Monday, December 21, 2009

Conserve This???

I am a book conservator, with some experience in works of art on paper, and photographs. My first volunteer position, many years ago, was in the costume conservation lab at the National Museum of American History helping re-house clothing that had been recently acquired by the museum, or had just come off of exhibit.

Conservation has many areas of specialty- books, paper, photographs and costumes, as I mentioned, and also modern art, which can have all sorts of challenges because of modern art materials (e.g. acrylic paints) or common materials that are used in a new way thanks to the inspiration of an artist.

As I walk through an exhibit I often wonder how the conservator at that particular museum will approach the challenges presented by the artwork I am seeing. I recently saw the exhibit "Staged Stories: Renwick Craft Invitational 2009" at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, and I was delighted by the work of Mark Newport a fiber artist who knits life, or larger-than-life sized super hero costumes out of acrylic yarn.
As a knitter I was amazed by all the details of his work, noting his choices in how he did his armhole decreases or shaping to make a waist or legs for the cosutme. As a conservator, I wondered how my counterpart at the museum would face the choices regarding conservation of such a piece. For example, when housing a costume for storage, you want to fill the sleeves or torso or legs just enough to support the article of clothing in a shape similar to how it would be worn, but in the case of these superhero costumes, part of the artist's concept is that they are empty and hanging on the hanger, which would indicate a different approach, perhaps. And then how will this particular acrylic yarn do over time? What will be the approach for treatment of a tear in the fabric? At least with acrylic yarn there is little to fear from moths!

And while this may sound like a horrible inability to leave my work in the lab, it does offer me another level of wonder when I see an exhibit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Moldy books! Yikes!
Storing books in a cool, dry, place is really important.
Most of the time the worst that will happen is that the books
will get a little musty, develop that "old book smell".
But there is also the chance that a book could grow mold.

This book was a victim of improper storage, but given that it was published in 1705, it is not surprising that it had a few years living in Virginia without the benefit of air-conditioning.

Old leather-bound can be particularly susceptible to mold growth, and while it is possible to clean them, it is delicate work. Leather can get very friable as it ages, drying out
and becoming powdery, and mold will just make it worse.
Mold digests the material that it is sitting on, "growing" into the substrate just as much as it spreads out as colorful fuzz on a book cover.

And since mold can be an allergen whether live or dead, it is always important to have respiratory protection when working on moldy items. In the lab I have a fume trunk that I can pose right over my work area, the exhaust fan draws all the air and mold away from the book as I work. It even has a light to help me see what I am doing!

The dry cleaning sponge lifts up the dirt and mold from
the surface of the book, and as the sponge gets dirty, I cut
those bits off so I am always working with a clean surface. Over the cover, and then through the text one page at a time, very, very, carefully. And when I am done, there is a clean, use-able book, ready for the reading room!