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News Student Blog: Field Notes from a Paper Conservation Intern

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​Left: WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Madison Brockman installs an illuminated manuscript at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco using covered rare earth magnets. Right: Custom painted pins to hold the book upright and open.

Just like the unique artworks they collect, no two fine arts museums are completely alike. Each may have a particular strength in collecting, like geographic region or art historical period, or strengths in diverse exhibitions, public programming, and community engagement. I can see these differences firsthand between in my internships at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Each institution has collections that reflect their respective histories and cities, and each displays those collections in unique ways. The conservation intern must adapt and learn from both!

I spent my summer at the paper conservation lab at the Legion of Honor. The Legion of Honor and the deYoung Museums together form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF). The FAMSF is home to the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, the Museums’ collection of artists’ books and works on paper. It is the largest repository of works on paper in the western United States – an excellent resource for a graduate conservation intern. I arrived at a busy time: the museum was bustling with activity, installing a grand new exhibit titled “Truth and Beauty: the Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters.” There I assisted in the mounting of several hand-illustrated books with exquisitely crafted bindings.

Left: Materials used in a traditional manual fill with inpainting. Right: The stepwise process of creating a structural fill and aesthetically integrating it with the surrounding image.

Two of these books date to the early 20th century, though they hearken back to the tradition of illustrated manuscripts from the medieval period. Jeweled “treasure bindings” like these are too beautiful to cover up, so we in the paper conservation lab needed to engineer a new display method.  Standing the books upright, without a cradle, allows for a full view of the opulent covers and also two openings. The conservators devised an inconspicuous mounting system that includes custom-painted pins and covered rare earth magnets to secure the page openings. The book is held upright with custom-painted pins that, when installed in the deck below, support the book in a comfortable upright position and prevent its closing. Pins are used in the same way to hold open the rolled silk interleaving “curtains” sewn into each opening, which would have otherwise obscured the illuminations and text. While each book is unique and poses its own challenges for exhibition, these were in excellent condition and safe to display in this novel way.

I also completed several treatments during my summer internship, including one loss compensation treatment for a 17th century Dutch print by Cornelis Bloemaert. The top left corner of the print, which included some of the engraved lines in the sky, appeared to have been cut out with scissors. Damage like a large loss rendered this print unexhibitable in a museum context where the aesthetics of the artwork are paramount, but rather than being relinquished to storage, treatment made it fit for public enjoyment once again. Paper conservators have long restored image losses by hand, using media like watercolor to meticulously “inpaint” structural fills; this print was a good candidate with which to practice this traditional approach.

Before and after filling the loss at the top right corner. The print could now be exhibited in house or on loan.

First I created the fill from cast pulp paper, selected to match the original print. This paper is handmade in the conservation lab, by casting a pulp of fibers and water onto a mold. It is custom blended for color, thickness, and fiber content, and is highly malleable. A faux plate mark was imprinted on the fill and the pronounced felt hair pattern of the 17th century paper was recreated by hand with a porcupine quill. The lines of the etching were extended with a blend of watercolors to match the warm black printing ink. Dry pastels were used to create imitation surface dirt and the inky plate mark. The result is a seamless aesthetic restoration, all completed by hand.

After a rewarding summer internship in San Francisco, I packed my bags and moved home to Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country with the largest museum in the western United States. It is here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that I will spend my third year of the WUDPAC program. As a Los Angeles county native, I grew up making trips to this renowned museum, always amazed by its numerous and engaging exhibitions. When it came time to apply for third year internships, I sought out a position at LACMA to work with its collections of Eastern, modern and contemporary art – and learn what happens behind the scenes at such a busy institution!

​Left: Madison installing a case of pamphlets and bound graphic arts materials for an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Minimally visible mounts are also used for these objects. Center: Before treatment, the print has fragmented edges with numerous losses. Right: The object is bathed prior to lining, which will stabilize the print and help in disguising the disfiguring losses.

Although I have only been at LACMA for two weeks now, I have already jumped in to preventive conservation and gallery maintenance activities, writing condition reports for outgoing and incoming loans, and treating several objects. Last week I took part in the installation of a case of pamphlets and bound materials to accompany a graphic design show, “West of Modernism.” The exhibit showcases the work of local California graphic designers from the 1970s to the 1990s, and as with exhibiting the FAMSF books, the aesthetic beauty of the objects should not be obscured by clunky mounts. Custom-made minimally visible systems designed with Vivak, polyethylene strapping, and sanded Mylar clips ensure the object is safely displayed without detracting from its visual appeal.

One treatment I began involves loss compensation, as with the FAMSF print, both to stabilize and enhance the aesthetics of the object. A 20th century linocut by Leopoldo Méndez will be going on loan and requires treatment to address the brittle and fragmented newsprint support. I have surface cleaned and bathed the object in preparation for lining, which is not always common with works of art on paper. In this case, lining the object with a supportive layer of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste will stabilize the numerous edge tears, fill the large losses, and allow for easier handling and hinging. The lining paper will be selected to emulate the light brown color of the aged newsprint support so the losses are not as readily apparent.

So far my internship experiences are as varied as the objects I have come across – and just as valuable! – with commonalities that link them together across cities and institutions. My internship at FAMSF taught me a great deal about the life of a conservator in a fine arts museum, and I look forward to a successful year ahead at LACMA as well.

— Madison Brockman, WUDPAC Class of 2019

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Madison Brockman shares her experiences as a paper conservation intern at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Madison Brockman shares her experiences as a paper conservation intern at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489