Art Matters: Conservation On Paper

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The BMA has received many beautiful works on paper over the years, and most recently, some important prints from the collection of Roy Green. It was becoming apparent that the staff should have some continuing education to increase skill levels and minimally treat the works before exhibiting them.

Works on paper have special care requirements, such as controlled temperature and relative humidity, like other organic materials. Additionally, they must be stored flat, supported by acid-free materials, and kept in a dark storage vault. Damage can occur to these sensitive materials from excess light, moisture, or improper framing materials (such as acidic mattes and cardboard). Sometimes the paper itself is acidic, or materials in the paper, such as sizing, will break down with age. The resulting damage darkens the paper, obscuring the image. Moisture causes “foxing” (mold spores, attached to the paper substrate), and appears as white, brown or black spots; moisture can also cause prints to appear wavy or crinkled. Acidic framing and matting materials cause “matte burn,” or a dark line around the interior cutout of the matte.

Registrar Rose Wood initiated a collections care program to examine and minimally treat prints in the collection. After receiving support from Roy Green, the Friends of American Art, the European Art Society, and the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, the BMA invited Paper Conservator Dr. Sheila Siegler to teach staff about washing, repairing, and hinging works on paper. For one week, Museum Preparators, Registrars, and the Conservation Department participated in the workshop. Some Curators also attended, after they heard the enthusiastic comments coming from the Conservation Lab!

Although staff was already using proper matting and hinging techniques, Dr. Siegler added to their knowledge base. The group began by thoroughly examining each print with the naked eye, then progressing to ultraviolet light and magnification under the microscope. These tools made old repairs and almost invisible damage apparent, where one may not have noticed it before. Notes were made of the observations, and then the real fun began.

In order to get some practice, original prints were not used. Instead, participants handled and washed different weights of new papers, to see how the paper changed when wet, and gain confidence in handling it. Once hand and observational skills were developed, the first prints went into de-ionized water to soak for an hour, and watched closely. Old hinges, repairs, and tapes magically floated to the surface, and in almost all cases, the water gradually darkened, taking old stains out of the paper. Much discussion ensued about how many washes each print would eventually need, all under the watchful eye of Dr. Siegler. Once the paper was sufficiently washed and thoroughly dried, the prints were hydrated with a small amount of moisture, and pressed between blotting papers under glass. Now completely dry and flat, the prints were ready to be repaired.

In the second phase of the workshop, photocopies of prints on new paper were torn and damaged by the participants, then repaired, before working on the actual collection. After learning repair techniques on the photocopies, staff was able to competently repair the originals.

The week was a very satisfying experience for all participants, and even more so for the works on paper. After learning to wash, flatten, and administer minimal repairs to paper, our staff is now well-equipped to properly care for our paper collection and keep it looking its best.