Managing Light Exposure in Exhibits

Exhibits create a conservation workflow beyond traditional treatment.  Exhibit work can include item preparation and installation, as well as broader preservation issues, such as management of light exposure, temperature, and relative humidity.  A recent exhibit extension required TSLAC Conservation to reevaluate total light exposure for the items on display.  Because light exposure is cumulative and irreversible, light is carefully monitored during exhibition to balance public access with preservation issues.

Photographs are especially sensitive to light damage, and different types of photo materials can tolerate different amounts of light.  We typically reference a standard set of guidelines from the National Park Service to evaluate acceptable gallery limits.  During our recent exhibit extension, we found that several photographs in our brightest display cases would be endangered by excessive light exposure.  We replaced these photographs with high quality reproductions for the remainder of the display period in order to preserve the originals.

A TSLAC archivist installs a photo reproduction to limit light exposure for the original photo.

A TSLAC archivist installs a photo reproduction to limit light exposure for the original photo.

Deterioration and Archival Storage

May is Preservation Month, and here at TSLAC we’re celebrating by launching several new environmental monitors throughout our building.  Providing a stable environment is one of the best steps you can take toward safeguarding collections.  By controlling temperature and relative humidity, you can slow the clock on natural aging processes and often avoid conservation treatment altogether.

How does environment matter from a conservation perspective?  Simply put, it impacts materials’ mechanical and chemical stability.  Mechanical damage may occur when fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity cause materials to expand or contract.  Rapid cycling of temperature and moisture is especially problematic.  This can lead to cracks, tears, and breaks.  One household example of mechanical damage can occur when pouring very hot water into a cold glass causes the glass to break.  This dramatic damage can also occur gradually over time if archival materials are improperly stored.

Mechanical damage: transcription disc.

Mechanical damage is one factor at work in the pictured transcription discs. The discs’ outer coating (cellulose acetate plastic) and inner core (glass) have reacted to their storage environment differently, causing severe cracks and losses. (Photo by Steve Kantner.)

Chemical damage occurs when materials change or weaken at the molecular level.  Chemical damage, in its many forms, generally speeds up in warmer, wetter conditions.  Without sufficient heat or moisture, some deterioration processes may never start.  Familiar examples of chemical damage driven by environmental conditions include yellow, brittle paper and silver mirroring in black and white photographs.  In archives, a particular concern is iron gall corrosion, the process by which historical ink can eat through paper.

Chemical damage: iron gall ink

Chemical degradation has caused the iron gall ink in this document to weaken its paper support. As a result, brown halos appear around heavily-inked areas, and losses are visible in the large letter “G”.

Archival environmental standards for paper-based materials are 45 – 55% RH, 65 – 72 degrees Fahrenheit.  While it’s OK for these levels to drift gradually across seasons, short-term fluctuations should be minimized.  Remember these environmental impacts as you safeguard your treasures.

May Day! May Day!

Each year, the preservation community observes MayDay on May 1 to promote disaster preparedness and recovery. Along with Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2) and Preservation Month throughout May, MayDay is a great time to ensure that your family heirlooms are protected against harm.

Water is among the greatest threats to books, documents, and photographs. Water can cause permanent staining, fading, and warping. It also increases other risks, like mold and pest infestation. Here in Texas, hurricanes and thunderstorms make flooding a very real concern.

How can you guard your keepsakes from flood damage? One simple step is to store items off the floor. The majority of floods leave just a few inches of water behind. Storing materials in elevated cabinets or shelves keeps them out of harm’s way. If your storage furniture is flush to the ground, consider elevating it with bricks, cinder blocks, or other materials. Just a few inches of clearance can turn a potential disaster into a quick cleanup.

Preservation Week 2015

For more on this and other Preservation Week tips, visit TSLAC’s Facebook page. Happy MayDay!

Exhibit Preparation for Governor John Connally’s Suit

For several months, TSLAC Conservation has been preparing for TSLAC’s upcoming exhibit, “Texas Investigates: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Wounding of Governor John B. Connally.”  This exhibit will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, TX.  The exhibit’s centerpiece, on display for the first time since 1964, is the suit worn by Texas Governor John Connally in the Kennedy motorcade.  Connally was non-fatally wounded by gunfire that day, and his suit bears silent testimony to the tragic event.

Careful support and cushioning are required in the display of historical clothing so that fragile garments are not damaged by their own weight.  In July, conservator Sarah Norris began the process of customizing the dress forms on which the Connally suit and shirt will be displayed.  Shoulder supports and stomach padding were created to fit the exact measurements of the clothing.  Arm and leg supports were also added.  Though the shoulder supports are highly structured, the arm supports are very pliable so that the figure can be dressed with minimal stress to the garment.   A slick, spun polyester fabric allows the shirt to slip easily over the arm supports and onto the customized dress form.

Exhibit dress forms

Dress forms before and during customization. All supports are made with archival materials and sewn by hand to fit the measurements of the shirt and suit.

The French cuffs on Governor Connally’s shirt posed a special challenge.  These cuffs must be exhibited folded in the manner they were worn to allow logical display of the bullet holes in that region.  Cufflinks were originally used to maintain this fold, but the Governor’s cufflinks were not included when the suit was donated to TSLAC.  To solve this problem, Norris constructed two small stays made of linen thread, museum board, and cotton muslin.  The stays function like the original cufflinks, but their color and texture blends with the shirt without drawing visual attention to non-original items.

Exhibit cuff stays

The small size and neutral cotton fabric of the cuff stays allow them to blend sympathetically with the shirt.

“Texas Investigates: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Wounding of Governor John B. Connally” opens October 22.  In addition to the Connally suit, the exhibit will spotlight Texas state investigations of the assassination, including those conducted by the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Public Safety.  TSLAC Conservation welcomes the opportunity to prepare these meaningful items for public observation and commemoration.

Keeping the Paper in Newspaper

The Daily Texan, the University of Texas’ 113-year-old student newspaper, recently had a close brush with death of sorts.  On March 1, faced with declining advertising revenues, the paper’s managing board, Texas Student Media, voted on whether to reduce the paper’s print schedule.  Summer publication has already been reduced to once weekly.  The proposal had produced substantial outcry from students, alumni, and community members, who felt the print publication should not be cut.  The eventual decision was to leave the print schedule as-is – for now – and instead to cut staff salaries, dip into financial reserves, and enhance the publication’s online presence.  Printing and distribution has already been outsourced to the nearby Austin American-Statesman.

Clearly the Daily Texan’s print woes are not fully resolved.  For a conservator, and for those invested in the physical manifestations of print culture, an especially interesting quote appeared in the Texan’s editorial “Keep the Daily Texan Daily” on February 19, 2013:

Other college newspapers that have cut their circulation, such as the Red and Black at the University of Georgia, have not found themselves liberated by shedding their daily print product and transforming into a weekly newspaper. According to the Red and Black Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Fouriezos, print pick-up rates have declined dramatically and web traffic has suffered, too. ‘Take the paper out of their minds every day, and it’s no longer a part of their daily habit,’ he said, adding, ‘People can ignore an online product just as much as they can ignore a print product. Online readership is not a given.’

–The Daily Texan, 2/19/13

Just how much is paper part of the newspaper’s identity?  How do the physical and digital versions of media drive interest in one another?  How can libraries and archives best preserve the record of this turbulent transition?  We welcome your comments.

Meanwhile, for those of you wondering about the recent Travis Letter exhibit, we’ll have information and commentary as we process environmental data collected at the exhibit site.  Stay tuned in coming days and weeks.

Conserving and Preserving, This Month and Beyond

My shortage of January posts can be attributed to my thorough immersion in the planning stages of a significant effort to digitize TSLAC’s collection of cassette recordings of the proceedings of the Texas Senate, from 1972 – 2006.  These recordings document the laws and the lawmakers that shaped our state.  Listen to a sampling of the topics and colorful personalities in the collection here.

My work in the last month draws attention to the contrast between preservation strategies for books and paper vs. audio media.  For example, in January, most of the time I normally would have spent working with my hands at the workbench was instead spent working with the computer at my desk.  Conservation strategies for books and paper more frequently involve physical repair; for audio media, they more frequently involve transfer to new media, or, in my case, planning for that transfer.  While I’ve advocated in lectures and research for the artifactual value of audio media, practical realities dictate rapid transfer in the face of chemical decay and format obsolescence.  Digitization is just one reality for books and paper; it’s often the only reality for audio.

What’s interesting is that our decisions about whether to preserve original media route books and paper into the practice of conservation, while they route audio media into the practice of preservation.  Conservators are trained to work physically, and to use both science and craft knowledge to sustain cultural materials in their physical form.  Preservation administrators – note that extra word in the title – are trained to manage environment, storage, exhibition, people, money, etc., to sustain cultural materials in viable forms.   In theory, it’s much the same; in practice, it’s all different.

My feeling is that as the print and digital worlds continue to negotiate their territories, conservation and preservation approaches will continue to unify.  In libraries and archives, one sees many examples of this: conservation treatment supports digitization projects; then, digital access drives increased physical use and, presumably, wear.  But no one person can know all facets of such disparate practices.  That’s why hybrid library-conservation-preservation training programs like the one at the University of Texas were so important, and why we can hope they may be again in the future.

In the meantime, I’m glad for the opportunity to help prolong the lifetime of the Senate tapes, and I look forward to returning to the book and paper workbench in the near future.