Navigate / search

Bugs, Mold, and Conservation

Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.

Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.

When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.

Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.

Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.

Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”

The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.

The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.

Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.

“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.

Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.

Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.

This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Weights removed from red burgundy dress from "Gone With The Wind" to prevent damage

“Wear that!” spits Rhett Butler, throwing a burgundy ball gown at Scarlett. “Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion.”

When the provocative burgundy gown from Gone With The Wind arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, lead weights lining the back hem had torn parts of the dress. Cara Varnell, a conservator specializing in Hollywood film costumes who is currently conserving the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses, explains that the weights are an example of inherent vice: the studio costume department included the weights to make the dress hang and move properly, but over time the weights ended up tearing parts of the dress. To prevent further damage, Varnell and the conservation team decided that the weights had to go.

“This girl’s never dancing again, so the dress doesn’t need to train properly,” Varnell said. “But what we do care about is that it’s pulling on the center of the dress. Dress weights are very common, and, while I don’t approach it casually, I often remove the weights in most of the couture dresses I work with because they’re usually pulling on the fabric.”

To remove the weights, the team enlisted the help of three Costume Studies master’s degree students at New York University: Lauren Lappin, Jennifer Moss, and Laura Winslow. Before removing the weights, the students worked with Ransom Center Book Conservator Mary Baughman to create compartments for storing the weights. They used one machine to heat seal the edges of two strips of transparent polyester film, and they used an ultrasonic machine to separate the strips into individual compartments. They then labeled the compartments with each weight’s location on the gown’s hem.

Once the compartments were ready, the students took turns removing the thread from the bottom of the weight pockets. Switching between tweezers and the flat blade of small scissors, they gently lifted the thread from the fabric, removed the thread, then slid the weights out of their pockets and into their Mylar compartments. Once all the weights were in their designated compartments, Baughman and the students went back to the welding machines to seal the top.

After devising compartments, removing the weights, and placing the removed weights in their designated compartments, the conservation team helped the burgundy ball gown lose some weight.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

No wire hangers: Costumes in Robert De Niro collection receive a set of custom padded hangers

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.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.