The Werner Gundersheimer Conservation Laboratory

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The Folger conservation team completes the vital tasks of studying, preserving, and restoring books, manuscripts, and works of art in the Folger collection. In 2006, the team moved from a warren of rooms in the basement to the state-of-the-art, 2000-square foot Werner Gundersheimer Conservation Laboratory on the Folger's third floor. Led by head of conservation Renate Mesmer, the conservation staff collaborate closely with the Folger’s curators to determine how to treat particular objects, seeking the delicate balance in each case between treating objects and preserving their historic integrity. While their emphasis is on stabilizing materials to halt further deterioration, in some cases the conservators restore materials to an earlier state, sometimes by reversing well-intentioned, but harmful, repairs of the past. Conservators also protect fragile items by creating custom housings for them; replace disintegrating old bindings; and prepare materials of all kinds so they may be safely photographed, exhibited, and studied by scholars.

Completed Treatments

Conserving The Trevelyon Miscellany

Thomas Trevelyon was 60 years old when he created what is now known as the “Trevelyon Miscellany” in 1608. This colorful manuscript book, which consists of 290 double-sided leaves in the large “folio” size, might be best described as a prototype coffee table book, created for the entertainment, education, and edification of his friends and family. The subject matter leaps from mundane to mythical, poetic to practical, including embroidery patterns, calendars, lists of rulers, and more.

For decades, the 1608 manuscript was inaccessible to scholars because of its fragility. In creating his illustrations, Trevelyon used iron gall ink for the lettering and black lines, and verdigris (a copper-based pigment) for the color green. Over the centuries, corrosion from the iron and copper gradually ate into the paper. Nineteenth-century binders also wreaked havoc on the manuscript with unmatched patching, while further mending in the 1930s and 1940s inadvertently caused inks and pigments to bleed.

Beginning in 1995, in the most ambitious conservation project at the Folger up to that time, conservators restored the entire manuscript, reversing the earlier repairs and strengthening the pages with an ultrathin paper developed and made at the Folger. Afterward, every page of the manuscript was also digitized, reducing the need for researchers to work directly with the still-delicate original.

Treatment of the Trevelyon Miscellany was privately funded by Eric Weinmann and B.F. Saul, distinguished friends and trustees of the Folger Shakespeare Library for more than twenty years.

Saving Old Notes in a Polish Herbal

One of the most lavishly illustrated volumes published in Poland in the early sixteenth century, Stefan Falimierz’s O ziolach y o moczy gich... is also the first real encyclopedia of natural science in Polish. It was compiled from various Latin herbals, and includes such topics as herbs and their use in medicines, the medicinal uses of birds, animals, and fish, stones and minerals, and a variety of medical procedures such as bloodletting. The Falimierz herbal came to the Folger as the gift of Mary P. Massey, who gave the Folger her own large collection of herbals and botanical literature.

Printed in Krakow in 1534, the herbal was a popular work that saw heavy use. Almost all of the surviving copies, including this one, are incomplete. In this copy, many pages are patched with overly stiff, heavy paper that added stress to the pages as they were turned. Such patches can be removed using conventional conservation methods—but in this case, there’s an added challenge. Over time, previous readers wrote long notes (usually in Polish) right across the patches. The notes, many of which are centuries old, must be preserved, even as the patches are removed.

The ingenious solution, now being implemented by Folger conservator Renate Mesmer, has been to remove the patches, but to keep each one in its proper place within the book by hinging it to the original page with Japanese paper. Before the patches are hinged in place, the pages themselves will be repaired with more modern techniques. Holes and tears, often much smaller than the old, oversized patches, are being filled with computerized leafcasting.

Conserving Tinsel Prints of Stage Characters

Tinsel prints, usually depicting actors in costume, are uniquely nineteenth-century art forms that were most popular from about 1815 to 1830. Tinseling enthusiasts bought plain or colored prints, then added costumes made of die-cut metal foils (tinsel) as well as bits of fabric, leather, feathers, and any other suitable material. The recent donation of the Peggy Cass and Carl Fisher Collection of Tinsel Prints has greatly expanded the Folger’s holdings in this genre, placing it among the world’s major collections of this type.

Although scholars of theatrical, art, and social history have much to learn from tinsel prints, the works pose extraordinary conservation challenges. Tinsel prints are a very delicate medium, inherently fragile and made of diverse materials. Early mounting and framing methods often add other stresses. Wood frames may be nailed into the prints themselves, and newspapers or other poor-quality materials were sometimes stuffed behind a print. Both the frames and the inserted materials are often acidic, causing staining in the prints. Moreover, since the prints are water-sensitive, aqueous (water-based) conservation methods cannot be used.

As a first step in caring for these special works, Folger conservator Rhea Baier has removed the frames—most of them made in the 1940s, but some the original bird’s-eye maple frames made in the early nineteenth century. She has also assessed and photographed each print. The next step, now underway, is to research tinsel prints in the professional conservation literature and through consultation with colleagues around the world; British researchers, for example, have analyzed the composition of materials favored by tinselers. To date, however, Folger conservators have not located any previous project that actively conserved tinsel prints. The Folger’s work on the prints, which will be conducted only after extensive research, may be a first in the field.

Materials from the David Garrick Collection

David Garrick, the leading actor-manager of the 1700s, revolutionized English theater with a lively, naturalistic acting style that held audiences spellbound. The Folger's collection of Garrick materials, perhaps the largest in the world, includes books, manuscripts, promptbooks, playbills, correspondence, portraits, porcelains, and even a set of Garrick's silverware. Today, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is supporting Raising the Curtain: David Garrick at the Folger, a major project to catalog Garrick works in these diverse media, create digital facsimiles, and make the Folger’s Garrick collection far more easily accessible. The initial phase of Raising the Curtain was funded by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

As part of the project, book conservator Linda Hohneke is currently repairing and conserving a number of David Garrick books and manuscripts. The works shown here are “extra-illustrated” volumes that started as ordinary printed books. Their owners then filled them with a wealth of supplementary materials such as portraits, playbills, and letters, often on added pages. The resulting volumes are therefore unique. Often the additional illustration is substantial: A.M. Broadley added so much material to his copy of Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald’s 1883 Life of David Garrick that it expanded from two volumes to seventeen.

Because of the added material, extra-illustrated volumes often become too full, stressing and ultimately separating the textblock from the cover. Conservators repair or replace the bindings.

Inside an extra-illustrated volume, other issues arise. Glassine tape becomes brown, brittle, and acidic over time; it is being replaced with Japanese paper hinges. Illustrations that “offset” or print onto the facing page require the insertion of acid-free paper between the pages. Loose or detached illustrations must be reattached.