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.
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.