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 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.
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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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.
The oil and museum industries are very different. What brought about your career switch?
As an undergrad I was interested in materials related to geology. I needed a job, and the oil field was booming and hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree in geology. I gave it a try, and I enjoyed the travel, but I did not enjoy the oil field. The industrial culture was not conducive to my interest in museum work. Most of my friends from college were artists or art history majors or that sort of thing. And what they did interested me more in the long term than geology. When the bust of the mid-80s came to the oil fields I was out of a job and decided to go back to graduate school. I wanted to go back to something I really felt I enjoyed or was intrigued by.
How would you describe your job? How has it changed?
In a nutshell, it’s a coordinating position. I coordinate the preparation and installation of collection material for exhibitions. It involves the purchasing, resource management, and packing of materials for loan. There are loans to other institutions, loans on campus, and loans to the state government. I’m between the curatorial and the preparation functions. I don’t do conservation treatments anymore, and I haven’t for many years, and I miss it. I think that the actual hands-on interaction with the collection materials that a conservator does is very exciting. In some ways, it is a privileged kind of activity, not everybody gets to bathe rare drawings. However, moving into an administrative position allows you to see a broader range of the institutional functions. There’s a lot more conversation about development, membership, public affairs, and even development of the curatorial collecting areas.
What are the main benefits of loaning materials to other institutions?
I think that there’s always a benefit as an institution by making your presence known among the community of collecting institutions. You gain recognition of not only what materials you have, but also what you have in terms of staff and the capability of building the collection and using the collection. Oftentimes this awareness comes through a curator-to-curator conversation. That’s huge because it’s the network of people who you know that really creates your ability to move around within that world and make really great exhibitions happen.
There’s also the publicity benefit. Materials from the Harry Ransom Center are identified at the borrowing institution. That happens with very charismatic loan materials that we have, like the Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Almost exclusively, that portrait becomes the signature portrait for the exhibition that it travels to. That’s how powerful it is. When it is the signature portrait, it’s placed on banners, it gets put on posters, and buses. So you’ll see our portrait in all of these different places being used to promote the exhibition. I think loaning is recognized as a very useful tool that helps to develop the institution as a whole because it raises the profile of the institution.
What are your biggest apprehensions concerning the transportation process for materials?
There’s a very well-documented protocol in the museum world that is understood between different collecting institutions. In a lot of ways that is a comfort, a way of making the process more predictable and therefore less risky. My biggest concern probably would be not so much in the transportation per se. Sometimes loaning to institutions we’ve never loaned to before creates a little bit of uncertainty. We don’t know what the other institution understands or feels is important with regard to the loan process. That’s where communication is absolutely vital because we have to figure out what their expectations are explicitly with regard to the loan.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work I like to sleep, but apart from that I’m interested in historic photographic processes. I don’t get to practice it that much, but I am interested in learning about these processes and trying to recreate them. In my ideal world, I would have my own darkroom, and I would use historic processes because there is a richness of chemistry and aesthetic possibility within the photographic process. A lot of these older processes create tones and visual textures that you just don’t get with inkjet printers.
What about historic photographic processes interests you?
I think it’s the chemistry of it. The fact that so many different people along the way had to work out all of the chemical processes that go into creating a photograph is really interesting to me. There’s a huge amount of history there. Another thing I think is really interesting is the excitement that was created by the reproduction of images. It filled a need that wasn’t even known and didn’t even need to be met. Print culture followed the ability to print multiple copies of pictures and illustrated magazines. It captured people’s imagination and created this hunger in people for more and more images. They just wanted more, and that’s what digital photography has brought to the ultimate degree.
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.
What do you like best about your job?
I like the fact that we can actually touch the objects and handle them carefully but with confidence. Usually when you go to a museum, you are not allowed to touch anything, you are only allowed to see and be very careful. In conservation, while performing a treatment, it is usually necessary to handle the objects to take care of them. This allow us to better understand the materiality of the object.
What is your favorite item that has come through your office?
I was very lucky when I first arrived because the “First Photograph” was coming back from an exhibition in Germany. The case needed some maintenance after the exhibition, so it was brought to us at the Photograph Conservation Lab, and I had the chance to view the photograph outside of its case and look at it closely to check its condition. It was amazing.
What was your most challenging project?
In Mexico City, I worked on a huge collage with photographs from the end of the nineteenth century. It was a commemoration of Mexico’s independence, with portraits of independence heroes as well as politicians and diplomats of the time. It measures approximately 8 x 10 feet and has more than 700 photographs. It had several structural problems that needed attention and became very complicated due to the size and the mixture of materials in the collage, and it was a lot of work to treat each photograph, one by one. Here at the Ransom Center, I worked on very tightly rolled panoramas that needed to be flattened for the World War I exhibition. The work was delicate and complicated, especially because the paper was brittle and had some tears that needed mending.
What is the most useful tool in your profession?
For everyday use, the microscope and the spatula are the most helpful tools for identification and treatment of photographs. Equipment used to perform scientific analysis is also very useful and helps us to better understand the chemical composition of the objects and works of art we work with. It is very important for us to first identify the photographic technique of every print or negative that comes to the lab before performing any treatment, as this determines how fragile a photograph might be. For example, some photographs are more sensitive to light, while others are more sensitive to handling. Identifying photographic techniques also allows us to choose appropriate conservation treatments.
Does your Spanish proficiency aid you in your work?
Sometimes, especially because of Texas’s strong connection with Latin American culture. Many archives are from native Spanish speakers, and others have Spanish inscriptions. My language skills help me understand some details about the objects, and are sometimes helpful when interacting with patrons interested in the Ransom Center’s collections.
What drew you to photo conservation?
My father, who was a photographer and filmmaker, first influenced me. I used to see him filming and taking pictures, and then I played with his cameras. When I started in conservation, I liked working with paper, so my first job was as a paper conservator in an archive where photographs started to be more and more common. I was asked to survey a new collection that had an important number of photographic materials, and at that moment I realized I did not really know how to talk about the materiality of photographs or their decay with time. I realized that I didn’t know much, but I wanted to. That curiosity and my father’s influence were what helped me decide to work in this field.
You worked in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. What did you like most about working there?
It was great to learn about her as an artist, but also as a person by seeing her pictures. Her father was a renowned photographer, so there is a large collection of family photographs, together with images of her in bed after one of several operations, with an apparatus installed in the bed that held a canvas and allowed her to paint while recovering. Others show the work in progress of some of her most important paintings. There are also photographs with or from other artists and friends of Frida such as Nickolas Muray and Diego Rivera. These pictures show an intimate part of her life that nobody had seen before and have an incredible value for researchers and scholars.
When Frida died, Diego locked up her personal effects and other belongings, including unfinished paintings, in bathrooms at the Blue House that had been converted into storerooms. Diego entrusted the archive to his friend Dolores Olmedo, with the instruction to keep it locked until 15 years after his death, but Dolores decided to keep it locked until after her own death. So 50 years passed before the storage rooms were opened and the museum was able to process Frida’s personal archive and establish conservation needs and exhibitions. I feel very fortunate to have contributed to the preservation of her archive.
There’s a Frida Kahlo portrait at the Ransom Center.
It’s remarkable that we have it here. The painting is one of her most important pieces. Actually, I had the chance to courier it back to the Ransom Center. It was featured in an exhibition that highlighted surreal artists, and I had the chance to return it to the museum when the exhibition ended. I think it’s another favorite from the collections for me.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to read and dance a lot, go to the gym and exercise, go out with friends, and go to the movies.
What type of dancing do you do?
Everything! If it is informal, I like to salsa and merengue or dance to other Latin music, but I used to do contemporary dance and ballet.
What was the last movie you saw?
I saw Wish I Was Here with Zach Braff.
What is your favorite place in Austin to spend your day off?
I like so many places in Austin: around the lake, downtown. Areas surroundings Austin, like Enchanted Rock, are beautiful, and Barton Springs, of course, in the summer.
Do you have a favorite contemporary photographer or a favorite gallery in Austin?
I like very much the work of the photographer Alec Soth. The Ransom Center organized a pop-up show recently; I especially like his “Paris/Minesota” project. On the subject of galleries, I like The Contemporary Austin.
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Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.
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.
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.
The conservation department at the Harry Ransom Center treated many collection items in preparation for the current exhibition The World at War 1914–1918. Among these were numerous posters of various sizes, including a mural-sized poster (about 3 x 5 feet) depicting a Red Cross nurse. The poster reads: “Join—Red Cross Work Must Go On!—all you need is a heart and a dollar.”
The poster came to the paper conservation lab having been lined in the past with a heavy, blue, starch-filled cloth, much like that used for binding books. This inappropriate fabric lining was noticeably wrinkled, and the blue color accentuated a large loss near the upper right corner of the poster. We made the decision to remove this lining and flatten the cockled poster. We also decided to fill the loss with a toned paper to make this area less distracting to the viewer.
First, we surface cleaned the poster using a large, soft brush to remove loose dust and dirt. We continued cleaning the surface grime with rubber sponges, sometimes referred to as “soot sponges.” To remove the lining fabric, we needed to bathe the poster, which would loosen the lining adhesive and allow us to gently peel back the fabric. We tested all of the inks to ensure that they would not be sensitive to water, and we then pre-humidified the print and bathed it in deionized water at a neutral pH. The adhesive began to soften within only a few minutes, and we were able to separate the lining from the poster. While the poster was still in the water bath, verso upward, we could feel that there was still adhesive clinging to the back of the paper. We used wads of cotton to swab off this residual adhesive. We exchanged the water bath two times until we were confident that we had cleaned it as well as we could. Next, we lifted the wet poster out of the bath. Handling wet paper is not difficult because we include a layer of spun polyester—called Reemay—on both the front and back of an item when we bathe it. The Reemay acts as a support during the bath and afterwards, when transporting the wet paper. The poster was allowed to dry flat between layers of Reemay and blotters, under weight.
About a week later, we removed the poster from under the weight and began work on the fill. In paper conservation, Japanese paper is often used to fill losses. This strong, thin paper works well for repairing or filling losses and can be toned to a suitable color. The poster’s missing portion covered both red and off-white sections. We toned a Japanese paper with red acrylic paint and layered this over an off-white Japanese paper. The fill was then shaped to fit the loss and adhered in place with wheat starch paste. Again, the poster was placed between Reemay and blotter, under weight to ensure that the fill would dry flat. Once the poster was completely dried, the fill was trimmed along the outside edge.
This treatment was unusual only in that the poster is so large. Otherwise, the techniques described here are common treatments in paper conservation.
The Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 features a panoramic group portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille), the first U.S. aviation pursuit squadron in combat in France during World War I.
The photograph was sent to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab because it was tightly rolled, making it brittle and fragile. Previous attempts to unroll the paper had left one corner almost detached. The only clue as to its contents was a handwritten inscription on the roll’s outermost edge. Learn more about how photo conservators Barbara Brown and Diana Diaz worked to safely unroll the photograph to preserve it and display it in the exhibition.
Image: Eugene O. Goldbeck. Panoramic portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille). ca. 1919.
Blood runs through the archive of renowned actor Robert De Niro. From bloodstained props to grisly costumes, artifacts of some of Hollywood’s most iconic thrillers are preserved at the Harry Ransom Center. Although the fake blood that marks these materials might share a similar chemical makeup, each bloody stain has its own secrets.
One such artifact is a shirt De Niro wore in a Cape Fear (1991) fight scene that has several gashes surrounded by fake blood. Twenty years later it is still sticky to the touch, which has posed complicated housing issues. The tackiness of the blood is what made this artifact a preservation challenge because traditional archival materials used to cushion textiles were adhering to—rather than protecting—the shirt. I learned that silicone-coated polyester film proved to be the best storage solution.
I learned that fake blood recipes vary depending on the specific effect a director or special effects supervisor aims for in a movie. For instance, in the film 15 Minutes (2001), the blood contained titanium oxide to give it an opacity that would photograph better. In the film Ronin (1998), the fake blood’s consistency enabled it to splatter from an explosive blood bag apparatus in the armpit of De Niro’s jacket.
These “bloody” artifacts have proven to be a puzzle to conservators and curators since knowing the makeup of these fake blood recipes poses issues when it comes to storing and exhibiting cinema history.