Books and Paper

The NMAH holds a huge collection of paper-based objects. The museum conserves and protects prints, drawings, music scores, photographic materials, books, correspondence, maps, and more.

Conservation activities in the book and paper lab are managed by the full-time senior book and paper conservator. The NMAH often hires outside conservators and conservation technicians, who serve as regular, additional support for the conservation labs. The senior conservator also works with conservation interns and fellows, guiding them through research, treatment of objects, and the exhibition process.

Treatment

Conservation treatments vary based on the condition of the artifact. Treatments are designed to ensure structural and chemical stability. The goal of conservation is always to improve the condition of an object in order to protect it, not simply to make it look better. However, because imperfections like dirt or torn materials will degrade an object, those kinds of issues are targeted in the conservation treatment. This often results in an improved appearance as well as a more stable condition.

Paperboard box before and after treatment.
Herb Medicine box before and after treatment (left to right)

Conservation treatments often include minor surface cleaning. More invasive treatments might include mending tears, filling losses, or adding rigid backing to support an artifact. And sometimes conservators need to reverse the effects of past attempts at treatment by removing harmful attachments like lamination, tape, or staples. For example, the heat, plastic, and adhesive used to laminate can irreversibly damage the paper enclosed within, and lamination can become more acidic over time. It begins to discolor, embrittle, and further degrade the paper. 

A conservation technician removes lamination from a paper document using a heat pencil and tweezers.
A conservation technician at the NMAH removes lamination from a paper document using a heat pencil and tweezers.

Rarely, water-based solutions may be used to wash away acidic components and restore flexibility and color to the paper. This technique was used on the cartoon pictured below.

Cartoon before and after (left to right) conservation treatment.
Cartoon before and after (left to right) conservation treatment

The cartoon had been mounted on a corrugated cardboard backing material. Notice the vertical lines in the before treatment photo and overall browning of the paper. Conservators used a process called blotter washing to remove the acids that had migrated into the paper from the corrugated cardboard. If the paper had not been blotter washed, it would continue to embrittle and could eventually begin to crack and flake. In addition to strengthening the paper, blotter washing minimized the appearance of the distracting vertical lines and brown discoloration.

Sometimes conservators gently humidify paper items to reduce distortions like wrinkles and creases.

Scroll before and after treatment (left to right).
Proclamation scroll before and after treatment (left to right)

The treatment of this scroll included removing harmful tapes, mending tears, re-aligning pages, and flattening under weight. The scroll was not humidified as it is written in many different kinds of ink. Introducing moisture would almost certainly cause some of the inks to bleed.

Research

Conservators investigate the materials and techniques that were used to create artifacts in the collection. This research guides the treatment process and ensures that each object on view in the galleries is safely displayed.

Exhibit Prep

Paper-based artifacts at the NMAH are backed and wrapped for exhibit. This process involves carefully wrapping items in a protective film of Mylar. The paper artifact is placed on (or backed by) an acid-free mat board. The Mylar is secured to the the back of the board and the artifact is enclosed within. This protects an item from being damaged by water if there is a leak. Watch the video below to see how it's done!

 

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