Internship Report: Month 1, Part 2, now with more coffee!

During my on-site interview, back when there was over 2 feet of snow on the ground in Syracuse, Peter mentioned the latest Bonefolder Bind-O-Rama. Titled “Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet”, this Bind-O-Rama challenges its participants to demonstrate their ability to merge both the art of the book and conservation. I was immediately intrigued, really wanted to participate, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of something to do for it. Mostly, my problem was finding the right book for the project. Flash forward to sometime in mid-July, when David gifted me with a beat-to-hell (c.a. 1713) copy of 16th century Lutheran theologian Johann Habermann’s “Christliche Gebett für allerley Not und Stende der gantzen Christenheit”, which is a book of prayers for all times of the day. This book had so much repair sewing it looked like it was a Coptic binding. Now, I’m not going to go too much into the details of this project in this post, since I’m saving it for a post of its own. But I’ll throw in the before-photos, so you can see what I mean.

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Repair sewing
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Anyway, while I was pondering over what I was going to do with that book, I was helping out with some publisher’s binding recasings that David was working on. One of my favorite parts of helping with this process was doing some toning/in-painting on the repair tissue that David had applied to the frayed/torn head-caps. I love color-matching/toning/in-painting more than is probably healthy for a young conservator. It’s hard to accurately portray my color-matching/toning in photographs, since the choice of lighting can make it look at lot worse (or better) than it actually is. So, here are two photographs of the same thing, just one was taken with the flash and the other without the camera flash.

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Fun fact, there’s a word for that exact phenomena: metamerism!

Doing these re-cases also sparked an interesting set of conversations regarding the concept of reversibility as it applies to conservation treatments. At Syracuse, we sometimes put in the new spine stiffener for an original case using PVA, which is not exactly water-soluble. This was contrary to what I had been taught in school, which was to use paste as much as possible when gluing anything to the original material. However, the use of PVA in these instances (and it’s not ALL instances, only when the paste has the potential to damage the original bookcloth via the transference of moisture) is justified because the reversal method (water) for paste has more potential for damage than that of PVA (mechanical methods such as scraping it away). We also talked about the challenge of using paste on leather, as any introduction of moisture to leather has the potential to permanently blacken the leather. In some cases (maybe that pun was intended, maybe it wasn’t…) it is acceptable to use PVA to adhere new (or old) material to the original leather of a book. However, we try as much as possible to only use paste for mends or the first layer of new spine linings. However, in some instances, the perfect reversibility of an adhesive isn’t as important as it’s ability to do the job well. The topic of reversibility is somewhat of a controversial topic among conservators, and I imagine that a few of you may be gasping in sheer horror (as I almost did when I first saw PVA being used to attach repair materials to the original cloth of a publisher’s binding) at what I just wrote. However, please do not run me out of AIC next year with torches and pitchforks – I’ve only given a brief overview of what we discussed re: reversibility, because it’s quite a complicated subject and I didn’t want to get bogged down going into all the details just now. But please be assured that we are not leaping about the lab, mindlessly flinging about a brush full of PVA and permanently gluing things to other things with abandon. However, I’d love to continue exploring the topic of reversibility vs. treatment effectiveness vs. ethics vs. whatever else, so please feel free to comment!

By the end of July, I also realized that I’d become addicted to coffee again. Oops.

And that rounds out most of what I can remember about my first month as an intern at Syracuse University Library!

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Internship report: Month 1, Part 1

So, it’s been a bit of a delay, but here’s the rundown of what I was up to this July. I started working in the special collections lab at the Syracuse University Library on July 5th. I immediately knew this was going to be an awesome experience when my boss, Peter Verheyen, told me that I could keep my blue hair (don’t worry, potential future employers, it has since reverted back to it’s natural color :P). I felt very welcome and fit in quite easily, working upstairs with David Stokoe (if you ever meet him, make sure to ask him about the time he beat Sting at pool) and popping in downstairs to chat with Peter about all things book-related. One of the downstairs lab work-study students, Christina, also moved upstairs to the lab a week after I did.

Bird Library

When I interviewed for the internship, I had a vague notion of what I wanted to work on, but wasn’t wedded to any particular type of treatment focus. I’d expressed an interest in working on larger, flat paper items (i.e. maps, prints, etc) or more tape removal projects (you think I’d had enough, but I guess not!), but after a few days of talking with Peter and David I realized I really wanted to work on books! I mean, when was I ever going to get the chance to learn both the proper English and correct German way of doing the same thing (springbacks, et al), at the same time?

Hence, my first month was spent doing multi-volume book treatments. In particular, I learned the “molded paper spine” treatment, which involves creating a new spine piece from University of Iowa PC4 paper that is shaped by tying it down over the original sewing cords. Eric Alstrom described it thusly:

“The molded paper spine binding is a conservation treatment Donia Conn came up with in answer to a problem she had with a collection in Syracuse University’s library. Syracuse University’s special collections library has a great number of German books printed and bound prior to the 19th century. The molded paper spine is a recasing structure intended for leather-bound books for which the covers have deteriorated too much to be salvageable. The new molded paper spine looks very much like leather and is very strong.”

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Donia Conn’s original article about the molded paper spine can be found in Vol 2. No. 1 of the Bonefolder. There’s also a PDF of instructions, available from the Syracuse University Library’s conservation manual.

We picked three 18th century German books for the molded paper spine treatment, each of which weighed approximately 10 pounds. The biggest was so fat that I could barely get my hand around the spine. As only I am prone to doing, I decided to do the turn-ins after David had left, only to discover that it was a mighty feat to do turn-ins on such a heavy tome! I may have used some adult language, in my struggle to complete them.

Big German Book

However, we got through all three books, and then moved onto the next treatment, which was a set of five French volumes, all part of the published memoirs of some French gentlemen. David showed me how to do a proper English split-board binding on one of them, and I finished the other four in the same manner. I picked out some sea-foam green cloth, to match the hand-sewn green-and-white endbands, which I thought were appropriately rococo color choices.

Stuck-on endbands

Now, somewhere in the first couple of weeks, David mentioned that Syracuse has an Academy Award in it’s archives collection. Which means that I have finally completed my Academy Award Photograph trifecta, by posing with the Oscar given for best musical score, for Ben Hur. The three Oscar photos:

The Huntington Library's OscarMy second Oscar.And the Oscar trifecta is complete.

And now, I know that very little can be as exciting as that, but in Part 2 it gets even better! So stay tuned for the next installment of my experiences as the Inaugural Gaylord Preservation Intern!

The virtue and vice of being a museum critic

The last week I was in Chicago, I met up with a friend visiting from my old hometown of Tulsa and took her to the Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) because both were free that Tuesday.  Sadly, most of the MCA’s upper galleries were closed for installations, but the LUMA had all of its exhibits open.  The LUMA’s special exhibit was a textiles showcase titled “Stories in Cloth: The Threads of Daily Life”.  The exhibit made me think a lot about how I approach museums, exhibit design and how my experience as a conservator gives me a different perspective than most.  I want to preface this post by saying that I found the objects in both the special and the permanent exhibits to be fascinating and beautiful, and the LUMA to be a place worth visiting.

The first thing I noticed about the textiles exhibit is that the objects were displayed in a mixed group – that is to say that there would be 20th century objects displayed next to 18th century objects, or Persian objects next to Japanese objects.  Perhaps I was rushed and didn’t read all of the exhibit signage, but I found it difficult to follow the “story” of this exhibit.  From what I could tell, there wasn’t any particular grouping of the objects, not by time period, intended use, history or geographic origin.  Some of the objects didn’t even have labels, in particular some Japanese kimonos, and so I had no idea of their significance or age.


I should note here that I was also recently in the Loyola library and Information Commons, on their north campus by the lake, and noticed a mislabeled wall hanging in one of the stairwells.  The hangings were beautiful painted cloth, but had been incorrectly labeled as “batik”.  As someone who has studied batik (I even wrote a paper on it in college) and done batik, I felt a strong urge to send an email to someone over there to let them know of their mistake.  I settled for just sending a tweet to the library’s twitter account instead. I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings (though they assured me that the Information Commons does not have feelings) but I kinda know what I’m talking about.
Sun Batik


Anyway, as I moved through the gallery rooms, I came to the last room, which had an African dance costume in the corner.  The costume was a full-body suit that had been arranged to sit in a chair from the same region.  On the wall next to the costume was another garment, also of African origin, made of leather.  I’m no textile conservator (and I can barely sew on a button) but the mounting of this object concerned me.  The garment was basically a leather shirt, with a sewn-on leather belt on the front (like a long loop from the right to the left of the front side) from which hung several iron (or similarly heavy metal) objects.  I could tell the objects were heavy because of how they stretched the leather loop down, and I wondered about the stress that was putting on the stitches attaching the loop to the rest of the garment.  I would have preferred to seen this object mounted flat, lying down in a case.

As I was examining the leather garment, two museum staff approached the seated African costume figure and began fiddling with it.  The first woman seemed to be an administrative type, while the man might have been one of the exhibit preparators.  The woman was concerned about the figure’s hand (an empty cloth glove), which was pushed up into the sleeve and the man set about trying to coax it out of the sleeve.  He asked her if there had been kids in the galleries recently, and she said no, but that it was usually the older people who mess with the exhibits.  They noticed me watching, and the man kind of grinned and somewhat jokingly said that what he was doing was really delicate work.  I said, “I know….I’m a conservator!” To which he replied, “Well, maybe you should be doing this!” I laughed and told him that I only knew how to work on books and paper, not textiles.  He told me the figure was supposed to look like it was kind of relaxing, which it really did, the way it was sort of slumped back in the chair.

I eventually wandered off, but also realized that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the mount for the seated costume either.  It had a wooden head attached, and I couldn’t see any kind of support beyond the chair it was sitting in.  There wasn’t much said on the label about it’s use, or meaning.  The posture reminded me of being the last person left in a waiting room, tired and defeated after hours of waiting and reading 3-year old copies of Reader’s Digest.

My experience also reminded me of a conundrum I often find myself in – that of the exhibit critic.  I get fidgety when I see poorly designed or written signage, or when objects are mounted inconsiderately.  I have to press my fingernails into my palm when I see objects that fell off their mounts so long ago as to have dust on them (that museum will go unnamed, but it’s fairly close to my house in Chicago).  I get flustered when a label mentions that an object was used for a particular ceremony, but says nothing of the ceremony itself!  I feel sad for objects with no labels, their meaning lost and looked over in favor of the labeled object next to them.  Sometimes I tell myself that these criticisms should be forgiven, because the museum is staffed only by volunteers (well meaning, but uneducated about preservation or proper mounting), or that their printer lost some of the labels.

Or they can’t afford the extra paper to print everything in a bigger font, or that they don’t realize that some fonts should only ever be used for children’s birthday cards and never for museum labels.

Or that maybe their framer recently got kicked in the head by a horse and so everything looks kind of slanted to him.

But always, I feel twisted with conflict when I see something that I think would be an easy fix or that is truly damaging to an object.  I worry that whoever I talk to may think I’m deranged, or that I’m some sort of snob who doesn’t understand how little money or personnel they might have to work on their exhibits.  And I do realize that many museums don’t have a conservator, or even someone trained in preservation, on their staff.  I don’t want to come off as snarky, because I truly want to help and I love museums almost as much as I love informative and grammatically correct signs.  But sometimes I just don’t know how to start that conversation, or even who to talk to!  Does anyone else have this problem?

Scared from memory

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy at the Mütter Museum

Perhaps I’m revealing a bit too much about myself, but I have a lifelong fascination with the weird, the odd and the taboo.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, maybe it’s the fact that I grew up reading books about sideshow people (Jo Jo the Dog Boy, anyone?) or maybe it’s just my scientist’s soul, curious about everything.  Either way, the Mütter Museum was one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for a looooong time and I was thrilled to finally make my pilgrimage there when I was in Philadelphia.  The Mütter was founded in 1858, a part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, with the goal to “advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery”.  The collection contains everything from human specimens to models to photographs and books.  At the Mütter you can find a skeleton of a foot, a wax model of a foot, a pickled foot and surgical implements for the treatment of feet and legs…all under the same roof!

My favorite part of the Mütter is probably the atmosphere of the place – this is no circus sideshow, but a hushed and reverent cabinet of curiosities.  It looks very similar to other 19th century museums of its day, with wooden cabinets with brass handles and glass panels that are a little bit distorted and wavy.  You have to nearly press your nose up against the glass to read the labels.  The downstairs floor is all old school, but the top floor is split between the older exhibit design and a couple of newer exhibits.

I found that there were a handful of items in the collection that were good examples of how photographs and pictures sometimes don’t really convey an idea as good as the real thing.  One of these was a case with two skeletons, side-by side – one was a modern woman, the other was a woman who had worn a tight corset all her life.  The difference between their rib cages was astonishing – there was very little room for the corseted woman’s ribs to expand, such that all the those fainting Victorian ladies suddenly make sense.

Another one of these exhibits was a plaster life-cast of Cheng and Eng, the original “Siamese twins”.  The plaster cast captured every wrinkle in their faces, and at life-size I could really imagine what it would have been like to meet them and shake their hands.  Their conjoined liver rests in a huge glass jar beneath the cast.

And then there were the human-skin books, which I didn’t realize were part of the museum’s collection until I was staring at them.  My first thought was that they were so small – most were octavo size quarter-style bindings and only one was a full leather binding.  The next thing I noticed is that the pores were really prominent, like on the back of my hand.  There was even one book that had been made with tattooed skin, but sadly the ink had faded over time and you wouldn’t know it except for the label.

Most of these anthropodermic bindings (and one wallet) were owned by surgeons, and several had notations that mentioned the source of the leather, giving a short bio and the name of the person and how they died.  The ethics of such bindings were understandably much different than how we understand them today – I do not think that most of the suppliers of the leather bequeathed themselves to their surgeons before they went under the knife.  However, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider the ethics and issues surrounding these bindings, and those that have been brought up by the recent rash of “BodyWorlds” exhibitions of plastinated bodies.  I recently saw such an exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and wasn’t very impressed.  For a so-called educational display of human anatomy, there was very little useful information presented beyond that which might be news to a 3rd grader.  I couldn’t help but keep noticing small details of the bodies, such as how all of them had obviously been lacking in decent dental hygiene during their lifetime.  These were not people who had had a comfortable life, it seemed.  And I was disturbed by their anonymity – who were these people? Why did they die and where did they live?  When their plastinated bodies finally disintegrated, what would happen to them?  Would they be buried or merely swept away into the trash and replaced with yet another body fresh from the preparation factory?

In contrast, I hardly found the human-skin bindings to be unsettling, particularly those with the annotations about the source of the leather.  The books seemed more respectful to the deceased, to name them in this object created with their flesh.  These were not objects that would have originally been on display as some kind of garish “edutainment”, but prestige objects to be handled with care by their private owners.  They were not mass-produced in a factory.

Perhaps it is unsettling to us, who live in a time that promises us average life expectancies of 70+ years, to see such a tangible reminder of our own mortality.  We want to bury death and fight it and remove any sign of aging from our faces.  We do not turn the bones of our dead.  We do not display or encourage the making of post-mortem photographs.  To contemplate holding in our hands something like a book bound in the skin of the dead seems anathema to our modern sensibilities, but I have to wonder if we shouldn’t consider what is lost when that becomes taboo.  What does it say about us, as a society, when we speak of anthropodermic bibliopegy in hushed and secretive voices, but herald the opening of a BodyWorlds exhibit on the front page of the newspaper?

Anyway, I’ve let myself ramble on yet again.  Long story short, I loved the Mütter Museum and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of medicine or natural history collections.  Also, they have a GREAT gift shop – I came home with a conjoined gingerbreadman cookie cutter and some lavender soap that looks like the soap lady.