In “Technology: No Place For Wimps,” Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger joins Carol Henry, fine-art photographer, and James M. Reilly, founder and director of the Image Performance Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a discussion about photography in the digital age. The discussion, which appears in The Getty Conservation Institute newsletter Conservation Perspectives, features a question and answer session with the three experts and highlights the ways in which photographers, conservators, and curators respond to the challenges posed by a rapidly changing medium. Flukinger, Henry, and Reilly spoke with Dusan Stulik, a Getty Conservation Institute senior scientist, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of the Institute’s newsletter.
In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.
Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.
Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.
The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.
“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”
A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem “Orlando Furioso.”
The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their heads. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge for the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation team. Read the full article about the preservation efforts relating to the marionettes.
There are many factors to consider when housing very large collection objects. This was particularly true in the case of the deep sea diving suit worn by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Men of Honor, which came into the care of the Ransom Center when Robert De Niro donated his archive to the Center in 2006.
The mandate was to create a storage device to increase the longevity and preserve the construction of the suit. The dive suit was too large and too heavy for housing in conventional preservation boxes, and flat storage could not have properly supported the suit’s own material from crushing itself.
The amount of storage space had to be considered, along with the construction of the support device, so the suit could be easily transported and exhibited. This dictated that the type of materials used to construct the device be archival and light weight, such as acrylic sheet and polyethylene foam.
The solution was a hanger designed to be simple, adjustable, and adaptable. The main body and structure of the hanger is 1.25 cm thick acrylic sheet. It was measured to fit the exact shape of the interior of the deep sea diving suit across the shoulders and into the arms.
The acrylic sheet panels were cut, drilled, and polished, then bolted together with two thick polyethylene foam planks placed between them. The Ethafoam serves as lightweight, highly compact archival filler. It also provides a porous surface to which layers of Ethafoam padding can be hot-glued to cover the surfaces and edges of the acrylic sheet and the bolt heads.
The central neck panel is also constructed from acrylic sheet, and screwed together to form an adjustable sliding block that is removable. This allows the shoulder support to be placed inside the suit without obstruction and refitted once the suit is ready to hang. The neck panel also has an adjustable swiveling eyebolt that provides easy attachment when transporting, hanging, and exhibiting.
The Ethafoam padding goes well beyond the shoulder seams of the suit and gives support across the entire upper half of the shoulders and well into the arms to reduce weight pulling on the shoulder seams of the suit. The width of the hanger from front to back completely supports the neck’s thick vulcanized collar, as well.
The hanger can readily be taken apart and modified for future adjustments or additions. One possibility being considered is the addition of fabric straps from the main body of the hanger to the interior of the waist for further support.
The hanger is unobtrusive in appearance but can also be covered easily for exhibition purposes. It is, of course, important that the stabilizing support that extends from the wall be securely mounted to ensure adequate support to the weight of the suit.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Western Association for Art Conservation newsletter.
Though seldom spoken of, the “book snake” has been a staple for patrons in the Ransom Center’s reading room for many years, while its smaller cousin, the “book worm” has appeared more recently. The story behind these creatures, often seen draped over the sides of books or nestled between the covers, is little known to those not involved in book conservation.
Book snakes and worms, along with book cradles, are used to safely support books and other collection materials while they remain open. The added support of a cradle keeps a book from lying flat on a surface, thereby maintaining the integrity of the spine. Book snakes and worms keep pages open, minimizing contact with oils found on hands and fingertips. These measures extend the life of books and preserve them for future use.
While similar in purpose, the distinction between book snakes and worms lies in their size and structure. In the past, the Ransom Center’s book snakes and worms were more commonly weighted with lead shot. The difficulty of obtaining loose shot, however, compelled Ransom Center conservators to seek alternative materials.
Mindell Dubansky, a preservation librarian and book conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, proposed using chain-stuffed book snakes. Mary Baughman, a Ransom Center conservator, fashioned a prototype with a dense chain that was strong but no bulkier than an equal weight of shot, and at a reduced production cost. The reading room staff approved Baughman’s design for use.
Now, the Ransom Center’s book snakes are made by hand sewing 12-inch lengths of chain onto a piece of polyester batting. The batting is then sewn around the chain with thread. The padded chain is then placed into an ultra-suede cover, and the open end of the cover is sewn shut. The finished snake weighs about one pound.
The structure of the Center’s book worms, on the other hand, differs from that of their larger counterparts. Because the worms are more suitable for use with smaller volumes, a dense chain is unnecessary. Instead, book worms are made from four lengths of drapery-weight cord that are tied into a 12-inch long bundle using sturdy book-binding thread. Each bundle is encapsulated in a polyethylene sleeve secured with a basting stitch using sewing thread. The bundles are then placed into a ultra-suede covers, and the open end of the covers are sewn shut. The finished book worm weighs about one ounce.
When not retrieving books from the stacks for library patrons, reading room staff are able to assist in the construction of the snakes and worms because of the simplified construction method.
Read more about conservation at the Ransom Center.
While writing Innocents Abroad, Samuel Clemens (known more familiarly as Mark Twain) carried a Bible during a trip to Constantinople in 1867. The book is now part of the Ransom Center’s collections and can be seen in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, which runs through July 29.
The Bible recently underwent some work in the Ransom Center’s conservation lab. Learn about the steps taken to conserve and house this historical book.
Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.
When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.
Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.
Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.
Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”
The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.
The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.
“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.
Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.
Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.
This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.