Conserving Art on Paper

  • Here in the Paper Conservation Lab conservators examine, document and treat a wide variety of works on paper for exhibition, acquisition and collections storage. The collections include prints, drawings, watercolors, and photographic materials, all of which have their own unique physical and aesthetic characteristics. Typical conservation treatments and preventive measures include surface cleaning, removing harmful attachments such as pressure-sensitive tape and poor-quality matting materials, reducing discoloration and staining, flattening paper distortions, and housing artworks in chemically-stable, acid-free materials.

    NARATOR: In the paper conservation lab, conservators assess and treat a variety of works on paper, which are known for being delicate and vulnerable. Paper conservator Kate Maynor handles each artwork with patience and care.

    KATE MANOR: Even though we have a great deal of experience in performing treatments, our experience has taught us to expect the unexpected, because each work of art is unique. Before we treat a work of art, we thoroughly examine it and document it, both in written reports and also in photographs.

    We examine it visually using different kinds of light, and we conduct tasks that simulate different aspects of treatment on a small scale. This gives us a feel, literally, for the work of art and how it will behave in the course of treatment.

    This print was published in 1873 by Currier and Ives, and it has a number of common condition problems that we find in works on paper, mainly due to poor handling or poor storage.

    NARRATOR: The print’s appearance is comprised by surface grime, staining, and distortions. Several breaks and poorly mended tears weaken the paper’s edges. Careful surface cleaning is the first step in treatment.

    To remove the old tear repair, the cloth tape is thinned down using a scalpel. Then a water-based gel is applied to gently soften the adhesive so that the remaining tape can be removed bit by bit. To properly mend tears, conservators choose stable, reversible materials. Long-fiber Japanese paper, delicate yet strong, covers the tear’s edges. The paper is adhered with a purified wheat starch paste.

    KM: Repairing a damage that is very disfiguring is an obvious source of pleasure, but just performing a part of a treatment that I know will make the work of art last longer – that’s equally satisfying for me.

    NARRATOR: After treating each of the condition problems, the print is now stronger and more resistant to future damage. Stains and distortions no longer detract from the beauty of the print so that future generations can enjoy the subtleties of light, color, and line. With proper care, works on paper can last for centuries.
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