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Solutions for a Sticky Problem, Part 1

December 16, 2020

Conservation is an ever-changing field, with new techniques, materials and approaches to preserving cultural heritage materials being continuously developed and refined. One way we in the IHS Conservation Department keep up with these changes is via our affiliation with the American Institute for Conservation, a national professional organization for conservators, conservation scientists, preservation experts and allied professionals. As members of AIC, we have access to their publications, grant opportunities, workshops, and other resources; we can also attend the Annual Meeting.

This year the annual meeting was moved to a virtual format. Though I certainly missed connecting with my colleagues and the energy inherent at an in-person event, the move to virtual has proven to be extremely beneficial in many ways, not least of which is the fact that by spreading the conference talks out over the entire summer, I was able to attend far more sessions than I ever would have been able to in person.

One of the most immediately useful talks I heard was presented by Elsa Thyss, a photograph conservation fellow at The Metropolitan Musuem of Art, about her treatment of severely damaged glass plate negatives. The Met’s Ernest J. Bellocq collection suffers from damage very similar to that seen in our Bretzman Photo Studio Collection, which you can read more about here. Both collections are comprised of early 20th century gelatin dry plates which are deteriorating due to poor storage conditions; exposure to high heat and humidity has caused the gelatin emulsion layer to crack and separate from the glass.

The emulsion layer on this negative – which depicts members of the Bretzman family enjoying time together on a swing – is lifting away from the glass in large flakes, risking total loss of the image.

Consolidating emulsion on glass plates is challenging because it can be difficult to find an adhesive that will work effectively without distorting the image. Elsa’s solution was to create very thin sheets of dry gelatin which she then cut into tiny pieces and placed under the lifting flaps of emulsion. These bits of gelatin were re-humidified with a solvent solution to make them tacky and the emulsion was pressed down onto them. Hearing about her success with this technique – an innovative way to apply a traditional adhesive – gave me the confidence and motivation to test it out on the Bretzman plates.

I love it when I have the chance to learn about a technique or process immediately applicable to a treatment puzzle that I’ve been trying to solve. This is an advantage of working slowly and not trying to rush through treatment; sometimes it takes years for the right materials and techniques to be developed that are perfect for a particular project. It’s also the advantage of paying attention to what conservators at other institutions are doing and staying active in professional networks – you never know when someone across the country will have a great solution for a sticky problem.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll discuss my attempts at applying The Met solution to our Bretzman collection.

Stephanie Gowler

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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