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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.

The Immortal Hoax of William Henry Ireland

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“I’m happy that this book is stable enough for scholars to use,” said Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center’s Conservation Department, when asked about the most satisfying part of conserving a book of fabricated Shakespearian manuscripts.

When Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare first crossed Inkyung’s workbench, time had taken its toll. The book had split apart in several places. The leather that remained on the binding was chemically deteriorated, and the covers were detached from the text block. Thankfully, the paper was in fairly good condition despite some foxing, a term applied to orangish spots, often present in older paper, that are attributed to deteriorating mold spores or microscopic bits of metal.

Samuel Ireland, an engraver and publisher of travelogues, published this printed collection of alleged Shakespeare manuscripts. Later, the manuscripts that inspired the publication were revealed as forgeries made by his son, William Henry Ireland.

In two published exposés that chronicle his voyage down the slippery path of a forger, William Henry recalls the 1792 trip he took with his father, Samuel, to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Samuel Ireland, a fervent enthusiast of everything Shakespeare, hoped to discover Shakespearian heirlooms and tracked a promising lead to Clopton House, home of a Mr. Williams. To his father’s horror, Mr. Williams facetiously told Samuel he should have arrived sooner: “Why it isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers, in order to clear a small chamber for some young partridges which I wish to bring up alive: and as to Shakespeare, why there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them.” Missing the joke entirely, Samuel burst out in anger: “Good God, Sir! You do not know what an injury the world has sustained by the loss of them.”

The trip to Stratford-on-Avon and his father’s love of Shakespeare clearly inspired the 17-year-old William Henry Ireland. Two years later, in 1794, young William Henry “procured” from an anonymous gentleman a lease agreement between William Shakespeare and Michael Fraser. He presented this document to his father, who was enormously delighted. The lease was a fake, as were the dozens of other items William Henry “unearthed” during the following months. His father, though, was convinced they were authentic and in 1796 he published Miscellaneous Papers, a compilation of the forged manuscripts.

Among the forged manuscripts that William Henry “discovered” was a lost manuscript of a play titled Vortigern & Rowena. At the same time that he published the forged manuscripts, Samuel Ireland negotiated to have the lost tragedy produced at Drury-Lane. The audience was filled with doubters, including antiquarian Edmond Malone, who questioned the play’s authenticity in An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. Even the renowned actor John Philip Kemble, playing the role of Vortigern, doubted the play’s authenticity and decided to give the tragic role a comic turn. The premiere was the play’s only performance.

The critics began to accuse Samuel Ireland of making the forgeries. Hoping to “exculpate my father from the odium which was heaped on him [instead],” William Henry published a pamphlet in late 1796, An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, confessing that he forged the manuscripts. Nevertheless, it seems that Samuel Ireland thought his son a dullard and refused to believe that he had the skills to compose and write the forgeries—Samuel went to his death in 1800 still believing in the manuscripts’ veracity.

In the preface to his 1805 book, The Confessions of William Henry Ireland, William Henry wrote that he preferred that his actions be “regarded rather as that of an unthinking and impetuous boy than of a sordid and avaricious fabricator instigated by the mean desire of securing pecuniary emolument.” He describes in detail his forging methods and reiterates that he wanted to please his father with these gifts. He admits that pride in his own forging abilities led him to undertake some of the projects.

William Henry made a business of his scandal until his death in 1835. He cashed in by selling sets of “original” forgeries to collectors. One such copy of the handwritten forgeries, which originally was presented to the Prince Regent (later George IV), was acquired by the Center in the 1980s.

Conservators often study the historical background as well as technical information relating to an artifact to enhance their understanding of the artifact and to guide their treatment methodology. “At the Ransom Center, our approach to conservation treatment is usually quite conservative to safeguard physical information intrinsic to the item. Usually, we stabilize the physical structure and, sometimes, the chemical condition of a book so that patrons can safely handle the item,” says Ransom Center Book Conservator Olivia Primanis.

Originally, Inkyung planned a conservative treatment: to repair the book structure by reattaching the covers to the book with tackets, a technique that reconnects covers to the text block by looping thread through small holes that are pierced in the cover and through the shoulder of a text block. This repair would have left the book close to its original state, but the binding structure proved to be too deteriorated for a minor repair. While Inkyung was working on the book, the sewing threads broke, which required that the book be disassembled. Once apart, Inkyung mended tears in the pages and guarded the single leaves into gatherings with long-fibered Japanese paper and then resewed the book.

“This is a big job,” says Primanis, “especially when the book is large in size. This one measures 44 centimeters by 33.7 centimeters.”

Inkyung made a new cover for the book since the marbled paper covering and much of the original leather that remained were chemically deteriorated. Inkyung made the new cover with a marbled paper that had a pattern similar to the original cover and book cloth, which, today, is considered more durable than most newly made leathers.

Inkyung constructed a housing for the book that accommodates the original cover. Because deteriorated leather can stain adjacent materials, a folder was made for the original cover to protect the new binding.

Evidence of William Henry Ireland’s hoax lives on in the manuscript facsimiles and the printed publication. Because the book is working as a book should, Ransom Center patrons can now safely handle and study the forged Shakespearian manuscripts along with other texts revealing the context of these fabrications. These volumes might also be called on by those interested in background information on the recently published monograph inspired by the life of William Henry Ireland, The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center's Conservation Department, with the printed and facsimile versions of William Henry Ireland's handiwork, 'Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare' and "Fabricated Shakesperian Manuscripts.' Photo by Mary Baughman.
Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center's Conservation Department, with the printed and facsimile versions of William Henry Ireland's handiwork, 'Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare' and "Fabricated Shakesperian Manuscripts.' Photo by Mary Baughman.