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Meet the Staff: Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation

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. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.

 

How did you decide to become a paper conservator?

When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.

 

What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?

They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.

 

Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?

I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.

 

Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?

Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.

 

Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?

I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.

 

What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?

Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.

 

Do you have a favorite place in Austin?

I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.

 

Have you made your own book before?

Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.

 

Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?

Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.

 

Related content:

World War I Red Cross poster undergoes conservation treatment for exhibition

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

Read other Meet the Staff profiles

 

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World War I Red Cross poster undergoes conservation treatment for exhibition

By Heather Hamilton

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.

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Art and commerce in Nepal, ca. 1930

By Bob Taylor

A recent project to reorganize some materials in the papers of British author Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) brought to light specimens of traditional Nepalese handmade paper serving in a most prosaic capacity.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mackenzie travelled widely and at one point was contacted while in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Nepal by a London publisher. The message from London arrived via New Delhi, India, in the form of a telegram and asked if Mackenzie would consider a “biography of Churchill” upon completion of his present commitment. Unless the biography sought was to be a brief piece for a newspaper or periodical, it would appear it was never written by Mackenzie.

So, in a sense, the telegram was just one more of those numberless pieces of paper that the active life of a published author produces, and a creative dead end at that. But this telegram was very different from most others in that it was written out on paper unlike any I have ever seen.

The form was printed in Devanagari script on two sheets and was accompanied by three more unused blanks. The paper is called lokta and is prepared by hand from fibers obtained from the bark of the Nepalese lokta tree (Daphne cannabina). While lokta paper manufacture requires much the same general techniques as traditional Western handmade paper, the present specimens exhibit a faint but uniform criss-cross design when held up to the light rather than the distinct chain-and-wire lines of their Western equivalents. The finished product is said to be durable and resistant to insect damage.

The sheets in the Mackenzie papers are remarkable for their texture and appearance, exhibiting bits of bark and small twigs worked into the fabric of the paper, dramatic whorls of lokta fiber here and there, and even occasional voids in the paper’s surface. The paper is a mottled pale tan in color and more nearly translucent than opaque. It seems to have been lightly treated during manufacture with sizing, so has a feel more like cloth than traditional paper. The effect is at once one of extreme primitiveness of technique, and yet, at the same time, one of remarkable beauty.

A web search provided several brief histories of lokta paper, which indicate that it was employed by the Nepalese government until the 1950s for its official correspondence and that it continues to find a role there in the preparation of certain classes of documents. Use of the paper is on the decline in Nepal as it is being displaced by conventional machine-made papers, but there is a substantial international market for it among those attracted by its remarkable texture and appearance.

 

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Before and After: Repairing a poster

By Elana Estrin

A poster in the Ransom Center’s Harry Houdini collection arrived just like Houdini would’ve wanted: folded up to an eighth of its size. Stephanie Watkins, Head of Paper Conservation, and her team faced a daunting project: the brittle paper couldn’t easily be unfolded without causing damage to the item. Once they successfully opened the poster, they had to remove dirt, acid, and discoloration, and restore missing pieces. Read about how Watkins and her team performed some magic of their own to treat this damaged item.

 

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