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Bloody costumes in De Niro collection present unusual challenge for conservation team

Blood runs through the archive of renowned actor Robert De Niro. From bloodstained props to grisly costumes, artifacts of some of Hollywood’s most iconic thrillers are preserved at the Harry Ransom Center. Although the fake blood that marks these materials might share a similar chemical makeup, each bloody stain has its own secrets.

 

One such artifact is a shirt De Niro wore in a Cape Fear (1991) fight scene that has several gashes surrounded by fake blood. Twenty years later it is still sticky to the touch, which has posed complicated housing issues. The tackiness of the blood is what made this artifact a preservation challenge because traditional archival materials used to cushion textiles were adhering to—rather than protecting—the shirt. I learned that silicone-coated polyester film proved to be the best storage solution.

 

I learned that fake blood recipes vary depending on the specific effect a director or special effects supervisor aims for in a movie. For instance, in the film 15 Minutes (2001), the blood contained titanium oxide to give it an opacity that would photograph better. In the film Ronin (1998), the fake blood’s consistency enabled it to splatter from an explosive blood bag apparatus in the armpit of De Niro’s jacket.

 

These “bloody” artifacts have proven to be a puzzle to conservators and curators since knowing the makeup of these fake blood recipes poses issues when it comes to storing and exhibiting cinema history.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Scholar: Will libraries of the future preserve cultural heritage?

Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.
Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.

Michele V. Cloonan, Professor at Simmons College and Editor-in-Chief of Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, presented the talk “Exeunt Libri: Will Libraries of the Future Preserve Cultural Heritage?” for the 2013 Donald G. Davis, Jr. Lecture on Thursday, October 17. Below, she shares her thoughts about preservation.

 

Preservation is all around us. It encompasses continuity and change. I first encountered issues of preservation as a child living in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Three particular touchstones have stayed with me. One was the dismantling of the Fifth Army Base on the Promontory Point. While there was wide-spread support for it to be closed, some people advocated for the preservation of parts of the installation, so that there would be a permanent record of the site.

 

A second touchstone was the Museum of Science and Industry, my next-door neighbor. I explored every outside nook of it as a child and was intrigued by what little I knew of its history. Built as The Palace of Fine Arts, it was constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. One had to be captivated by this building, the only one to survive the vast White City.

 

Finally, the demolition of a beautiful brownstone apartment complex across the street from my house, which was replaced by a less-attractive high-rise, made me think about preservation as I watched people collect tiles and light fixtures right before the wrecking ball destroyed the building.

 

In ways like this, we are all touched by preservation. Each community shares its own stories of the old—and the newer. Most communities contain some legacies of their past, which may become “Places of Memory” (Lieux de Memoires, as Pierre Nora refers to them). Other historical artifacts are destroyed, or their sites become neglected. We contemplate the presence, as well as the absence, of cultural artifacts. They are part of our memory.

 

The rise and fall of physical monuments are part of the preservation continuum of cultural heritage.

 

As an adult, I have written about preservation, focusing mostly on libraries, archives, and museums. For my talk at the Harry Ransom Center, I will focus on preservation, memory, and libraries. Libraries represent many things. They may be storehouses of books and manuscripts, information centers, classrooms, and community living rooms. At the same time, the library exists in many physical and digital forms, some analog, others virtual. As a metaphor, the library may represent a fictional place (Jorge Luis Borges), or the concept of a library may occur within other metaphors such as the World Brain (H. G. Wells), the Memex (“memory” + “index”) (Vannevar Bush), or the Internet.

 

The Ransom Center is the perfect place in which to consider the interplay between preservation, memory, and libraries because it has been a leader in the American preservation and conservation movement; a preeminent collector of books, manuscripts, and objects; and a research center. Its original “temple-of-knowledge” architecture/building is now complemented by dramatic accents of glass, which invite us to reflect on its collections in new ways.

 

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

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The Ransom Center’s archives are full of treasures waiting to be pulled off the shelves.  But once paged from the stacks, some of those treasures prove difficult to handle.

Such was the case with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s enormous 1786 print “Pianta delle Fabriche Esistenti Nella villa Adriana.” The 10-foot wide map of Hadrian’s villa is a popular item at the Ransom Center, but its impressive size complicates the process of sharing it with students and scholars. Now, thanks to treatment efforts undertaken by Ransom Center conservators, the map is far more accessible.

Previously, a complex set of folds allowed the print to fit, attached to a stiff paper stub, inside its book. The setup was not optimal: long-term folds left significant creases in the print, and the stub attachment was unwieldy and damaging.

The conservation team had a better idea. Conservators cut the map away from its stub and carefully unfolded the map onto a large work surface, where it was cleaned of superficial dust and grime. The creases were relaxed by a textile humidifier and then flattened under a weighted drying system. Conservators also mended small tears in the print using long-fibered Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Next, Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, was tasked with creating a modified tube around which the print could be rolled. Her objective was to eliminate the need for folding, thus protecting the item from potentially harmful creases. Given the print’s large size, a standard tube would be too large to house on a shelf within the stacks. Hamilton’s answer was to roll the map onto a flattened, space-saving pad.

The pad consists of four layers. A corrugated board forms the core, which is then wrapped in thick foam. An outer layer of soft, thin Volara foam envelops the interior, which is cocooned by airplane cotton just below an exterior cloth surface. Hamilton used a giant needle to sew through the many layers, ensuring that everything was well-secured.

Finally, Preservation Housing Manager Apryl Voskamp created a custom archival box to house the print and its pad. The new lidded box has a layer of protective Volara foam and a drop front, which allows the print to slide out easily without risk of harm.

The map of Hadrian’s villa is frequently used by classes in the University’s School of Architecture, where students learn the importance of structure and accessibility. Applying those same concepts, Ransom Center conservators have brought new life to the map of Hadrian’s villa.

Associate Director for Conservation and Building Management Jim Stroud and Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, carefully roll a protective layer of paper on top of the map. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Director for Conservation and Building Management Jim Stroud and Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, carefully roll a protective layer of paper on top of the map. Photo by Pete Smith.

Before and After: A set of Sicilian marionettes

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes before custom housing was built.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.
The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes in their custom-built housing.

The Stanley Marcus collection of Sicilian marionettes, constructed between 1850 and 1960, consists of 60 marionettes and a backdrop curtain. The marionettes, which were originally purchased by entrepreneur Stanley Marcus in 1960, form a troupe of characters from the religious allegorical poem “Orlando Furioso.”

The figures, which are made of painted wood and metal components, stand about four feet tall and are dressed in fur, leather, cloth, and metal armor. The human marionettes have wooden heads, torsos, hands, and legs. Their arms are made out of folded cloth. A few figures have glass eyes, and some even have human hair adhered to their heads. Protecting the marionettes posed a particular challenge for the Ransom Center’s conservation and preservation team. Read the full article about the preservation efforts relating to the marionettes.

Exhibition services team builds custom storage hanger for "Men of Honor" dive suit from Robert De Niro's collection

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There are many factors to consider when housing very large collection objects. This was particularly true in the case of the deep sea diving suit worn by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Men of Honor, which came into the care of the Ransom Center when Robert De Niro donated his archive to the Center in 2006.

The mandate was to create a storage device to increase the longevity and preserve the construction of the suit. The dive suit was too large and too heavy for housing in conventional preservation boxes, and flat storage could not have properly supported the suit’s own material from crushing itself.

The amount of storage space had to be considered, along with the construction of the support device, so the suit could be easily transported and exhibited. This dictated that the type of materials used to construct the device be archival and light weight, such as acrylic sheet and polyethylene foam.

The solution was a hanger designed to be simple, adjustable, and adaptable.  The main body and structure of the hanger is 1.25 cm thick acrylic sheet.  It was measured to fit the exact shape of the interior of the deep sea diving suit across the shoulders and into the arms.

The acrylic sheet panels were cut, drilled, and polished, then bolted together with two thick polyethylene foam planks placed between them. The Ethafoam serves as lightweight, highly compact archival filler. It also provides a porous surface to which layers of Ethafoam padding can be hot-glued to cover the surfaces and edges of the acrylic sheet and the bolt heads.

The central neck panel is also constructed from acrylic sheet, and screwed together to form an adjustable sliding block that is removable. This allows the shoulder support to be placed inside the suit without obstruction and refitted once the suit is ready to hang. The neck panel also has an adjustable swiveling eyebolt that provides easy attachment when transporting, hanging, and exhibiting.

The Ethafoam padding goes well beyond the shoulder seams of the suit and gives support across the entire upper half of the shoulders and well into the arms to reduce weight pulling on the shoulder seams of the suit. The width of the hanger from front to back completely supports the neck’s thick vulcanized collar, as well.

The hanger can readily be taken apart and modified for future adjustments or additions. One possibility being considered is the addition of fabric straps from the main body of the hanger to the interior of the waist for further support.

The hanger is unobtrusive in appearance but can also be covered easily for exhibition purposes. It is, of course, important that the stabilizing support that extends from the wall be securely mounted to ensure adequate support to the weight of the suit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Western Association for Art Conservation newsletter.

Related content:

Video: What do costumes reveal about a film character?

Once hanging, the suit doesn’t touch the walls or the floor, which helps preserve the material.  Photo by Wyndell Faulk.
Once hanging, the suit doesn’t touch the walls or the floor, which helps preserve the material. Photo by Wyndell Faulk.

'Every now and then you have to think outside the box'

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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 Harry Ransom Center's 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.
The Harry Ransom Center's 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.