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Remarkable set of miniature Masonic theater scenery receives conservation treatment

By Heather Hamilton

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.

 

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Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Behind-the-scenes: Customizing a mannequin, from legs to limbs, to display a World War I uniform

By Jill Morena

Presenting a costume or historical clothing on a mannequin may seem deceptively simple at first glance. Yet there is rarely an instance of a mannequin, standardized or made-to-measure, that is ready to use “out-of-the-box.” Each area of the body—shoulders, torso, arms, legs, and feet—must be customized and often requires several fittings with the garment. This is similar to the process of fitting a made-to-order garment to a human body, although in this case the process is reversed as the mannequin must be shaped and conform to the garment.

 

A World War I uniform, from the collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum and currently on display in The World at War, 1914–1918, presented us with a particular challenge. The physique of most modern, full-body mannequins is too tall, muscular, and athletic for early twentieth-century clothing and footwear. The size of the mannequin must always be smaller than the measurements of the costume to allow for supportive padding and to prevent any stress or strain on the costume when dressing or on display. We made the decision to pad up an adolescent/teenage dress form that was already in our inventory and to construct realistic-looking legs, a crucial element in presenting the ensemble successfully.

 

This was our first time to use Fosshape, a polyester polymer material often used for theater costume design or millinery. Textile conservators have recently explored and used Fosshape for museum display, and we decided to use this flexible, adaptable material to construct the legs. An approximate tapered “leg” shape was cut, sewn, and placed over the calves and ankles of a full-body mannequin to get a realistic leg shape. When steam heat is applied to the Fosshape, it reacts, shrinks, and hardens to the shape of the mold beneath.

 

Because the leg dimensions of this particular mannequin were too large to safely fit through the narrow hem of the uniform jodhpurs, we had to “take in” the legs to a smaller circumference, while still retaining an accurate calf and knee shape. Because the definition was lessened somewhat, we made “knee” and “calf” pads to help support and define the shape of these areas. Additional Fosshape pieces were created and steamed to provide more structure and interior support.

 

The legs were adjusted accordingly and covered with a smooth polyester fabric to aid with dressing, and pieces of velcro were sewn to the inside of the Fosshape legs and the exterior of the mannequin legs for easy attachment.

 

Arm patterns, taken from an excellent resource on mannequin creation and modification, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting by Lara Flecker, were modified to fit the length and curvature of the jacket’s arms. Once sewn, the arms were filled with soft polyester batting and sewn to the mannequin’s shoulders. The chest and back were padded out where needed, and a flesh-colored finishing fabric was cut, sewn, and secured to the mannequin’s neck.

 

The final crucial details were aligning and orienting two twin silver mannequin stands so that they would reflect a natural body stance once the legs and boots were placed. Additionally, the stands were covered with a matte black fabric, so the high shine of the silver bases would not distract from the uniform. Once the stand was correctly aligned and covered, dressing the mannequin could begin.

 

Constructing, modifying, or dressing a mannequin is never a solitary endeavor. This entire process was a collaboration between the curator of costumes and personal effects and conservation and exhibitions staff. Colleagues Mary Baughman, Ken Grant, Apryl Voskamp, and John Wright were invaluable with their help and expertise.

 

Top image: World War I uniform on display in Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. Photo by Pete Smith. Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

By Edgar Walters

The Ransom Center’s archives are full of treasures waiting to be pulled off the shelves.  But once paged from the stacks, some of those treasures prove difficult to handle.

Such was the case with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s enormous 1786 print “Pianta delle Fabriche Esistenti Nella villa Adriana.” The 10-foot wide map of Hadrian’s villa is a popular item at the Ransom Center, but its impressive size complicates the process of sharing it with students and scholars. Now, thanks to treatment efforts undertaken by Ransom Center conservators, the map is far more accessible.

Previously, a complex set of folds allowed the print to fit, attached to a stiff paper stub, inside its book. The setup was not optimal: long-term folds left significant creases in the print, and the stub attachment was unwieldy and damaging.

The conservation team had a better idea. Conservators cut the map away from its stub and carefully unfolded the map onto a large work surface, where it was cleaned of superficial dust and grime. The creases were relaxed by a textile humidifier and then flattened under a weighted drying system. Conservators also mended small tears in the print using long-fibered Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Next, Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, was tasked with creating a modified tube around which the print could be rolled. Her objective was to eliminate the need for folding, thus protecting the item from potentially harmful creases. Given the print’s large size, a standard tube would be too large to house on a shelf within the stacks. Hamilton’s answer was to roll the map onto a flattened, space-saving pad.

The pad consists of four layers. A corrugated board forms the core, which is then wrapped in thick foam. An outer layer of soft, thin Volara foam envelops the interior, which is cocooned by airplane cotton just below an exterior cloth surface. Hamilton used a giant needle to sew through the many layers, ensuring that everything was well-secured.

Finally, Preservation Housing Manager Apryl Voskamp created a custom archival box to house the print and its pad. The new lidded box has a layer of protective Volara foam and a drop front, which allows the print to slide out easily without risk of harm.

The map of Hadrian’s villa is frequently used by classes in the University’s School of Architecture, where students learn the importance of structure and accessibility. Applying those same concepts, Ransom Center conservators have brought new life to the map of Hadrian’s villa.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage.  Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage. Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.