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Giving the Past a Future: Ransom Center conservators repair and preserve artifacts to allow access to unique holdings

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When the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center acquired the extensive archives of British costumer B.J. Simmons and Co., they discovered in it a treasure trove for costume researchers…eventually.

Costume design by Percy Anderson created for a 1911 production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Among the B.J. Simmons & Co. collection’s 34,000 designs is this by Percy Anderson created for a 1911 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

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The London-based company costumed major theatrical events and eventually films for more than 100 years, employing famous designers and outfitting everything from 19th century productions of “King Lear” to movie stars like Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur.” And they preserved their work, holding on to reference materials, original designs, full-sized dress patterns and stage plots.

Unfortunately, they did so by folding up all materials, no matter their size or construction, and placing them between pieces of acidic cardboard. As a result, many of the collection’s 34,000 items were brittle and too delicate to be handled, never mind unfolded and refolded by researchers.

Enter the Ransom Center’s Conservation Department.

From 2002-04, the department’s paper conservation lab worked to preserve the collection, which included doing conservation treatment to 12,500 drawings, plots and patterns.

“It was the biggest project the paper conservation lab has handled in recent years,” says Stephanie Watkins, who led the project and said the team went as far as tracking down stainless steel surgical pins so that swatches of fabric attached to the designs could be removed and reattached without fear of rusting metal damaging the material.

Most of the designs underwent careful unfolding, surface cleaning, humidifying and pressing. They were then cataloged by the center’s performing arts staff and placed in housings appropriate to their size. The project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, involved 35 volunteers as well as the lab’s staff.

Mary Baughman secures a Japanese paper mend to a tear in a page from Edgar Allan Poe's copy of 'The Life of Oliver Cromwell.'

Mary Baughman secures a Japanese paper mend to a tear in a page from Edgar Allan Poe’s copy of the “Life of Oliver Cromwell.”

In the end, it means that the Simmons collection, one of the largest costume design collections in the world, will be accessible to researchers for decades to come.

“It was a huge project and really satisfying,” says James Stroud, associate director for conservation and building management. “They’re quite beautiful works and now they’re available for use. None of the handling problems exist now and patrons can look at them without damaging them.”

The Simmons archive is safely stored and is being prepared as an online exhibition, but a walk through the Conservation Department’s labs reveals new projects as varied and exciting as the Ransom Center’s collections themselves.

A complete set of one of the world’s oldest encyclopedias, the Diderot Encyclopedia, undergoes mending to its binding and is fitted with protective custom boxes. The journals and scrapbooks of Princess Marthe Bibesco, which include a letter by Napoleon, are cleared of damaging tape. The world’s first photograph is monitored by computer to ensure that its environment is consistent. Poison-tipped spears from the South Pacific are placed in housings that keep them secure for storage.

In all cases, the department’s primary goal is to stabilize the materials and prepare them for use by the Ransom Center’s patrons.

“The collection is very user friendly,” says Watkins. “It’s part of our mission to allow people to have access to the collections.”

That’s been the goal since the Ransom Center was created and for the 25 years it has had a department dedicated to conservation.

As part of the ongoing Photo Album Survey Project, Cynthia Schwartz, a pre-conservation program volunteer, applies a consolidant to deteriorated leather on the cover of 'France: An Album of Picture Postcards' dating to the 1920s.

While there have long been professionals who focused on conservation, the field of conservation really came into its own after the devastating floods in Florence, Italy, in 1966. The overflowing Arno River did damage to an estimated 14,000 moveable works of art and three to four million books and manuscripts. Conservators from all over the world converged on Florence to try to repair the damage.

The flood was a catalyst for both bookbinders and librarians, who became aware of the importance of conservation as a field distinct from repair and restoration. Soon the Library of Congress created a conservation department and in 1980 the Ransom Center’s department was created. Heading the department was Don Etherington, a British book conservator who had worked extensively in Florence.

When Etherington created the department, it was housed in a small room on the Ransom Center’s seventh floor. Today it is composed of three complete labs—in book, paper and photography preservation—as well as an area specializing in preservation housing. It also maintains an enormous freezer used for new collections that come to the center in need of pest control.

Olivia Primanis, Senior Conservator, closely examines the 1541 Mercator Globe and readheres loose areas of the map in preparation for its exhibition in 'Images of the World Maps, Globes, and Atlases.'

Conservators and curators work closely together determining priorities for care and preparing articles for exhibition. But while a curator looks to a piece of the collection for its intellectual or artistic value, a conservator sees the physical object first.

“When looking at an object, I go immediately to potential problems,” Stroud explains. “I look at the kind of paper. Is the ink sound? Is the binding stable? Is it useable? Does it need a cradle or something like that? I look at a lot of structural things. I look at potential areas of deterioration. I look at what might have been done to it before.

“There’s something wonderful about the way things age. You can’t stop it, but you can slow it down.”

Conservators find themselves engrossed in the smallest details of an object. A small piece of red thread indicates that a book was once sewn through with that thread, which has now disintegrated. A binding proves not to be original, but added later. Tiny tears on an old letter need to be addressed.

Stephanie Watkins prepares a humidity chamber to introduce moisture into rolled, brittle posters during treatment

Stephanie Watkins prepares a humidity chamber to introduce moisture into rolled, brittle posters during treatment.

And tape: the department is constantly addressing the removal of tape, which may have ensured a document made it to the current day intact, but ultimately causes damage. Some tape adhesives are softened with moisture or trimmed at the edges of the document. Others are tackled with solvents that require fume hoods or left to dry out and fall off on their own. Each piece of tape is inspected to determine the best approach.

It might sound like detective work, piecing together clues to understand how an item was constructed and what has happened to it over the years. But Mary Baughman, a book conservator, says it’s closer to being a psychologist. The conservator learns to listen to the artifact he or she is working with.

“You look at the books and they tell you what they need,” Baughman says. “Sometimes it’s a little tricky to figure out, ‘Can I really lift this leather without turning it into powder?’ to make it useable without disturbing too much of the intrinsic history of what is here. We want to leave as much of the original structure as possible.”

Sometimes the intrinsic history Baughman speaks of can offer critical information, as Stroud learned early in his career at the university when working with a poem written by William Butler Yeats.

The curator, John Kirkpatrick, asked Stroud to take a look at the poem, particularly a page that clearly had been wadded up and smoothed out again as well as ripped and sloppily repaired on the back.

“Do you think we could do a better job of repairing this?” he asked Stroud.

Olivia Primanis sets brass type in a pallet to stamp a label for a book.

After spending some time with the piece, Stroud determined that the paper used to repair the back of the poem was identical to the paper the poem was written on. And it wasn’t done by a professional. It was clear that Yeats himself had done the repair, indicating that he had probably crumpled and torn the draft, and then retrieved it and tried to salvage it, having changed his mind.

“To our way of thinking, that’s far more valuable information about Yeats than if we had taken the patch off the back and done a really beautiful repair job so that you didn’t have any remaining clue that it had been wadded or torn up,” Stroud says. “The physical content of any given object in our collection is as important as its intellectual content.”

It’s an idea that is being passed on to the future conservators who spend time in the Ransom Center’s labs learning the tools of the trade. While programs in conservation exist all over the country, including the prestigious Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Cultural Record in the university’s School of Information, conservation is ultimately a hands-on activity. It lends itself well to apprenticeship.

Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation, is surface cleaning a portrait of British author Ivy Compton-Burnett

Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation, is surface cleaning a portrait of British author Ivy Compton-Burnett.

Each year dozens of volunteers and interns work in the department’s labs, handling tasks as varied as cleaning manuscripts with an eraser to constructing custom boxes. They come from the university’s undergraduate and graduate programs, from the community and from other programs across the world. An intern from Taiwan is helping with the Princess Bibesco project.

This summer conservators at the Ransom Center will be taking their training even further when they travel to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine to work at the archaeological site of Chersonesos. They visit at the invitation of the university’s Institute of Classical Archaeology, which has been leading conservation efforts at the site since 1992.

When thinking about an archaeological site, the conservation that comes to mind is of the artifacts coming out of the ground. But Stroud says that sites require a secondary level of conservation: that of the records of the site.

“We’ll be training staff at Chersonesos in the beginning levels of conservation repair,” Stroud explains. “The site itself has a history of at least a century of archaeologists coming out there and doing digs and recovering materials. Their drawings, maps, records, photographs, journals and notes form a major archive and library on the site itself. A lot of work needs to be done in terms of preserving these resources.”

But the trip first demands that conservators turn their attention from adhesives and bindings for just a bit. They’ve begun to learn Russian.

Vivé Griffith
Office of Public Affairs

Photos: Eric Beggs

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  Updated 2005 April 20
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