“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.
Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.
Thanks to the generous donations of more than 600 supporters from around the world, the Ransom Center is delighted to announce that the fundraising goal to preserve the Gone With The Wind costumes has been reached. From Alaska to Florida, from Australia to Ireland, the response to this project has been enthusiastic and widespread. Although we knew there were legions of devoted Gone With The Wind fans, the overwhelming concern and support for these costumes provides tangible evidence of the power of movies to strike a deep and lasting chord in our collective consciousness. We deeply appreciate the many calls, letters, and emails, which further bolster our commitment to ensuring that the costumes from the David O. Selznick collection will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
As Gone With The Wind costume designer Walter Plunkett had remarked, “I don’t think it was my best work or even the biggest thing I did… But that picture, of course, will go on forever, and that green dress, because it makes a story point, is probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures.”
To those of you who contributed to the project, thank you for helping to preserve these iconic Hollywood treasures. We look forward to seeing you at our exhibition in 2014 celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind.
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Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”
That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.
“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”
The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.
For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.
“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”
One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.
“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”
Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.
“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.
Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.
“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.
While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.
“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”
The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.
“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.
In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.
The Ransom Center recently received a grant from the Tinker Foundation, based in New York City, to restore and make accessible four films by Jorge Prelorán. The series, “The Argentine Gaucho Today,” resides in the Edward Larocque Tinker collection at the Ransom Center.
Born to an Argentine father and Irish-American mother, Prelorán held both American and Argentine citizenship. He grew up in Buenos Aires, studied architecture and then film at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1961, began filming at the University of Tucumán, and moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to teach at UCLA until he retired in 1994. Prelorán died in 2009.
A cultural icon in Argentina, Prelorán donated his archive to the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in 2008. He is celebrated for having developed a cinematic genre known as ethnobiography.
What makes this grant special is that the Tinker Foundation provided the original grant to Prelorán to produce the films in 1961. “The Tinker Foundation has come full circle in that it supported the creation of the films, and now it is making certain that the films will continue to benefit students and scholars interested in documentary film well into the future,” said Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Ransom Center. “Not only will students and scholars be able to study the films at the Ransom Center, but through our collaborations with the Smithsonian Institution, they will also be available for exhibitions and dissemination via video, television, and the Internet,” he added.
Prelorán’s interest in documentary film production was fueled by work in Hollywood as an assistant director for documentary films and television. In 1961, he received an opportunity to further develop his documentary talents: a $35,000 grant from the Tinker Foundation to make a film on gauchos in Argentina. In an interview, Prelorán recalled, “With $8,000, a borrowed jeep, and seven hours of film, I set out with Horst Cemi, also a UCLA graduate, to discover my country, Argentina.”
The result was not one film, but a four-film series on the gauchos found in representative cattle raising areas.
Among his many honors, Prelorán received the Golden Astor award for life achievement at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina (2005) and was also declared a Distinguished Citizen by the City of Buenos Aires (2005). In 2008, Prelorán was awarded the International Cinema Artist award by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. A feature-length Argentine documentary film on Prelorán’s life’s philosophy, Huellas y Memoria (Footsteps and Memory), was released in 2009.
Learn more about the Ransom Center’s film collections.
In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.
The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.
“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.
Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.
“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”
The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.
“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”
The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.
Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.
The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.
“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”
Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.
“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.
Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.
It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.
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The Ransom Center has received a $1 million gift from the Booth Heritage Foundation to support and enrich its conservation and preservation programs. The gift to Campaign for Texas, the university’s capital campaign, will support a five-year initiative to enhance the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation programs for physical materials and to transform the Center’s digital preservation program.
The gift will establish a Conservation and Preservation Programs Excellence Fund, supporting initiatives such as staff participation in conservation and preservation workshops, meetings, conferences and programs; the development of a digital preservation management system and the establishment of internships in conservation and digital preservation. The gift will enable the recruitment of two new Ransom Center staff members in photograph conservation and digital preservation, providing funding while the Center seeks to endow the positions permanently.
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A poster in the Ransom Center’s Harry Houdini collection arrived just like Houdini would’ve wanted: folded up to an eighth of its size. Stephanie Watkins, Head of Paper Conservation, and her team faced a daunting project: the brittle paper couldn’t easily be unfolded without causing damage to the item. Once they successfully opened the poster, they had to remove dirt, acid, and discoloration, and restore missing pieces. Read about how Watkins and her team performed some magic of their own to treat this damaged item.
Students in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin frequently work on projects at the Ransom Center to gain hands-on experience in the field. Graduate student Rebecca Smyrl recently wrote an article about her survey of an unusual collection of rare books as part of her work in the school’s conservation program. Here, she explores one of the more unusual items she encountered in her survey of the Bieber collection.
The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.
As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.
Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.
In the spring of 2009, the Harry Ransom Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog the Morris L. Ernst papers. The collection will be closed to researchers until the project is completed in the fall of 2011. During that time, a team of one full-time project archivist and two part-time assistant archivists will arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. They will also produce a standard finding aid (or guide to the collection), which will be available online.
During the cataloging process, the archivists aim to achieve two goals: access and preservation. The Ernst papers, despite being uncataloged, have been used frequently since their acquisition. Several lists and indexes to the papers exist, but they are incomplete, unreliable, and difficult to navigate. This project will replace those various guides with a standardized, online finding aid, which will be searchable and generally much easier to access and use.
The other goal is to make the physical material last as long as possible, so that the information contained in the papers will remain a part of the cultural record. To this end, project staff will re-house the papers in acid-free boxes and folders. At-risk items—those that have been damaged by water, age, or other environmental factors—will be treated by the Center’s Conservation Department. The Ransom Center has a state-of-the-art lab where materials can be stabilized for long-term preservation.
When the cataloging project is complete, the Ernst papers will be housed with the Center’s other collections in secure temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, ensuring the papers’ availability to researchers.