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Opposites Attract: A Love Letter to Magnets

February 8, 2018

The 3-D valentines in the current Love Always exhibition in the Rosemary McKeeLanham Gallery are beautiful and whimsical – and they posed a challenge for the conservators preparing them for display. How to showcase their intricate, 3-dimensional nature in a secure and attractive way? Our goal with any exhibit mounting system is to make sure that the historical object is fully supported and protected. At the same time, we want our supports to integrate with the design and aesthetics of the exhibition – the objects should be the first thing you notice, not the stand they’re sitting on.

When we display a particular page in a book, we construct a plastic cradle and use strips of soft polyethylene to strap the book open. The 3-D valentines function similarly to a book, in that they need to be held in an open position, but their irregular edges and thin, fragile tissue paper made strapping them open difficult and unsightly. Our solution? Magnets! Taking advantage of magnetic “laws of attraction,” we placed a small, rare earth magnet in the folds of the tissue paper and another on the back of the plastic stand. After a little testing, we found magnets of the appropriate strength – strong enough to hold the valentines in place, but weak enough to not create a dent in the paper.

Our love for magnets spread to the letters in the exhibit. By embedding a magnet into the back of the mat board supports and placing another on the underside of the plastic stands, the letters are held securely in place without the need for plastic strapping, which could obscure the text and make the letters harder to read.

The love affair may have gotten a little obsessive. Can you guess how the cloth covered platforms in the display cases are attached to their metal bases? That’s right – magnets!

Stephanie Gowler is the paper conservator at IHS. She's always dreaming about and planning for her next meal, her next quilting project, and her next travel adventure

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