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.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Diana has a Bachelor of Arts in Conservation from Bogotá, Colombia and she specialized in Photograph conservation in Mexico City, Mexico. She has worked in private workshops and labs and came to the Ransom Center following her work at the Frida Kahlo Museum and the National School for Conservation (ENCRyM) both in Mexico City.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.
How did you decide to become a paper conservator?
When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.
What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?
They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.
Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?
I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.
Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?
Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.
Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?
I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.
What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?
Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.
Do you have a favorite place in Austin?
I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.
Have you made your own book before?
Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.
Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?
Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.
The performing arts collection at the Harry Ransom Center includes a remarkable set of theater backdrops, all in miniature. This collection of 112 backdrops, along with other free-standing scene elements, depicts grand symbolic imagery: Egyptian landscapes, biblical imagery, grand architecture, and even catacombs. These scenes were created to support the theatrical rituals, or degrees, of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. But why are they miniature? The model-sized drops were used by a salesman to market stage scenery to Masonic temples, and the small size allowed for ease of transportation.
The model—and the corresponding full-sized scenes—was produced around 1900 by Sosman & Landis Studio, specialists in scenic art. The drops are painted in gouache onto paper illustration board. Some of the paperboards are cut to resemble “cut drops” and “leg drops,” scenic drop elements used further upstage from the backdrop to create depth of field for the audience. The collection is housed in a wooden travel trunk. Each drop has a wooden slat nailed along its top edge, and this slat allowed the drop to hang from two rails secured into the trunk. Because the drops were packed fairly tightly together in the trunk, they suffered damage over the years. To remove a drop, it had to be pulled up and out of the trunk, dragging against the adjacent drops in the process. This caused breaking of the sometimes-complex paperboard cutouts as well as rubbing and scraping of the paint layer. Many of the drops became partially detached from their wooden slats, and all were dirty from many years of settling dust and grime.
In the summer of 2014, paper conservation intern Rémy Dreyfuss began a project to conserve this beautiful example of turn-of-the-century theater technology. To begin, Rémy surveyed the entire collection, taking note of the condition of and photographing each item. He created a database to organize the descriptive data, condition information, and treatments performed on each item. The database links each item’s description to its corresponding digital image. Rémy surface-cleaned each drop using a soft brush and dry rubber sponge. He secured the boards that had become detached from their slats. He did not use nails for the re-attachment, but instead used small gussets of Japanese paper adhered in place with wheat starch paste. The gussets allow attachment to the wooden slat without unwanted stress on the paperboard. Rémy mended breaks and tears, again with archival quality Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.
Rémy also designed, along with Apryl Voskamp, Head of Preservation, a new storage system for the models. The updated storage allows better access to the materials, while minimizing risk of future damage. Though the drops will be stored in the new housing, the original travel trunk will remain a part of the collection.
In addition to the drops, this collection includes a small-scale stage. The drops can be arranged here to show the dramatic effect of the layered elements of backdrop, cut drop, leg drop, and border. Rémy completed his project by photographing the groups of drops in place on the stage, as they would be viewed during a performance.
Until now, these materials were almost inaccessible to curators and researchers because of their unstable condition. With the conservation treatment completed, the miniature scenery can be handled safely and made available for research.
As a final note, the Ransom Center is only a few blocks from a Scottish Rite Theater on West 18th Street in Austin. The theater houses, and still uses, an original collection of Sosman & Landis stage drops, the full-sized drops that the Ransom Center models represent. The Center’s conservation staff visited the theater to view the stage scenery and to get a backstage tour of the scenery collection and how it is used during performances.