Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Preservation Websites to Check Out

A couple of weeks ago, we shared some great books on preserving family collections.  Today, the focus shifts to free media, namely websites.  There are at least four great websites that offer valuable preservation advice for amateurs seeking to preserve historic items.

Preserve Your Family Treasures
Back in 2005, the Minnesota Historical Society launched the "Minnesota's Greatest Generation" project to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.  There was an exhibition at the Minnesota History Center but, more importantly for our purposes, a "Preserve Your Family's Treasures" website was established.  Here conservators and curators offer solid advice on collecting oral histories and tips for preserving all types of objects.

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Saving Your Treasures
Several years ago, the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, the Nebraska State Historical Society, and the Nebraska State Library Commission collaborated on an NET Television program called "Saving Your Treasures."  A side benefit was the development of a website that offers videos from the series as well as pertinent segments from workshops associated with the project.  You can learn a lot here.

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The Library of Congress:  Caring For Your Collections
The Library of Congress has set up a website specifically to help families take care of their family treasures.  The site is smartly designed into three sections, first addressing the challenges of preparing, then guidelines for protecting and displaying, and finally advice on recovering after disasters.  Hopefully, you'll never need the last category (disaster recovery), but it's important to know where to turn for help if you ever need it quickly.  There's good advice here.

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Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute:  Taking Care
The Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian Institution ventured into the advice field with this helpful preservation website.  Some of the links are fantastic for amateurs;  others are more technical and geared for professionals.  Scroll down the right side to see all the resources they offer, from caring for music boxes to guidelines for integrated pest management.  It's definitely worth checking out.

© 2010 Lee Price

Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Thomas Eakins to Art Price

Value is subjective.  I understand Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic is a masterpiece and consequently I assign great value to it.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875.
(Post-conservation, 2010).  Thomas Eakins, American, 1844-1916.
Oil on canvas, 8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 x 198.1 cm).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the Alumni Association to
Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
with the generous support of more than 3,500 donors, 2007.
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Most people wouldn't assign great value to the oil paintings of my father, Art Price.  At the very least, I can't imagine seeing any Art Price originals being purchased through a grand fundraising campaign that raises tens of millions of dollars in less than two months.

But these oil paintings have plenty of value to me, mainly because of the family connection but also because (in my opinion) they're pretty good paintings.

The following are a sampling of the oil paintings by Art Price that we have in our family collection.  My hope is to ensure that they remain in stable condition for years to come so others will continue to enjoy them.

Harvest scene, oil painting by Art Price.

Machete still life, oil painting by Art Price.

Scene in Noyack, oil painting by Art Price.

Civil War portrait, oil painting by Art Price.

Landscape, oil painting by Art Price.

Horses, oil painting by Art Price.

Iceberg seen at sea, oil painting by Art Price.

A change of plan:  I erroneously stated in my December 20 entry that friends from the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be contributing insights to this blog over the next couple of weeks.  Permission has been withdrawn for this, and therefore I'll have to scramble over the holiday weekend to come up with Plan B.

The special exhibition “An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew” can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building) through January 9.  Treat yourself to one more gift this season and add a visit to your holiday schedule!

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Flesh, Blood, and Brains

Soon we’ll make the connection between the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s conservation treatment of Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic and my own concerns about caring for the oil paintings in our family collection.  But first I thought I’d indulge in a few completely amateur thoughts on the greatness of The Gross Clinic.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875.  (Post-conservation, 2010).
Thomas Eakins, American, 1844-1916.  Oil on canvas, 8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 x 198.1 cm).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878
and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
with the generous support of more than 3,500 donors, 2007.
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Detail: The Gross Clinic
by Thomas Eakins.
Follow the light.  While much of the room is dark, bright natural light shines down from above to highlight the areas where Eakins wants us to look closer.  The light illuminates the bare thigh of the patient, the deep incision, and the vivid spurt of blood.

Equally important as the flesh and blood, the light reflects off the forehead of Dr. Samuel Gross, physician and teacher.  For Dr. Gross, the light functions as a visual cue equivalent to a halo in a religious painting.  But this is the very antithesis of a religious painting, and it is Dr. Gross who is leading us out of darkness through his unflinching dedication to rationality—the world of science and medicine.

Detail: The Gross Clinic
by Thomas Eakins.
This is medicine practiced rigorously, unsentimentally.  Eakins’ brilliant use of subtle tones, dramatic lighting, and the meticulous staging of a wide variety of seemingly casual figures combine to bring a Rembrandt-like approach to the heady intellectual urban world of Philadelphia, one of the world’s leading scientific centers in 1875.

Within the picture itself, Eakins offers a range of possible responses to the conspicuously bloody operation.  Most notably, a woman withdraws in theatrical horror to the left of Dr. Gross.  Curiously, this was the initial reaction of many critics when the painting was first displayed at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876.  These critics were so offended by the realistic depiction of the flesh and blood that they missed the grace note of Dr. Gross.  Eakins celebrates the clear-headed determination of men of science like Dr. Gross, leading the next generation toward the medical advances of the twentieth century that would save countless lives and relieve much unnecessary suffering.  You can’t get there if you throw your hands over your eyes in horror.  Eakins calls us to examine life closely, without flinching.

The special exhibition “An Eakins Masterpiece Restored: Seeing The Gross Clinic Anew” can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building) through January 9.  Treat yourself to one more gift this season and add a visit to your holiday schedule!

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning from the Masters

In one my favorite June and Art letters, my mother said, "I must be a very musty character, liking museums like this."

Like mother, like son.  I love museums.  I hate to think that means I'm a very musty character, but I guess there's a chance.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic),
1875.  Thomas Eakins, American, 1844-1916.
Oil on canvas, 8 feet x 6 feet 6 inches.
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum
of Art.
Since I live near Philadelphia, my favorite hang-out is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Therefore, as my thoughts turn toward appropriate care for the oil paintings in our family collection, I find myself considering the highest levels of care that are practiced at my hometown museum.

Through January 9 (so you’d better rush out there!), the Philadelphia Museum of Art is celebrating the conservation treatment of Thomas Eakins’ monumental painting The Gross Clinic in a special exhibition in the Perelman Building.  As I visited there recently and learned about the recent work that went into conserving Eakins’ great painting, my mind kept skipping back to thoughts of my family collection.

I decided to make the story of the conservation of The Gross Clinic a touchstone for a two-week exploration of the care and treatment of oil paintings.  Some friends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art have volunteered to help me out with advice along the way.

Much as I like The Gross Clinic (and I like it very, very much!), I thought I’d start by sharing my long-term favorite painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It’s a painting that has also benefited from a major conservation treatment (back in the early 1990s in this case).  This is Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th century masterpiece Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John:

The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning,
c. 1460. Rogier van der Weyden, Netherlandish, 1399/1400-1464.
Oil on panel. Left panel: 71 x 36 15/16 inches; right panel: 71 x 36 7/16 inches.
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Just wanted an excuse to share that!  On Wednesday, we’ll return to the real matter at hand, Eakins’ The Gross Clinic and the proper care and conservation of oil paintings.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Celebrating Book Giving Season

It’s book giving season!*  And nothing says you care more than the gift of a book on preservation.

I have two recommendations for great books on preserving family collection items, plus two more recommendations courtesy of Vicki Cassman, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor in the University of Delaware’s Art 
Conservation Department.

First, my two:

Caring For Your Family Treasures  by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long:  This is my favorite – the one that I’ve chosen to give to family members on various book giving occasions.  The needs of books, paintings, film and video, fabrics, wedding dresses, furniture, clocks, and even dolls and teddy bears are addressed in very practical terms.  I love the “Care” checklists that conclude each chapter!

The Winterthur Guide to Caring For Your Collection:  This book features a powerhouse roster of experts – fourteen of the top names in preservation contributed chapters.  Fortunately for the lay reader, they each keep to the easy-to-use format and generally avoid technical jargon.  It offers needed advice on care and storage of items and is packed with practical tips.  And, like you’d probably expect from a book published by the Winterthur Museum, the photos are of gorgeous pieces.

And Vicki offers the following two 
recommendations and descriptions:

Saving Stuff:  How to Care For and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar.  Don has a wonderful sense of humor and it comes out in his descriptions and recommendations.  I especially love the suspender tips in the margins.  Lots of great suggestions for all sorts of collections found in homes.

To understand conservation, People of the Book  by Geraldine Brooks is particularly powerful.  This is not a how-to book!  Instead it follows a fictional book
conservator as she preserves and solves mysteries by piecing together evidence and histories surrounding a medieval book.  A bestseller for a good reason.

Many thanks to Vicki Cassman for contributing this week!

* FYI: Book giving season officially begins in early January and ends in late December.

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tweaks to the Inventory Database

I liked the draft database developed by my sister.  But I had a few questions, as well as some ideas for minor tweaks, that I recently brought up with preservation specialist Jill Rawnsley.

Jill, does this database structure make sense to you?

Jill:  The database make a great deal of sense to me.  Key questions to ask when developing a database are:  Who is your audience?  Is it for the public or just the family?  What level of detail is appropriate?  The answers will depend on a combination of user needs and the collection’s depth.

When we have more than one name in the “Who” column, should each name get its own line to make it more practical to sort?

Jill:  This depends.  If the name is repeated a number of times, it should be listed in the “Who” section.  But if people are only listed once or twice, you might consider putting their name in the more descriptive subject column.

Would it make sense to group dates in larger divisions in order to make them more searchable?  For instance, “early 1920s” would become “1920-1925.”  The way that it’s currently set up, first words like “around” and “early” would defeat the possibility of sorting by date.

Jill:  Whenever possible, I think specificity with dates is best.  So, your idea of 1920-1925 is good, and further detail (“Thanksgiving, 1921”) can be added to the more descriptive subject column.

Do you think we should do the “Where” column by name of twon first, followed by more detail?  To make it more consistently sortable?

Jill:  If this is a stand-alone database, town followed by more data is helpful.  If you are going to have a small finding aid companion, you can describe the use of the database and you can even tell the location of the studio or house.  I would suggest having a finding aid.

Any ideas on how to keep the identification near the photograph (in addition to the penciled number on the photo)?  Currently, most of the photographs are in 8 ½ x 11 sleeves divided into four pockets.

Jill:  I like the idea of designating one pocket in each sleeve for information on the three photos on that page.  I have done that myself.  Remember that all of your inventory lists should be printed out and several copies made.  Copies should be kept in different locations such as various family members homes.

Special thanks to Jill Rawnsley for her continuing advice and support!

© 2010 Lee Price

First Shot at Inventory

My sister Jamie has completed an initial inventory of approximately 250 photographs.  These are the photos that were pulled as being particularly relevant to the June and Art blog.

Jamie organized a “Who-When-Where-What” system in Excel.  Theoretically, each column can be sorted to easily find photos.  If I want a photo from around 1950, I can sort the “When” column chronologically.  If I need a photo of Ada Belle Price, I can sort the “Who” column alphabetically and look up at the top.

Using this system, each photograph is labeled with a letter and number with a soft pencil.  For these photos, Jamie used “A” to designate pictures of June’s youth and family life, “B” for pictures of June alone, “C” for pictures of Art’s youth and family, “D” for Art’s Navy pictures, and “E” for pictures of June and Art as a couple.  Cataloging numbers (starting at 1, working up) are assigned after the letter.  For instance, B1 is a baby picture of June from 1929.

The system makes sense but I see some minor problems in the execution.  Over the next week, I hope to consult with a preservation specialist on possible tweaks to the system.

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remembering Glen

Even though the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts is an ongoing presence in these blog entries, this is a personal blog with no formal connection to the Center.  Initially, I didn’t expect to share the following remembrance here.  But over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve struggled with blogger writer’s block, it’s become increasingly obvious that I would have to share some brief thoughts about the life of Glen Ruzicka.  Later this week, I hope to return to writing about the preservation work that Glen always passionately championed.

A valued friend and colleague, Glen Ruzicka died two weeks ago from injuries sustained at a fall at his house.  His passing was sudden, completely unexpected, and unutterably sad.

From 1988 until October 2010, a term of more than 22 years, Glen worked at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, first as Chief Conservator (1988-1997) and then as Director of Conservation (1998-2010).

I’ve worked at the Conservation Center for twelve years now.  Glen came up with the marketing project that brought me to the Center in 1998.  He was my first contact, took me on my first tour of the laboratory, and managed my first work at the Center.

Glen was always cheerful, relaxed and generous—very approachable in a way that belied his outstanding professional reputation as a conservator.  He shared his love of history and preservation through his mentoring and guidance of so many of us at the Center.  I’m sure his warmth and passion have informed my own writing on conservation.  Similarly, I’m sure that aspects of Glen have been reflected in the interviews that I’ve done on this blog with conservators Samantha Sheesley and Jim Hinz and that his presence will continue to be felt as other staff members share their expertise.  We’ve internalized Glen in ways that we can’t even begin to understand at this point.

Glen’s memorial service is this afternoon.  Then tomorrow we’ll return to the work of preservation--a worthy cause and a calling to be proud of, as Glen well knew.

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, November 26, 2010

Gifts of Preservation

Above:  Last year for Christmas, my wife and I gave my daughter two of the fashion illustration watercolors that were painted by June Anderson (my mother) during her years at Traphagen School of Fashion.  They were cleaned, matted, and framed.

Above:  I think my wife and I just treated ourselves to this one – no special occasion.  It was a large photographic print, nearly two feet in height.  It was taken in the early 1920s and shows my grandparents (Arthur N. and Ada Belle Price) visiting Ada Belle's grandmother in Orange, New Jersey.  We had the image cleaned, matted, and framed.

Above:  Well, this is technically from my wife’s family collection, but I'll include it here because I love the way it turned out.  These are wallpaper remnants that were rescued from the Shumate family homestead in Missouri.  I had them cleaned, matted, framed, and labeled for my wife’s birthday.

All conservation treatment, matting, and framing for the above projects was performed at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Note of Frustration and Thanksgiving

(Cross-posted on the June and Art blog…)

Last summer, I returned home from Florida with twelve large boxes comprising our family collection.  So much history…  and yet there are still countless gaps in the record.

Art’s letters are missing for that nine-day stretch of correspondence between June’s return to school and Thanksgiving vacation.  At the very least, we know we are missing the letter that June refers to as the “shortest.. on record” and the one with the “long, low whistle.”

We have no pictures in our family collection of the Traphagen School of Fashion where June attended for two years.  I’d be happy with an interior or an exterior.  My sister and I have searched the internet, the New York Public Library, and the New York Historical Society.  We’ve found nothing.

There are no photographs of June’s apartments in the city.

We've found no pictures of Shirley Stahl, June’s roommate and close friend.  Perhaps June used her as a model for some of her fashion illustrations?  There’s no way to know.

I don’t know where Jack’s (where June would eat breakfast before class) was located.  We’ve found no pictures of Roulston’s on Main Street in Southampton or Partida’s where Art went for his art classes.  And I’d sure love to uncover a photo of Helen Darby’s house where June and Art met.

Nevertheless, frustrating as it is to acknowledge these gaps, I’m deeply thankful for all that we have – twelve gift boxes from the past for us to care for and pass forward into the future.

Our personal heritage is important.  We’re indeed fortunate to have so much.

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, November 19, 2010

Preservation Strategies for Old Books

Custom-made boxes for book storage from the
Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

There’s a mass-produced biography of Paul Robeson, published in the 1960s, at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) right now.  It’s getting top-of-the-line treatment.  The text has been disbound, the leaves will be washed, tears will be repaired, and the spine will be resewn.  That’s not the usual level of attention that an ordinary book of this period would receive, but this particular one has Robeson’s autograph signature on the title page.  The signature changes everything.

The family books that I brought in to be examined by Jim Hinz, CCAHA Director of Book Conservation, have no great associations with famous people and they don’t qualify as “rare” by any measure.  Sentimental value is the only value they have.  Conservation treatment is not recommended.

However, good care and proper storage is strongly recommended.  According to Jim, the most important thing is to keep the books in appropriate environmental conditions with low humidity and minimal light exposure.  When it comes to temperature and humidity, I should strive for moderation and consistency.

If I wanted to go a step further, Jim suggested that I look into custom-made boxes to store the books.  These boxes protect the books from light, help with humidity, provide some additional protection in the case of disaster, and are ideal for shipping.  For some standard-sized books, custom-fit boxes may be available through Gaylord or University Products.  For most books, custom-made boxes are more
appropriate and these require that very precise measurements be made.  They also look great on the shelf.  Very classy.

Special thanks to Jim Hinz for his consultations during the past week!

© 2010 Lee Price

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Same Book

My Hamlet and Tarzan are the same.  Not the same character and not by the same author, but when looked at as physical objects, my family books of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Best Loved Plays of Williams Shakespeare are essentially the same book.

I’d always assumed they were different.  The Burroughs book was a cheap pulp book, only a half-step up from the mass-market pulp magazines that originally published his work.  The Shakespeare book, however, was “the world’s greatest literature,” published by Spencer Press and in the introduction they promised:  “Mounteney in his careful designing has created books possessing rare beauty of design and exquisite good taste which view in appearance and handsomeness with the Spencer* masterpieces.”  All lies.  It’s a cheap book, no better than the Tarzan.

Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, placed the two books next to each other, pointing out one similarity after another.  According to Jim, they were both consistent with industry standards for mass-produced volumes…  but no better.

Their covers consist of a thin layer of buckram, a stiff cloth treated with a starch mixture, over
boards.  The spine linings were insufficient on both books, not capable of standing up to normal usage.  And the paper was virtually identical in both books, characteristic of the American wood pulp papers that dominated the industry from 1850 to 1950.  This paper puts out acetic acid which breaks down the paper fibers, resulting in the most brittle paper in the world.

My poor Shakespeare—it turns out it’s not much more than a “quintessence of dust,” not a paragon at all.

* William Augustus Spencer was a famous book collector who specialized in fine French bindings.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Professional Examination


This is how a conservator examines a book, explained Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  There are three steps:

1.  The Cover:  What’s it made of?  How’s it holding up?  Is it clean or dirty?

2.  The Sewing:  How were the pages sewn together and how is the sewing holding up?  Anything detached?

3.  The Text Block:  What’s the paper and what’s the media?  (Wood pulp paper and common black printing ink in the case of my books.)  Does the paper retain flexibility or is it becoming brittle?  Are there other problems like tears, distortions, or surface dirt?

Detached Spine.
Considering the cheapness of their original production, the family books that I brought in for Jim to examine are in pretty good shape.  There’s some surface grime on their covers and minor losses on the slightly battered corners.  The spine linings were insufficient from the start, resulting in detached spines in the cloth layer on two of the books.  The pages are discolored but have not reached a point of severe brittleness yet (it’s just a matter of time with this highly acidic paper though...).

Of course I feel invested in my family books, so it's good to hear that--all things considered--they're in okay shape for typical books published during the greatest age (1850-1950) of bad bookmaking the world has ever seen.

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mold and Books

Jim Hinz, Director of Book
Conservation at the
Conservation Center for
Art and Historic Artifacts.

Good news!  Our family books are clean.  There’s no sign of mildew or mold on them, according to Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  I was concerned, as these books had been in a waterlogged house for approximately a week in September 2008 after a second floor toilet supply line broke, flooding our home.  Granted, the condition of these books is far from pristine (they’ve got surface grime, detached spines, and brittle paper), but clean of mold is reason to celebrate.

Mildew and mold are both fungi.  While there are technical botanical differences between them, the difference matters little to a conservator.  They’re both bad for books and bad for people.  You smell their musty odor because their spores release into the air around them as the molds search for new hosts.  But don’t take too deep a sniff.  Molds can trigger serious allergic reactions and aggravate asthma.

I asked Jim what his response would have been if he
Book with mold.
had opened the books and discovered mold.  “You always see a mold bloom,” Jim said.  “They can come in a rainbow of colors.  If left untreated, the mold will eat right through the pages and text.”  With an active mold, you can usually see a white fuzzy growth amid the color.  In situations where there’s a visible mold bloom, the best thing to do is to take the infected books to a conservator.  And until you get to the books to a conservator, you should isolate them.

In a case like mine, where the books had been exposed to some serious humidity and were at-risk for mildew, Jim would recommend setting any moist books upright, fanning out the pages, and drying them out with a hairdryer.  The downside to this is that the pages may cockle, but that’s preferable to the risk of mold.

Most home remedies for mold (many of which are touted on the internet) are ineffective because they don’t stop the mold spores.  Beware of solutions that just cover up the mold smell with some mildly preferable aroma, like baking soda.  The mold will continue its relentless work.

Our books were in the house when it was thoroughly dried out (huge fans running in all the rooms) and this was probably good for them.  Then the books were packed up into boxes and shipped out for storage.  The storage building was kept at a low constant temperature--and that was in our favor, too.  Molds like humidity and high temperatures.  In the end our books lucked out, emerging unscathed from potential mold disaster.

© 2010 Lee Price