Notes from the conservation bench: stabilizing a Gilbert blueprint

As the conservation technician for the Architecture & Planning Library, a normal day for me usually involves repairing monographs and serials from the library’s general collection.  Every once in a while, however, I get to work on special projects for the archive or for an exhibit.  One day in April, Nancy Sparrow, the Curatorial Assistant for the Alexander Architectural Archive, asked me to work on a 1910 blueprint from the architecture office of Cass Gilbert.  Gilbert was located in New York at the time of the drawing’s creation.  The blueprint, coming in at a hefty six by three feet, shows a side elevation of an exterior iron lamp for the UT Library Building.

Nancy needed to send the drawing to the Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) to be digitized.  The drawing  was buckling in the middle, had some major tears, and was covered in three different types of tape.  It had to be stabilized enough to be carried to PCL and to undergo the scanning process.  I was excited by the opportunity to brush up on my large format repair skills, so I busily collected the essentials:  a microspatula, tweezers, freshly made wheat starch paste, an assortment of brushes, small weights, lots of blotter and Reemay, and of course, a fairly heavy and strong Japanese tissue. 

Half of the drawing, before I removed the dark brown tape

Before I began, I assessed the damages to the drawing in order to determine the level of repairs needed.  I noted where the major tears were located.  I especially focused my attention on the edges where the drawing is handled the most, and any particularly deep tears that compromised the image itself.   

Nancy was already gently humidifying the middle section of the drawing where it was most severly creased.  While we waited for that treatment to finish, I decided to tackle the tape.  With my microspatula, I tentatively lifted a piece of the dark brown tape whose glue had dried out years ago and was pulling away from the paper.  To my delight, this type of tape came off quite easily without damaging the drawing.  While I was able to remove all of the offending dark brown tape, I decided to leave the other, more adhesive tape on for now.  The humidification went beautifully, and a great deal of the wrinkling was now gone.

I then began working my way across the drawing, right to left, tearing strips of Japanese tissue (as I learned at the preservation department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s University Library, the furrier the edges of the tissue, the better!) to the exact size of the tears, brushing paste onto them, and finally applying them with tweezers.  The area is then covered, in order, with Reemay, blotter, and a weight.

Placing Reemay over a tissue mend

I worked my way across the drawing.  After the mends had dried completely, I trimmed any tissue that went past the drawing’s edge.  In all, it took me approximately 5.5 hours to repair the drawing.  The drawing has since been sent to PCL and returned to the archive.  Scanned in four sections, the entire digital image is more than 16MB!

Adventures in Curation

“When George and Gerrie Andrews climbed their first Maya pyramid in the late 1950s, they hardly could have anticipated that a life’s calling was awaiting them.” That’s how I introduced the digital exhibition, “Their Maya Story: George and Gerrie Andrews,” which just went live on the UT Libraries website.

Tikal roofcomb Kabah photo with tracing Andrews family at Tulum

What I “hardly could have anticipated” was the variety of experience I would gain by curating this exhibition. I intended the project to enhance my skills in archival arrangement and description and to allow me to work more closely with digitization, metadata standards, Internet applications, curation, and outreach. And I did all these things, but these are fairly broad terms when it comes to information work. The specifics are where it got interesting.

I learned that you can never really be completely done with processing a series—more records always materialize. I now can scan photographic slides with confidence. Adobe Bridge became a valuable resource as I automated the conversion of dimensions, format, and resolution of digital image files. As I planned the exhibition, conversation with Mayanists gave me a clearer idea of what interested them about the archives. Crafting narrative that works as a whole or in snippets was a new kind of writing challenge. To prepare sound clips, I used Audacity and made my first foray into working with audio. I discovered the ins and outs of Drupal’s exhibit module.

Tikal roofcomb Kabah photo with tracing

In short, I learned about the wide variety of work that goes into planning and executing a digital exhibition. Too often we think of the Web as a shortcut, an easy way to make information accessible to many. And the Web does offer a great resource for increasing awareness of archival collections such as the George F. and Geraldine D. Andrews papers. But presenting information online in an engaging way, one that takes advantage of the flexibility of the interactive model, is a lot of work. As exhibition curator, I can guide you gently in the direction I think you should go and tell you what I think is interesting, but your experience with the exhibit is really up to you. That’s true in a physical museum setting, but even more so online.

To learn more about the Andrews papers, read my previous post, Adventures in Mayaland—or just visit the exhibit! Explore sites ranging from Tikal to Hormiguero, learn about the Andrews’ research methods and legacy, and simply enjoy beautiful images of Maya architecture and the story of a couple that devoted their lives to documenting this history.

Images from top, left to right:
Tikal: The man in the portal helps comprehend the scale of this roofcomb at Tikal (1981)
Kabah: George Andrews often traced over his photos as he attempted to understand the different styles of decoration (undated)
Tulum: The Andrews’ son, Alan, joined them for this trip to Tulum in 1964
Hormiguero: One of the many “monster masks” seen at Hormiguero (1978)
Coba: Stelae such as this one at Coba help scholars better understand Maya hieroglyphs and mythology (1978)

By Amanda Keys, processing assistant in the Alexander Architectural Archive and School of Information student focusing on archival enterprise and special collections