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Following Our Paper Trail: Caring for the Museum’s Works on Paper Collection

/ Caring for Art

In 1957, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Wells bequeathed to a young Birmingham Museum of Art an important collection of 53 works on paper. From American masters such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Taylor Arms to Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn, it provided a core collection to build on and it set the bar very high for future acquisitions. The works on paper collection now constitutes about 17% of the collection, and that number is actively growing.

What is a work on paper? The category is very broad. A work on paper might be a print such as a lithograph or an engraving, a drawing, or even a collage made up of multiple pieces of paper. Whatever it’s called, a work on paper is generally made of two components. First, the paper, usually referred to as the “support,” whose primary component is probably cellulose. On top of the paper may be a layer of sizing, or other fillers, used to control the properties of the paper. Applied on top of any sizing is the “media” such as ink (whether applied by hand or mechanically), pigments, graphite, and a whole host of other traditional and modern surface applications.

Prior to the mid-19th century, paper was generally created using cotton or linen fibers, and while the process was labor intensive and expensive, it produced a surprisingly strong and durable product, dubbed “rag” paper. After the mid-19th century, the quality of paper declined as technological advances produced methods for extracting the fibers from the wood. While paper was made inexpensive and abundant, it was also rendered unstable and quick to deteriorate. This type of paper, referred to as “pulp,” becomes acidic, stains easily, and can be very brittle. Because the Museum collection includes works made on both “rag” and “pulp” paper, we work hard to provide optimum conditions for this fragile but important collection.

Caring for works on paper requires careful handling, optimum storage conditions, and strict limitations to light exposure. The works are stored in acid-free (aka archival) mats, and when in storage a sheet of acid-free tissue is inserted between the work of art and the window mat for an additional layer of protection. Attaching a work of art to a mat is usually accomplished with either archival photo corners or, most likely, a Japanese paper hinge carefully adhered with an archival paste. If possible, we store the work of art flat, unframed, in either an archival storage cabinet, or in specialized containers called Solander boxes. Careful handling is always in order, usually wearing nitrile or cotton gloves. Most often we frame our works on paper in a simple walnut stock and protect the work of art from ultraviolet exposure by using Plexiglas glazed with a UV filter. Exposure to light creates irreversible fading; therefore, we strictly limit display of works on paper to three months or less. Afterward, the work is allowed to rest in complete darkness until it is again placed on display. The environment is a critical component to the long-term care of works on paper, so we make certain to provide enough moisture to prevent desiccation of the paper fibers, but not too much moisture, as mold may form. We strive for a range of 45-55% relative humidity, allowing for a very slight seasonal fluctuation. We are frequently asked how to apply our museum standards for home use. Here are somebasics:

1. Control exposure to light. Hang works of art in areas away from windows and strong light, perhaps in a central hallway.

2. When framing, ask your framer to use archival mat board, and insist that all plys are acid free, not just the upper layer. Attach an acid-free backing board, too, for additional support. Ask the framer to use UV-filtering Plexiglas. If you are framing a pastel or charcoal, glass is preferred to prevent static electricity.

3. When storing works on paper, always store them on the primary living floor, not the attic or the basement.

4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if in doubt, seek out professional advice. Archival supplies may be purchased from a variety of suppliers such as Gaylord at www. or University Products at www.