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Posts Tagged ‘artifact’

In preparation for our exhibit, “Texas Moves Toward Statehood: Stories Behind the Mural,” TSLAC Conservation conducted treatment on a small notebook belonging to German immigrant and Fredericksburg founder John O. Meusebach.  This notebook is displayed along with several other Meusebach artifacts, including his famous 1847 Comanche peace treaty.

Meusebach notebook before treatment

Meusebach notebook before treatment

Meusebach’s notebook, just 5 ½ x 3 ¾ x ½ inches, features leather-trimmed, shaped wooden boards with a gold-tooled leather spine piece.  Boards are hand-illustrated with German verse and drawings relevant to Texas.  Gold-tooled leather loops at the boards’ front edge hold a small pencil; when the pencil is inserted, the volume is fastened shut.  Inside, the boards are lined with cream-colored silk.  Silk pockets inside each board are further lined with bright, turquoise-colored paper.  The notebook itself is separate from the boards, sewn into a flexible cover of cream-colored silk, turquoise paper, and gold foil decorative strips.

Meusebach notebook components: case (boards), notebook, and stylus (pencil.)

Meusebach notebook components: case (boards), notebook, and stylus (pencil.)

The outer case had been previously repaired with pressure-sensitive tape along the inside and outside of its spine, with tape adhered to both leather and silk.  During treatment, tape and adhesive were mechanically removed from the leather, revealing losses in the spine and the full detachment of the front board.  Tape removal from the degraded silk was more problematic, especially because much of the silk was baggy and loose across the spine region.  Working with a heated spatula allowed partial success.  Toned Japanese tissue was then adhered to support and fill the remaining silk.

Tape removal

Tape removal

The next step was to reattach the front board and fill the revealed spine losses with toned tissue.  This step required some testing and adjustment of tissue placement and adhesives, since the small, ornately decorated notebook allowed very small adhesive surfaces.

Notebook after treatment

Notebook after treatment

You can see the resulting notebook on display in “Texas Moves Toward Statehood: Stories Behind the Mural.”  The Texas State Library and Archives is now open on the second Saturday of every month from 9 AM to 4 PM.

 

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In the lab in May is Pressler’s Map of Texas from 1867.  Charles Pressler was a noted draftsman and cartographer who immigrated to Texas from Prussia.  He created well-known Texas maps while working with land empresario Jacob de Cordova and with the Texas General Land Office.

Pressler’s Map of Texas is a pocket map, which is the 19th century version of the Rand McNally road map one might have carried in a car’s glove box prior to GPS systems.  Pocket maps are generally large, hand-colored documents that fold down into a small, textile-covered case that is stamped with gold foil and other decorative elements.

Pressler's Map of Texas

Pressler’s Map of Texas, an 1867 pocket map.

Because repeated folding can damage fragile paper, conservators often remove pocket maps from their cases and flatten them for future storage and use.  While this treatment is usually the most responsible course of action, it detracts somewhat from the item’s artifactual value.  After treatment, the map is quite physically different.

In this case, we encountered a unique circumstance: there are actually two copies of this item in our collection.  It so happens that the other copy has already been removed from its case and flattened.  Since the flattened copy will be the primary access copy, this created an unusual opportunity to preserve a pocket map in its original format.

First, creases and wrinkles received local humidification and flattening to help the item fold more efficiently.  Then, existing tears at fold lines were mended with wide strips of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.

Mending tears at fold lines.

Mending tears at fold lines.

The map was carefully folded back into its case and the front board (detached) was reattached with toned moriki tissue.  Because there is another access copy, this pocket map has been returned to its original format.

Repaired case with map folded inside.

Repaired case with map folded inside.

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In November, I built a custom housing for an object in our collections known as the Journeay Violin.  The violin was made by Henry Journeay while he was imprisoned in Mexico during the 1842 Mier Expedition.  Journeay was a skilled woodworker, and is thought to have later made the instrument’s wood and glass case.

Journeay Violin

Journeay Violin

Drop-spine book box

My housing, modeled roughly on the common drop-spine book box, aims to protect the instrument and its case during storage and to allow for easy access for periodic display.  My basic design comprises a textile-covered, paper lined tray and a large, textile-covered box lid.  The lid rests on a small ledge inside the tray when closed.  The instrument case need not be fully removed from the box for viewing; it can stay in the tray except when needed for exhibit.

As often happens with custom housings, design demands reveal themselves during the construction process.  Here, I initially built a flat-bottomed tray, only to find that this would unduly challenge staff members trying to pick up the item, inviting them to slide one end of the case precariously off the table to establish a grip.  I then built feet for the tray from laminate, textile-covered binder’s board.  I mounted the feet underneath the instrument case’s feet to support its weight.  This created a safer, more user-friendly design with finger room under the tray.

Textile-covered tray corner with foot

Textile-covered tray corner with foot

One of the efficient features of a drop-spine box is that its attractive covering material also adds strength by reinforcing its cardboard joints.  Unfortunately, the violin’s box lid couldn’t share this efficiency, because I couldn’t cut a large enough piece of textile to cover the box in the continuous, traditional style.  Instead, I reinforced all the lid joints inside and out with gummed linen tape before covering with textile panels for aesthetics only.

Lid joints were reinforced with linen tape.

Lid joints were reinforced with linen tape.

One further similarity between this box and a drop-spine box is how air suction is created upon opening.  Because this box is more enclosed than a typical drop-spine box, it actually creates a much stronger vacuum.  (Trust me, it was rather alarming the first time I tried to open it.)  In order to open this box, it is first necessary to break its air seal by gently depressing its long, flexible walls.  After this, opening is quite easy.  Instructions have been attached.

Box label

Box label

This exercise highlights some of the overall challenges of building custom housings.  The goal is to balance the needs of the object against the needs of those using the object, while hopefully avoiding completely reinventing the wheel.  While I briefly considered a version of this housing with break-away walls, I decided such a design would be too complex for hurried reference staff to operate with confidence.  As always, housing projects are problems with many solutions – perhaps you have one!

Completed custom housing for violin and case

Completed custom housing for violin and case

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Last week, this blog highlighted a case study in artifactual value from Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, an account of late-19th century Chicago based on archival research.  This week, we’ll detail a similar example from closer to home.

In TSLAC’s documents from the Confederacy, I often note evidence of recycling.  Sometimes this evidence takes the form of non-traditional papermaking materials (see previous entry, “Barn Floor Paper.”)  Other times recycling is apparent in remnants of previously printed materials, as in an example from this week:

Confederate document with recycling

This Confederate military document features recycled pieces of previous documents, such as the printed “b” seen here.

 

I have long suspected that such recycling, especially in non-disposable military records, was an indicator of economic stress in the Confederacy.  Informal conversation with colleagues supports this hunch: a conservator working on Union materials at another institution notes that their paper consists of comparatively high quality stock.  Here again is an example of artifactual value.  The physical paper on which these wartime records were kept offers historical information beyond the written records themselves.

I recently found further support for this interpretation of Confederate paper in Cathy Baker’s 2010 book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation.  Baker connects economic conditions in the South with scarcity in papermaking materials like rags, cotton, and bleach:

Just before the War, the South was largely dependent on the North for most supplies and equipment for its twenty-four papermills.  The chemicals needed to bleach rags for white paper for the Confederate government’s use or to process straw and raw cotton for news paper were only occasionally obtained from abroad through the Union blockades.  Few clothes and linens found their way into rag bags, and even if they did, they were often used for bandages instead of paper. 

-Cathy Baker, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation, The Legacy Press, 2010, p 18.

Baker goes on to quote an 1863 newspaper account of an Alabama papermill, which struggled to maintain production without critical supplies like felt and wire mesh:

The energy displayed by Mr. Winter in keeping his mill running is worthy of all commendation.  He showed us fine tapestry carpet which he took from his floors as substitutes for felt, without which his mills are entirely useless… The want of wire cloth has forced Mr. Winter to convert his machine… (which) very seriously curtails his operations in the amount of paper turned off.

Memphis Daily Appeal, 6/13/1863, in Cathy Baker’s book (as above,) p 294.

That small “b” photographed above conveys a message about the Confederate economy much more succinctly than the words in this blog entry.  This is the power of artifactual value.  With access to primary, archival materials, researchers and the public have a chance to read more than what’s written on the page – they can also read the physical record left behind by historical forces.

For more on why it’s important to support public access to archives, see Christina Manz’s post on the closure of the Georgia Archives in TSLAC’s Library Developments blog.

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Since conservators work to prolong the life of physical things, they think a lot about artifactual value, or the information held in the material and craft of a physical object.  This thinking can be puzzling for lab visitors and the general public, who sometimes conceptualize books and archival materials simply as information carriers.  Bridging the conceptual gap between these two methods of thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of conservation outreach.  After all, the casual observer often notes, why not just digitize collections and be done with them?

The many significant complexities of digitization aside, it’s good to have some concrete examples of artifactual value in hand for cases like this.  I accidentally stumbled across one such example recently while reading Erik Larson’s portrait of late 19th century Chicago, Devil in the White City.  In a brief afterword, Larson described his research methods and his portrayal of the mentally unstable assassin Patrick Prendergast:

I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet.  I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it.  To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.  There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness.  On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude.  I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.

-Erik Larson, Devil in the White City, Notes and Sources, pp 395-96.

Prendergast’s notes to prosecutor Trude were made during a period of increasing delusion, during which Prendergast murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison.  They offer an immediate, tangible example of artifactual value, the deep pencil marks enhancing our understanding of Prendergast’s increasingly paranoid state.  Larson’s remarks also demonstrate the impact of artifactual value on researchers and library patrons, who make discoveries in person that are likely not possible online or via reproduction.  His statement powerfully endorses primary research and the value of physical artifacts in libraries and archives.

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