages involves staff of the conservation department, exhibition services, the curator, and of course campus security. Each time we select a new opening we look for some unique or exemplary feature that will reveal the history of our copy or some unique feature absent from the other known copies of the Bible. Read more
With the generous support of a grant from the History Programs, American Institute of Physics, the Ransom Center has created a new online finding aid for the papers of English physicist Owen W. Richardson (1879–1959). The papers were originally processed during the 1960s and described on more than 8,000 catalog cards. Enhanced collection housing was also part of the project, improving long-term preservation of the materials.
Recognized for his pioneering work on thermionics, Sir Owen Richardson was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Physics for Read more
In 1986 when the Ransom Center acquired the Carl H. Pforzheimer library of early English literature, with books dating from 1475 to 1700, the book world gasped. The Pforzheimer library was the outstanding private collection of early English books available, and the acquisition of this exceptional private library of carefully selected rare, and in some cases, unique books in extraordinary condition, represents one of the Ransom Center’s great achievements in book collecting.
The Ransom Center first acquired Pforzheimer’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible in 1978, one of the most interesting of the 49 known copies of the bible. Rich in both provenance (early annotations place our copy in a fifteenth-century Carthusian monastery) and textual variations (including unique type settings), it is one of the greatest treasures here at the Ransom Center. When the Pforzheimer library arrived eight years later, it continued to impress. It contains the first book printed in English, by William Caxton, titled Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, all four Shakespeare folios, deep holdings in Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, three copies of the King James Bible from 1611, and the 1535 Coverdale Bible, which is the first bible printed in English, just to name some of the highlights.
The Pforzheimer books are significant bibliographically, intellectually, and culturally, thus the conservation department is proactively looking after their preservation needs. The conservation department has performed previous condition surveys on this collection, but this time we wanted to have a more comprehensive approach. The previous efforts were analyzed, the current curator of the collection was consulted, and the new survey was designed for a wider capture of information that will inform not only conservation needs but curatorial interests such as bibliographical data, bindings, provenance, and metadata. This particular survey will examine all 1,100 books in the collection, in order to address its conservation needs. The survey will be complete by the end of 2015, and the results will be shared publicly.
The Pforzheimer Library is the most frequently used early book collection at the Ransom Center, with many teaching faculty in the humanities using the collection for their classes and several visiting fellows researching within this collection. And with the arrival this year of the new curator, Gerald Cloud, the collection’s use is certain to increase and attract a broader audience.
One of the most unusual items in the Ransom Center’s collections resides within the Gloria Swanson archive, and it’s as challenging as it is amusing. The “sugar coffin,” as it has become known, was given to Swanson by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, in response to a lawsuit filed by Swanson against Anger.
A little backstory: When Anger wrote his salacious tell-all-book Hollywood Babylon he included a chapter on the death of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed by Turner’s daughter. In the chapter, Anger mistakenly quotes Swanson as saying Turner was “not even an actress… she is only a trollop.” Anger was apparently unaware that when it was first printed by Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Swanson had the quote retracted.
When Swanson was alerted to Anger’s use of the false quote she filed a libel suit against him and his publishers, but before the verdict was handed down, Swanson began receiving hate mail from Anger, including voodoo dolls and mutilated photographs with pins stuck through them. Anger knew Swanson was a serious health fanatic (William Dufty, her sixth husband, wrote the book Sugar Blues), so he filled a green, foot-and-a-half-long coffin with sugar, writing Hic Jacet (Here Lies) Gloria Swanson on its lid.
For the Ransom Center, the challenge was how to preserve a coffin full of sugar? The Center’s Curator of Film wanted to keep the object in its original form, so the coffin was encapsulated in Mylar to prevent the sugar from spilling out. After many discussions we decided to remove the sugar and place it into several polypropylene bags.
Unbeknownst to us, Anger had another message for Swanson. As I was removing the sugar, I noticed there was a word in Hebrew printed on a piece of newsprint that translated as “shalom.” No one at the Ransom Center had seen this before or knew that it was there.
Consequently, I encapsulated the newsprint in Mylar, placed the polypropylene bags with the sugar inside the coffin, and constructed housing for the object, an amazing item to have in the Ransom Center’s care.
When boxes of collection materials arrive at the Ransom Center, conservators and archivists gather at the tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect the contents, looking for insects and the telltale signs of them—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Leading the effort is Ransom Center Book Conservator Mary Baughman, who trains personnel to recognize signs of insect infestation. Below, Mary shares a recent department undertaking that may humanize the insects but will also make them more recognizable during inspections.
Upon the arrival of collection materials at the Ransom Center, the first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of insects or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are important affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks.
In looking for instructional materials to educate and identify insects, I turned to MuseumPests.net, a comprehensive international resource for collection managers. Every institution has insect challenges of some sort. In fact, MuseumPests.net is the result of the efforts of the Integrated Pest Management Working Group, a group of collection managers, conservators, entomologists, and other professionals interested in issues surrounding the implementation of integrated pest management in museums and other collection-holding institutions.
While exploring the MuseumPests.net website, I located a set of amusing and informative insect identification flashcards created by students of Sir Sanford Fleming College’s Museum Management and Curatorship Program in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
Inspired, conservation department volunteer Meaghan Perry and I decided Texas should have its own flashcards depicting insects in the state that attack collection materials. I penned the text, and Meaghan created the images; MuseumPests.net entomologists vetted both.
Identifying and understanding these insects is the first step in preserving our collections. We’re pleased to depict these Texas insects during Preservation Week.
Preservation Week is an effort to promote preservation and conservation for cultural heritage materials throughout the United States. In 2004, Heritage Preservation performed the first national survey to document the preservation needs of cultural collections held in libraries, archives, and museums. The survey, now known as the Heritage Health Index, reflected a shocking number of cultural materials at risk and in need of some sort of care or treatment.
In response to revealing the alarming amount of collection materials at risk, the American Library Association partnered with the Library of Congress, Institute of Museum and Library Services, American Institute for Conservation, Society of American Archivists, and Heritage Preservation, to highlight the needs of our national treasures and to educate the public on preserving family treasures. These organizations also worked to raise awareness of the important role that preservation and conservation professionals serve within their institutions and the community.
The conservation department at the Harry Ransom Center, founded in 1980, is charged with the care of the Center’s collections. This responsibility poses ongoing and rewarding challenges in the areas of treatment, preventive care, research, and education. With book, paper, and photograph conservation laboratories and a preservation housing lab, the department accomplishes a tremendous amount of preventive care and conservation treatment.
In the past fiscal year, the Ransom Center’s talented staff of conservators, technicians, interns, and volunteers devoted nearly 2,500 hours to conserve more than 3,000 items from the collections. In addition to treatments, the staff worked on surveys, assessments, inspections, teaching, consulting, research, and contributed service to the Center and The University of Texas at Austin in other engaged ways such as answering collection care questions from professionals and the public, welcoming the public to Explore UT Day, giving presentations for local and national audiences, and leading departmental tours.
The exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland features two 1933 toy paper film strips called Movie Jecktors. The film strips portray two of the most memorable parts of the Alice story: “Down the Rabbit Hole” and “The Mad Hatter.” Images and text are printed in three colors on 35″ strips of translucent paper. The strips are rolled onto wooden dowels and stored in colorfully printed little boxes. The Movie Jecktors would have been used with a toy film projector to create a simple animation.
The Ransom Center’s Movie Jecktors required conservation before they could be safely displayed in the galleries. Both the wooden dowel and the storage box, which is made of wood pulp cardboard, had a high acid content. An acidic environment is harmful to paper. The Movie Jecktors had become brittle and discolored, and there were many tears and losses to the paper. The film strips had been repaired in the past with pressure-sensitive tapes (the common tape we all use to wrap gifts). These tapes are never appropriate for repairing paper that we hope to preserve because they deteriorate and often darken over time and are also difficult to remove once in place.
As the Ransom Center’s paper conservator, I removed the tapes using a heated tool and reduced the residual adhesive using a crepe eraser. I mended the tears and filled the losses using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. For the fills, the Japanese paper was pre-toned with acrylic paint to allow these additions to blend with the original paper. Areas of ink loss were not recreated.
Visitors to the exhibition can see the areas of the filmstrips that were damaged, but those areas are now stabilized and less distracting. This kind of treatment reflects the practice of conservation to preserve, but not “restore,” the object’s original appearance. Libraries, archives, and museums today often choose the conservation approach because it allows researchers and other visitors a better understanding of the object’s history, including damages that occurred, which may speak to the materials used in the object’s creation.