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Conservation of Works on Paper

Conservation of Works on Paper


– For every work of art on paper that survives today intact
or relatively intact, it’s hard to estimate, but there are probably many, many more works on paper that didn’t survive. Our department cares for the collections of drawings, manuscripts, and photographs. I personally am a
conservator of photographs. The conservation of drawings,
manuscripts, and photographs is grouped together because they all have physically similar types of objects. These three collections and the materials that compose them share a common vulnerability
to the environment. They are all readily reactive to changes in relative humidity, and tend to be light sensitive. This is a gelatin silver print by August Sander dating from 1928. When it came into our collection, there were numerous losses
scattered throughout the image. The gelatin binder apparently
had been exposed to light over prolonged periods of time, possibly on display. When this happens, gelatin will first begin to lift away from its paper support and then flake away, resulting in losses. We change our displays of works of art on paper every 12 weeks. We do this to limit
their exposure to light. You’ll find that the
galleries in the museum are lit significantly low in the drawings, manuscripts, and photo galleries, significantly lower than the other areas, such as sculpture and painting. And that is also to limit
their exposure to light. These are two German
illuminated manuscripts from the 15th century. They provide an interesting comparison. Originally both of these albums had clasps which held the album tightly together. At some point in its life the clasps were lost on this album, which opened it up to the environment. Alternate changes in relative humidity caused the individual sheets of parchment to expand and contract. And as a result, the album we have today is wedge shaped because of all the bulges and cockling in each individual sheet of
parchment in the manuscript. This red chalk drawing by Guilio Romano entitled “The Sacrifice of Isaac” from the early 16th century came into our collection a
victim of insect infestation. There were numerous small worm holes scattered throughout the paper support. A restorer had well-meaningly placed small squares of paper in behind each worm hole, which had resulted in numerous
bulges throughout the paper. Our drawings conservator, Nancy Yocco, was able, with controlled
applications of moisture, to remove the drawing
from its collectors mount and then remove each
individual patch repair behind the worm holes. With those gone, she was able then to fill in the losses in each worm hole with paper pulp. Once that was done, that paper was toned to be compatible with the color of the
surrounding areas in the image. Particular pollutants, and I’m talking about dirt,
airborne grime, and dust, can also have harmful effects of works of art on paper. An example of an artwork
which had a problem with airborne dust and dirt is David Hockney’s “Pairblossom Highway.” This is a collage composed of about 750 snapshot chromogenic prints assembled on one panel. And this particular adhesive that he used was very stable, but
it’s a tacky adhesive. Airborne dust has found
its way into contact with that tacky adhesive
which remains on the surface. Now, when “Pearblossom
Highway” came into the museum, there were several small, black patches scattered over the surface of the collage. We used special erasers to remove this tacky
adhesive from the collage. This was a fairly long treatment which our entire department took part in. Once all those areas were gone, the whole collage read better overall. And when you looked at the collage, your eye didn’t go straight to these small black areas of discoloration.

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