MHS Takes Care of History

De-acidification of the newspaper in purified water. Photos by Laura Wulf for the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Photos by Laura Wulf for the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Because our state of Massachusetts has played such a huge role in American history and culture, it is home to a multitude of documents, artifacts and objects of historical significance. Some of them are preserved at the esteemed Massachusetts Historical Society.  Here you can see the fourth volume of a set of Revolutionary-era Boston newspapers collected, annotated, and indexed by Harbottle Dorr, Jr., a Boston shopkeeper, from 1765 to 1776. After the pages were dry-cleaned and the ink tested for solubility, the MHS conservator washed and de-acidified the pages in purified water.

Restored artifact. Photos by Laura Wulf for the Massachusetts Historical Society.

After a gentle wash, pages were dried, and then, the conservator used Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste to repair them. You can see a close-up of the restored bottom of the page in the photograph on the left. This project took place in the conservation lab of the Massachusetts Historical Society. You can also read more about MHS conservator and her work on the project in this post on the society’s official blog, The Beehive.

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - 5 April 1776
Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams

The Massachusetts Historical Society is an independent research library and manuscript repository founded in 1791. Its holdings encompass millions of rare and unique documents and artifacts vital to the study of American history, many of them irreplaceable national treasures. Among them is correspondence between John Adams, who’s birthday will be celebrated tomorrow, and his wife Abigail. You can even view some of their letters right on your computer, in amazing high resolution, including her famous “Remember the ladies.

A Restoration Gone Awry

Sometimes actions taken with best of intentions, can result in complete disaster. Such was the case in the tiny Spanish village of Borja, after an elderly woman claimed responsibility for attempting to restore a century-old fresco painted by Elias Garcia Martinez. The painting is a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and is named Ecce Homo or “Behold the Man” translated from Latin. The new version unintentionally gives Jesus’s beard a drastic shave and removes the crown of thorns. Some have even said that the painting gives its subject a monkey-like appearance.

The Ecce Homo before and after "restoration."

Cecilia Gimenez told Spanish television that she wanted to help fix the painting after seeing it deteriorate from moisture and flaking caused by humidity over the years. She also told reporters that her “restoration” was done with the permission of the church’s priest. “The priest knew it,” Gimenez explained to local television. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.” Initially, officials believed that the painting fell victim to vandalism instead of the good intentions of one of the church’s parishioners. “I’ve seen many well intentioned do-it-yourself restorations; objects have great meaning to people, and they want to keep them looking good,” said Beth Edelstein, an associate conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It’s at least heartening that she did it out of love and care for the painting, rather than with an intent to do harm,” she added.

Fixes for the Fresco

Gimenez’s alterations to the painting render it largely unrecognizable compared to the original that had been hanging in her beloved church for years. Gone are the painting’s original proportions, perspective, shading, and depth. Edelstein believes that it is quite possible that Gimenez’s changes to the painting are in fact reversible. The elderly woman’s recollection of the materials she used and her methods will be a great help for conservators as plans for conservation move forward. “It is actually quite helpful that she can tell the conservators exactly what she did and what she used — we rarely have that information and often spend a lot of time trying to determine the answers to those questions,” she said to the Houston Chronicle.

The American Institute of Conservators strongly advises against do-it-yourself conservation projects undertaken by amateurs. On the organization’s website, there is a function to find a conservator in your area to perform the work needed on your piece. Additionally, AIC offers a comprehensive guide on how to choose the right conservator for your project, in addition to an exhaustive article regarding the care of paintings.

Despite AIC’s strong recommendations, amateur art restorers around the world now have a strictly internet-based chance to make their own changes to the Ecce Homo as part of the Cecilia Prize contest. Entry is simple: restore the painting using a virtual palette and then tweet  your submission using the #CeciliaPrize hashtag on Twitter. Your prize? A poster of the new Cecilia Gimenez version of the Ecce Homo.

Emergency Treatment for Leonardo da Vinci’s Self-Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait is threatened by the numerous foxing stains that have developed over time on the 500-year-old drawing.

After weeks of recently concluded tests and analysis, a grim diagnosis has been given to Leonardo’s self-portrait, a work completed when the artist was in his 60’s, and dates back to the 1510’s. The piece was drawn in red chalk on paper and is housed in Turin’s Biblioteca Reale (or, Royal Library). The drawing resides in one of the museum’s vaults so it is not in an area where visitors can see it regularly. However, the drawing was on display during a brief two-month exhibition that coincided with the celebration of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of Italy’s unification last November.

Condition of Portrait

The drawing is ailing from a condition called “foxing“, which causes reddish spots to form on the surface of a work of art on paper. These spots are not supposed to be on the piece and could have been formed by oxidation stemming from pigmentation that Leonardo used, in addition to fungi forming on the type of paper he used, which consisted of hemp, flax and wool. Rust from the iron in the pigmentation has also been pinpointed as a suspect in the formation of the spots. As you can see in the included picture of the painting, foxing spots almost look like the measles or the chicken pox on Leonardo’s face.

What to Do?

The decision of what to do to aid the drawing will be made collaboratively between the Royal Library, Italy’s restoration institute, and scientists. “We will continue to study it, to diagnose it. Everyone agrees on that,” said Maria Cristina Misiti, head of Italy’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Book Patrimony. The process to remove foxing is a conservation catch-22 of sorts, as success in removal is not completely guaranteed. Due to it’s small size (13.2″ x 8.5″), delicate structure and age, the decision on whether and how to restore is not an easy one.

Is the Portrait Authentic?

Leonardo’s self-portrait, though a beloved work of art, has been at the center of controversy throughout history regarding it’s authenticity as a self-portrait. Although most scholars see a distinct connection between this drawing’s subject and Plato in Raphael’s The School of Athens (which was posed for by Leonardo, around the same time as the drawing), some scholars have doubts about whether the drawing is indeed a self-portrait of the famed Renaissance master. Much of the scholarly criticism stems from the observation that the man depicted in the drawing looks much older than Leonardo ever was, as he died at the age of 67. If that is true, the skeptical scholarly belief is that the subject of the drawing is either da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero, or his uncle Francesco.

University Products carries a long line of conservation products for paper care and repair. Included in this selection of our inventory are conservation work trays, fiber-tipped applicators, mending tapes and adhesives; brushes, and many other products to help you store, protect or repair your document or art collection.

National Archives Unveil Newly Encased Magna Carta

A newly-restored 1297 Magna Carta, complete with a brand-new encasement, is the prominent piece in a new exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The Magna Carta, originally issued in 1215, was the first document forced onto an English king in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect the privileges of the feudal barons. The charter was an important part of the historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in the English speaking world. This copy, owned by managing director of the Carlyle Group, David M. Rubenstein, was donated to the National Archives. The document underwent a 10-month conservation treatment before its unveiling on February 17.

Page one of the Magna Carta Manuscript.

The treatment process began with the National Archives’ team of conservators performing an intensive examination to identify the repairs that needed to be done to the 715-year-old document. Then the conservators applied moisture to aid in the removal of old fills, adhesive residues, and old repairs. Losses in the parchment were repaired using Japanese papers that were toned to match the hue of the document. The long fibers of these papers were applied to the fills by using a mixture of gelatin and wheat starch paste. National Archives conservator Terry Boone was able to accurately match these colors by using watercolor paints. Finally, the document was humidified, flattened, and dried over the course of several months.

In its new encasement, the Magna Carta rests on a sheet of unbleached, all-cotton paper that was custom-made by the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book. This sheet acts as an acid-free buffer between the document and a perforated metal platform as it rests in the new case constructed by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). The paper also brightens the appearance of the translucent document and helps to keep the relative humidity inside of the encasement at a stable level. NIST scientists devised a system to measure oxygen and moisture content within the encasement which includes filling it with humidified inert argon gas. Also, the interior of the display is filled with an atmosphere of 99% high-purity argon, 1% helium and an initial oxygen content of 1 part per million.

University Products offers a variety of materials, tools, and equipment for document conservation including: 100% cotton rag papers, pre-shred cotton linters, Ex-Libris economical portable vacuum table, micro-spatulas, and white cotton gloves.