Wednesday, January 28, 2015

To our friend, Maurice

For the past couple months, we had a live-in visitor at the Book Conservation lab.  He appeared unexpectedly one day as Eliza was preparing some leather for a label.  He didn’t say much (or do much, really) but he did seem keenly interested in eating. We called him Maurice.  Trying to be good hosts, we gave him a jar to live in and some scraps of leather to munch on, and even praised him when he shed his skin as he progressed through his larval state.

Allow me to introduce Maurice the furniture carpet beetle...

Larva and adult furniture carpet beetles, Anthrenus flavipes.
Photo by Dong-Hwan Choe.
 Yes, I know it is strange that the Lab played host to a well-known pest—one that is named for its predilection for eating antiques.   Perhaps, if you are squeamish about insects, you are wondering why we didn’t dispose of him immediately upon finding him.  But Maurice is a good reminder of something every conservator has to consider at some point in their career—how to handle insects that can potentially cause extensive damage to the organic material of our cultural heritage? 
Thankfully, those who have come before us have developed a good system for handling visitors like Maurice: Integrated Pest Management, also known as IPM.

IPM is a method used by museums and libraries across the country in order to aid in the control and prevention of pest-related damage in paper-based collections.  The reason that this is so important is that insects are often attracted to adhesives and starches found in the components of libraries and archives, and will occasionally attack the paper itself.  This leads to the loss of structural components, and in some cases, to extensive damage to precious information

insect damage, the Carter Library, Photo by Quinn Ferris
The images to the right and below, illustrate the level of damage that can be caused by the occasional pest.  In the case of these volumes, before UVa acquired them, they lived in a plantation manor where they were susceptible to all manner of insect attack.  In the image on the right, we can see that insects devoured all of the paper off of the spines (paper that was full of appealing adhesive, not doubt) but left the title labels which were, for whatever reason, clearly not as delicious. 

insect damage, the Carter Library; photo by Quinn Ferris

However, it is obvious that the little critters are not too picky—in the picture on the left, several different types of material, both cloth and paper, have been damaged by pest activity.  Thankfully the closely monitored and controlled environment of the stacks at the Small Special Collection ensures that these books will not suffer further degradation.
A main facet of IPM is to prevent most effectively without causing harm to the collections themselves or their stewards—therefore no pesticides are used.  IPM has five main components in its implementation: Inspection and Monitoring, Identification of Pests, Climate and Habitat Modification and Treatment and Prevention.

Because Maurice was the only of his kind found in the lab, we concluded that he was probably accidentally brought in as a tiny larva attached to a human, or he rolled in through the door one day (furniture carpet beetles do live "in the wild"), hard to say really but he was not symptomatic of an overall pest infestation at UVa.  Thank Goodness!  But having Maurice on hand allowed us to identify him—the most important step in determining whether a pest is a serious risk and how to manage it— and monitor him for a few weeks just to see what would happen if he had a steady snacking supply.

So, what did happen?  Not much.  Maurice followed the football season and rooted passionately for the Hoos.  Eventually, he did metamorphose out of his exoskeleton into a slightly larger and hairier version of himself.  But, lacking a community of other furniture carpet beetles, or water, he mostly just hung out and monitored the goings on in the lab until we found him legs up one morning in his jar.

For more information on Integrated Pest Management in Libraries and Museums, you can browse the following links:

-Quinn Morgan Ferris

Friday, November 7, 2014

Effect of humidity fluctuation on a rare book

Which is why conservators, collection managers, etc. are so adamant about environmental control in collections storage and exhibit spaces.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Historic Wallpaper

Hello!  My name is Quinn Morgan Ferris, and I am UVa’s new book conservation intern!  Recently relocated from New York City (via Alaska), I’m a fourth year student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, finishing my M.A. in Library and Archives Conservation here in Charlottesville.  I will make periodic “guest appearances” when Eliza sends interesting projects my way at the bench…

As the chill of autumn truly descends on Grounds and I begin only my fourth week of work, I have already encountered some fascinating assignments. 

One of particular relevance to the hidden decorative arts history of UVa arrived in the lab in a stack of file folders—cut samples of historic wallpaper taken off the walls from Pavilion I and Morea House.  These samples, fragments of wall paper that had been hidden under layers of paint, were saved during a renovation of the buildings in 1988.  Since that time, they had been all but forgotten until Architectural Conservator, Mark Kutney, brought them into the lab so that something could be done to ensure their preservation and accessibility.  These samples varied in size, color and condition, and clearly had been all but lost to history. 

You may be thinking “Wallpaper is cool, I guess, but I wouldn’t go as far as fascinating.”  But not so fast, my friend!  Wallpaper and its role in material culture have a long and full history which can illuminate much about the people of the past and the prevailing taste of the times. They may also reveal a thing or two about the distinguished faculty members that, with Thomas Jefferson’s guiding vision, gave shape to UVa in the first part of the 19th century.

Wallpaper has often been passed over, possibly because its very purpose is to be the background of a room.  Additionally, it is often overlooked with respect to other decorative arts because of its fragility and ephemerality.  It is often a casualty to fluctuating styles, resulting in a very small number of wallpapers surviving intact in situ.

However, this does not diminish the amount of information that we can garner from the way a room is papered, or how important it is as a decorative feature.  Choices of furniture and drapery would often be made based on the tone set by the papered walls.  Wallpaper can suggest the age, status, or gender of the inhabitants and even the very function of the room it’s in.  Layers of wallpaper on top of one another can tell you something of the changing ownership of a building, or simply the fickle preference of the lady of the house.

Conversely, in the case of our samples, what we know about the history of UVa’s buildings helps to illuminate a bit about the recovered wallpaper.  For example, Pavilion I, which adjoins the Rotunda on the Lawn’s west side, was built in 1822.  While it is unclear exactly when the samples from Pavilion I are from, Kutney explained that it would not be unusual for a professor to decorate and furnish his interiors himself.  If that’s true, then it’s possible that the bottommost layers of wallpaper may have been chosen by Pavilion I’s first occupant, John Patton Emmet.  As the professor of natural history Emmet taught courses in chemistry, comparative anatomy and botany.  Emmet resided in Pavilion I from 1825 to 1833, during which time botany was of particular interest to him—as well as to Thomas Jefferson, who’s letter to Emmet regarding the introduction of botany as a course of study at UVa can be read here.   Emmet’s botanical experiments soon became so prolific that he outgrew the Pavilion’s garden space.  In 1833, he relocated to a nearby University property, which he deemed the “Morea” House—from the Latin morus, meaning mulberry—so named for the trees Emmet grew on the lawn for the cultivation of silkworms. 

Perhaps having the botany professor as the occupant of the two spaces where the wallpaper was recovered is significant to these samples? Perhaps it explains something about the simple palletes of gray and green, or the overwhelming number of floral motifs used throughout?  Yes, it is possible.  However, to venture that far into conjecture may be a little erroneous.  What we can safely infer is that these wallpapers provided the backdrop to Emmet’s daily life, academic pursuits and professorial interactions for the time that he occupied his position at UVa.

The first step in handling the wallpaper fragments was to create a documentation form.  Using this form, we were able to describe the size, location, motif and stratigraphy of the various fragments.  The next step falls to the curators, who will create an accession group, catalog records, finding aids and appropriate housing so that anyone who may be interested in accessing this burgeoning collection need go no further than the library.