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Rigid Gels for Paper Conservation

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A workshop participant in the process of making thin cast rigid gel

Jamye recently attended a workshop at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania to learn more about working with rigid gels. This was the first time such a course was offered for paper conservators, and Jamye received a professional development grant from the Foundation of the AIC to support her attendance. While gels have long been used by paintings conservators, they are a relatively new addition to the paper conservator’s toolkit.

A rigid gel is made by mixing a small amount of agarose or gellan gum–an edible, non-toxic product used in food manufacturing–into purified water. Calcium acetate is added in minute quantities to gellan to stabilize the solution. When the components are mixed and heated, the conservator must work quickly to pour/flatten the gel, by pressing it down with a piece of glass or plexiglass for thin cast gels (seen in the image above) or allowing it harden in a tray for thick cast gels (below). Once the gel sets, it is very stable and will last a few weeks in refrigeration.

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A sheet of thick cast rigid gel with an object for “washing”

Rigid gels are a controlled method of applying moisture locally or overall to an object for the purposes of “washing” or removing attachments. The conservator can adjust the amount of moisture introduced by altering the proportions of gellan gum to water. The gel can be cut to the exact shape of a discolored area, for example, and its capillary action will work to pull out the discoloration. In the images below, you can see an example of Jamye using a gel to remove the oddly shaped black paper that was adhesed to the back of an object with gel cut to match. While some mechanical (i.e. manual) action is still required to fully remove the black paper remnants and the adhesive, it is dramatically reduced and so causes less wear on the fibers of the object being treated.

The non-toxic gel is safe for both conservators and the environment and furthers the goal of finding more planet and people friendly methods of treatment in our field. More testing is needed to understand all of its applications, but it appears to be an extremely promising method of treatment for paper conservators moving forward.

Adopt An Artwork

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Jamye Jamison examining a study for a stained glass window by Elihu Vedder, entitled, “Morning” (ca. 1888). Image courtesy of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.

Since 2017, Jamison Art Conservation has collaborated with the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky on their Adopt An Artwork program. The curators at the Speed, working with conservators like Jamye, assessed their collections and identified objects in particular need of care. The museum then created a website that allows members of the public to review a list of the objects, together with a description of the type of conservation each item requires, and its estimated cost. The Speed invites its supporters to “adopt” an individual piece by underwriting the cost of its conservation. Those who adopt works in the Speed collection receive:

  • A short dossier on the work chosen.
  • An opportunity to discuss with the curator the issues surrounding the object, why it needs repair or restoration, and the conservation process.
  • A color photo of the sponsor with the adopted object installed in the gallery.
  • A credit line on the gallery label giving recognition to the adoptive sponsor, good for five years.

Nearly 20% of the objects initially identified have already been adopted. The Speed Art Museum has crafted an innovative program that both ensures the long-term health of its collections and also engages the public as stewards of our common cultural heritage.

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Protecting the Past

 

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A few months ago, a wonderful object came into the studio. It is an early 19th-century register used to record the ear markings of livestock from Vienna Township, Ohio. Over the century-and-a-half since its creation, the volume had been rebound into a modern case binding. The original paper covers had become significantly damaged and additions of new material had been inserted. The Vienna Township Historical Society wanted to explore their options for long-term preservation of this unique part of their history.

Jamye suggested a two-fold approach. The original object would be disbound, repaired, and resewn into a more sympathetic binding structure, namely a simple paper cover. All more modern materials would be retained but housed separately from the original manuscript. In order to keep all the items together, Jamye would construct a custom-built protective enclosure.

As a final preservation measure, Jamye recommended that the entire object be digitized. The Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Hub offers free access to very high quality scanning equipment. Members of the public may use the hub privately, or by appointment they may have the free assistance of a digital technician. While the object was disbound for conservation, we were able to produce high resolution images of every page within this fascinating volume.

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The Vienna Township Historical Society has ensured not only the long-term survival of the original register, but also easier access to its contents by future researchers and residents.

Slant Washing

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This week, Jamye has been cleaning a series of hand-colored etchings using a technique known as slant washing. An alternative to standard immersive washing practices, slant washing is a good option for handling pieces that are somewhat more sensitive.

In this process, the object is placed on a longer sheet of a product called Tek Wipe. One end of the Tek Wipe is placed in a reservoir of clean alkaline water. The object is laid on the Tek Wipe at a slight angle, draining at its bottom into an empty tub. Capillary action pulls the clean water through the Tek Wipe–and the paper object–as it drains. The conservator can help the process along by spraying the object with additional water from the front. As the alkaline water passes through the object, it pulls out acidic impurities, as demonstrated by the pool of darkened yellow liquid that gathers below.

Slant washing has several advantages as a technique. Because the paper piece is not fully immersed in water, it can be washed for a longer period of time without damage. The process is also more environmentally friendly than the standard blotter washing procedure, since Tek Wipe can be washed and reused, while blotter material cannot.

For these particular pieces, the most critical issue was the sensitivity of the media involved. These etchings had a glazing selectively applied to their surface. Glazing is a binder, usually transparent, that saturates the color of an image and gives it gloss. It can be made of materials such as gelatin or gum arabic. In the case of these etchings, the glazing was placed onto the figures of the horses to heighten their visual impact within the scene. Washing these prints in a standard water immersion would likely have dissolved the glazing and possibly damaged the media underneath.

The etchings had darkened over time as the paper became more acidic. Slant washing removed those accumulated acidic byproducts in a carefully controlled manner, and the cleaned pieces can now be flattened and framed for display.

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What Lies Beneath

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A fine art print was recently brought into the studio, mounted to an acidic backing board. In order to stabilize and treat the print, Jamye had to remove the board. She began by carefully thinning the board mechanically, i.e. by hand with a metal tool. During the removal process, Jamye discovered that the board had not been completely glued to the print, as larger pieces of it came away comparatively easily. Once those areas were uncovered, printed words became visible.

When the mechanical thinning process was finished, Jamye washed the print. The remaining adhesive dissolved in the water, and the remnants of the old backing board could then be peeled away. The print was apparently made on a discarded leaf from a book publisher. Three pages of text and an illustration about the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) were printed on the oversized paper, but were never folded and bound into a completed volume.

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