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Pforzheimer library receives proactive conservation assessment

By Kate Contakos

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.

 

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Here lies Gloria

By Apryl Voskamp

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.

 

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Preservation Week celebrates importance of care of collection materials

By Kate Contakos

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.

 

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s conservation department.

 

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Meet the Staff: Ken Grant, Exhibition Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services

By Marlene Renz

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. Ken Grant received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and then worked as a logging geologist in the oil field for six years. In 1992 he started at the State University of New York College at Buffalo where he later received his Master of Arts in Paper Conservation. He joined the Ransom Center in 1997 and has worked as Assistant Paper Conservator and Paper Conservator, but he now serves as Exhibitions Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services.

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Meet the Staff: Diana Diaz Cañas, Photograph Conservator

By Marlene Renz

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.

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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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Behind the scenes: Conserving the “Gone With The Wind” dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

Tomorrow, the Harry Ransom Center presents a panel discussion to answer the question “How do you care for some of the most iconic costumes in film history?” at 7 p.m. in the Center’s Prothro Theater.

 

Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson leads a discussion on the preservation of Gone With The Wind costumes, including the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown, with independent textile conservator Cara Varnell, Ransom Center Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena, and independent scholar Nicole Villarreal.

 

This program is in conjunction with the current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, which features five costumes from the film and is on view through January 4.

 

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 enabled the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely on custom-fitted mannequins in the current exhibition.

 

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012. A description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available. View videos of conservation work in progress and interviews with curators and the conservator.

 

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Image: The conserved green curtain dress and hat worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Photo by Pete Smith.