Book Conservation at the Thaw Conservation Center, Morgan Library and Museum

posted on 04 Nov 2014 22:06 by sumolsen
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By Summer Olsen

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On Tuesday, October 21st, Hanna Hölling’s Cultures of Conservation class visited the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library and Museum. Conservator Maria Fredericks, Drue Heinz Book Conservator at the Thaw Conservation Center since 2005, led the site visit. Fredericks gave us an introduction to the issues facing book conservators and demonstrated the significance of book bindings while leading us through the different spaces and conservation projects in the Thaw Conservation Center. In recent years there has been an increased academic push to study books from a material culture perspective. By examining the minutia of bookbinding, conservators and academics can find evidence of cultural practices. Conservation practices both preserve these important binding structures and aid in understanding them. Book conservators’ work is unique in that it mixes skill in traditional bookbinding craft with science and research.

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The Thaw Conservation Center workrooms are located in what once was the top floor of the Morgan House. Conservators carry out different aspects of book and paper conservation in each space. After her introduction, Fredericks showed us the workroom where preventative conservation measures, like making specialized cradles to support books that go on loan, take place. Fredericks related the importance of conservators understanding the relationship between the structure of the binding and the function of the text. Many early books in the collection are without their original bindings because they were rebound for collectors in the 18th to early 20th centuries.

In current practice at the Thaw Conservation Center, unless there is a major conservation issue, original bindings are re-used. Fredericks quoted a former colleague as saying “authenticity cannot be restored” to highlight the impossibility of returning a binding to an original state. Instead, great care is taken to document the condition of the work and any treatment that the conservator carries out.

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Fredericks introduced us to several paper conservators working at the Thaw Conservation Center and they explained their current projects. Reba Snyder showed us her work with a manuscript formerly on loose paper that a collector had bound into an album. She told us that currently in book conservation there is a preference to return things to their original form if possible. In her case this involves removing the manuscript leaves from the album binding. She is also aware that trends in conservation and in areas of academic interest shift over time and that in the future it is possible that someone will be very interested in collectors bindings. The conservators, job is to balance these future concerns with current needs. Paper conservator Lindsey Tyme showed us her work on a letter by the painter Vincent Van Gogh. She is preparing the letter to go on loan to another institution where it will be displayed. The letter is double sided. Tyme’s solution to this display issue is to create facsimiles to show the reverse side.

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One of my favorite parts of the visit was the presentation by conservator Frank Trujillo of his work to consolidate the pigment on the Morgan leaf of the Winchester Bible to prepare it for an upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The leaf is a study object in the Survey course at the BGC and I was delighted by the opportunity to observe it in person. The Morgan leaf is associated with the Winchester Bible but its place in the manuscript is contested. Trujillo told us that any traces on the leaf that would tell us if it was bound into the book have been cut off by previous owners. Consolidation of the pigments on the leaf is difficult because they are multi layered. We were allowed, one by one, to look into the microscope and see the layers of pigment for ourselves. The conservators use the microscope to guide their work and apply animal glue with a brush underneath the miniscule flakes of pigment.

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After the tour of the workrooms, Fredericks gave us a crash course in different binding structures. She explained that conservation is an attitude developed out of intense observation over time and that the conservator develops the ability to understand the significance of the changes to the object. The methods for binding texts change through the ages and vary by region and maker. Fredericks demonstrated how the elements of the binding of these texts could be read by the trained eye and hands of the conservator and reveal the time, place, and sometimes the original workshop where the work was bound.

Conservation trends and academic interest in bookbinding move in historical waves. What is thought of as an acceptable conservation treatment in one generation can obscure or obliterate what another generation deems important to study. Therefore, a current trend in conservation is the practice of treatments that involve minimal intervention. In fact, some damage to manuscripts can be valuable as it can show previously hidden layers that reveal binding structures. Books in binding collections have tended to be elaborate, like tooled gilt leather bound books, or manuscripts both elaborate and deemed historically significant. Fredericks related that inelegant bindings that reveal important information about bindings at particular points in history are also valuable.

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Fredericks showed us many fascinating books including the Golden Gospel of Henry the VIII (fabled to be a gift given by Pope Leo X), an Armenian manuscript from 1625-1725 with a binding that includes talismanic elements, and an example of Morgan’s 19th century record keeping books. The last manuscript she shared with us was the exquisite book of hours of Catherine of Cleves. The original manuscript was unbound and split into two volumes by a dealer. When the leaves came to the Morgan, conservators were able to identify that leaves from both volumes belonged together and that the leaves of the manuscript had been shuffled and bound out of order. This particular work presented the conservators with the difficulty of defining the object. Should the leaves in their separate state take precedent or be bound into one volume as they were initially? Fredericks’ view is that once it the work is out of its original binding conservators do not have the obligation to return it to an original binding. What is more important is the documentation of the current state of the work and treatment that involves minimal intervention.

For the final portion of our visit, Fredericks and conservator Frank Trujillo took us downstairs into the Morgan Library exhibition galleries to see the Crusader Bible exhibit. Trujillo was involved with the development of the exhibit and showed us the double sided frame display mounts for the leaves of the Crusader bible and explained how the Morgan Library is trying to create multiple viewing experiences (both digital and analog) for the viewer. Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 library itself recently underwent restoration and Fredericks commented that the new lighting design makes the space “come to life”. This final chapter highlighted again the many layers of conservation thought that occur every day in the Morgan Library and Museum and the Thaw Conservation Center.

Summer Olsen is a M.A. candidate at the Bard Graduate Center.

Images by the author taken with the permission of the Thaw Conservation Center

1. Conservator Maria Fredericks with the Cultures of Conservation Class

2. Workroom storage space

3. Conservator Lindsey Tyme with the letter by painter Vincent Van Gogh

4. The Morgan Leaf of the Winchester Bible

5. Maria Fredereicks explaining book binding conservation practices

6. The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves

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