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News Student Blog: Harry Ransom Center

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​WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Emily Farek examines an Aldine Blue text block using transmitted light.

It has been a whirlwind three months so far at the Harry Ransom Center, located at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), where I am an intern in the paper conservation lab. With 36 million manuscripts, 1 million rare books, 5 million photographs, and more than 100,000 works of art there is no shortage of work to do! The Ransom Center has rotating exhibits as well as viewing and reading rooms for the public and for classes to research and see items of interest. I love working with such a large and varied collection and treating works on paper for exhibition as well as for research and study. It has been exciting to work on the UT campus because of all of the resources available at the other libraries, the many lectures and workshops that are offered, and the collegiate and collegial atmosphere. On top of all of this, it has been so fun to explore the campus from where my father, aunt, and grandparents graduated.

The Ransom Center collects materials that document the creative processes of groups, organizations, or individuals who work in literature, the arts, and the humanities. The Center acts as a steward for these records and fosters the understanding and interpretation of collections. So far, I have been able to work on items from the Circus Collection, P.E.N. Archive, Minstrel Show Collection, Arthur Miller Archive, Playbills and Programs Collection, and the Aldine Press Books. I have completed examinations, surveys, rehousing projects, condition reports, and treatments, and attended meetings with curators, archivists, and the digitization team. Working with my conservation colleagues and with other departments has been an enriching experience, and I am grateful to learn from experts in these allied fields.

Right now, I am working on the treatment of a set model from a 1964 production of “Incident at Vichy.” Arthur Miller wrote this play, and Boris Aronson was the set designer for the production. The set model is a great example of the types of things found in archives that aren’t necessarily what a paper conservator would see every day in another type of institution but may come across in such varied archival collections as these.

Left: Emily with a group of recently acquired posters that need flattening. Right: Emily humidifying a furniture advertisement from 1913. Images courtesy of Jane Boyd.

​Left: The "Incident at Vichy" set model before treatment. Right: An image of the set in action, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

This set model is in the Boris Aronson Collection, and will be displayed in an exhibit opening in February at the Ransom Center called Stories to Tell, a revolving exhibition that answers the question "What is the Harry Ransom Center?" by displaying the collections held here and fulfilling the Center's mission to share and celebrate the creative process.    

In a December 4, 1964 review in The New York Times, "Incident at Vichy" is described as a "compelling, shaking drama [that] unfolds against Boris Aronson's simple set with its background of inner office and the frightening shadows at its windows, with its bench and stools in the foreground and its iron gates in the distance. "Incident at Vichy" accommodates itself perfectly to the open stage. When a play has enough inner size and strength, it is at home anywhere."

​Emily consolidates the paint flakes on the set model, image courtesy of Jane Boyd.

Now 54 years old, this set model has an overall layer of dust and grime, a precariously flaking paint layer, and many loose attachments between its parts. My treatment goals are to reduce the dust and grime and stabilize the paint layer and loose attachments. I first surface cleaned stable areas of the model using soft brushes, cosmetic sponges, vulcanized rubber sponges, and Groom Stick, a vulcanized rubber kneadable eraser. Next, I consolidated the loose flakes and reattached fallen flakes to the surface with 4% Aquazol 50 w/v in ethanol. I chose this adhesive because of its compatibility with the flaking paint and the specific goals of the treatment. The paint is not soluble in ethanol, and was not visibly changed with application of the consolidant. It was important not to relax or flatten the paint flakes because Aronson intended the paint to look “old” and cracking. The quick evaporation of the ethanol helped with this, and the strength and low viscosity of the Aquazol allowed for a small amount of the consolidant to be applied behind the flakes, coating the back of the flakes, strengthening them, and adhering them to the support. At the time of writing, I have completed consolidation and surface cleaning, and have begun reattaching areas of the model where the original adhesive has failed, using a more viscous solution of Aquazol 500 in ethanol to stabilize these loose parts.  

This treatment will allow the set model to be exhibited safely and presented in a state that is much closer to Aronson’s original intent. I researched images from the “Vichy” production, biographical and art historical accounts of Aronson’s inspirations, and Aronson’s relationship with Arthur Miller to help better understand this model and tell its story in the Ransom Center’s exhibit. It has been so much fun taking a peek into the creative lives of Boris Aronson and Arthur Miller. I am looking forward to the rest of my year at the Ransom Center!

— Emily Farek, WUDPAC Class of 2019

​Details of the cracking paint on the set model before treatment.

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Emily Farek shares some projects from her internship at UT Austin's Harry Ransom Center, including the treatment of a set model from a 1964 production of Arthur Miller's “Incident at Vichy.”

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2019 Fellow Emily Farek shares some projects from her internship at UT Austin's Harry Ransom Center, including the treatment of a set model from a 1964 production of Arthur Miller's “Incident at Vichy.”

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489