If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that the Penn Museum’s collection holds nearly one million archaeological and anthropological objects. What some may not know is that the Museum also houses an archive that holds 2,500 linear feet of records—documents, films, and images—about the collection, the history of archaeology and anthropology, the museum’s expeditions, and more. You may have also learned that the Museum employs a team of trained conservators to care for its large collection of objects and textiles. However, because of the nature of the collection, there are no paper or photograph conservators on staff to conserve the items in the Archives. That’s where I came in.
As a graduate conservation student at the University of Delaware, I was given the opportunity to work with Archivist Alex Pezzati, along with my UD supervisors Debbie Hess Norris and Barbara Lemmen, to choose a small group of photographs from the Penn Archives to document, research, and treat as part of my second-year curriculum. My goals were to become familiar with the materials used in manufacture and build my hand skills through practice. The benefits for Alex and the Archives were to stabilize the photographs and make them more accessible to staff, scholars, and the public. It was a win-win situation. Among the photographs that were chosen as potential student projects, I decided on two that would offer me a range of treatment experience.
The first was an albumen print, which is created by coating thin paper with egg whites that act as a binder to hold the silver image particles. Oftentimes these become cracked and yellowed over time, but the 1880s print of an Egyptian mosque by G. Lekegian & Co. was in beautiful condition, largely maintaining its original crisp image and purple-brown tone. My second project consisted of a platinum print portrait of Apache Chief Geronimo by Frank Rinehart. As part of the 1898 world’s fair in Omaha, Nebraska, Rinehart photographed over 500 American Indian leaders at the concurrent Indian Congress, and very poignantly captured Geronimo in Western attire and short haircut given to him while imprisoned at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Following a thorough documentation of each photograph through pictures and reports, I cleaned the surface of each print to make the images brighter and reduce dirt that could cause further damage. The Lekegian photograph was in need of only minor repairs along the edges; after humidifying and flattening the folds and creases, I mended the tears using Japanese tissue and an adhesive called methyl cellulose, and then created inserts for the losses using a paper similar in weight to the photograph. All inserts, mends, and cracks were inpainted with methyl cellulose containing dry pigments to re-integrate the losses with the rest of the image.
Before beginning treatment on the Rinehart photograph, I examined it using X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy to confirm that it was indeed made with platinum rather than a similar-looking metal like palladium or silver. This photograph required greater cosmetic improvements than the albumen print: bathing and light bleaching to minimize the overall discoloration, tear repairs using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste, and one fill in the background of the image using paper pulp (a slurry of macerated paper fibers in water) dried under weight. Fills and cracks were inpainted with watercolors and the entire photograph was humidified and flattened to restore planarity.
Both photographs were documented once more and then re-housed between a rigid support board and clear plastic cover, allowing for minimal and safe handling by Archives patrons. Overall, both projects provided me with interesting additions to my conservation portfolio as well as valuable learning opportunities that I can carry with me throughout my career. Next time you plan a visit to the Penn Museum, I hope you consider making an appointment with the Archives. Although I’m partial to these two photographs, there are many treasures available for you to enjoy!
Heather Brown is a Graduate Fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation specializing in photographic materials. She is currently completing a year-long internship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.