June 1, 2016

Guest Post: Behind the Scenes of Restoring the Past

by Tish Brewer, Guest Blogger, The Center for Art Conservation

Tish Brewer & David Page from the Center for Art Conservation
Tish Brewer & David Page from the Center for Art Conservation

I had the pleasure of working on several objects for A Time For Greatness, the upcoming exhibition at The Sixth Floor Museum, providing conservation treatment to structurally stabilize them, as well as improve them aesthetically for display.  Many people don’t realize the intricate work that goes into getting these pieces of the past ready for viewing.

The Challenge

These artifacts–campaign posters and broadsides, newspapers, and other widely dispersed materials–were meant to be somewhat ephemeral when created. Having been produced quickly and cheaply for wide distribution, they are often made with paper fibers of poor quality. These materials do not often age well, due to a combination of inherent vice (the tendency of objects to deteriorate due to instability of components within) and storage/environmental conditions. They are also handled frequently, making physical damage quite common from rolling and unrolling, hanging, and general use.

Typical issues decades later involve heavy wear including overall surface soil, abraded paper and media, complex tearing, losses to support, weakened or broken fold lines, varying degrees of discoloration, permanent creasing or bending of paper fibers, and distortion. Other common issues are a result of prior repair during or after frequent use and handling, such as tape attachments with associated staining, partial backings or mounts, and clumsy inpainting.

Conservation treatment of these objects was varied but generally involved dry surface cleaning, removal of tape attachments and backing materials, reduction of residual adhesives, overall washing when needed, mending of tears, filling of losses to the paper support, and inpainting of fills as well as tears when necessary. Treatment is as non-invasive as possible while also taking into account desired aesthetics. An important part of what we do is making sure that any repairs we make are reversible.

Reversing the Damage

submergedposterIn the photo above, a large election poster is being immersion washed, after surface cleaning and extensive pressure-sensitive tape removal. The poster was then fully dried, and an extensive scarf tear was aligned from the front (seen in the photo below) before mending from within using wheat starch paste, followed by mending from the reverse using strips of Japanese tissue adhered with paste. All mends can be easily reversed in the future using water.

weighted poster

A smaller broadside had significant orange-brown stains in all corners due to tapes applied long ago.  These stains were treated with solvents over a suction platen to reduce them as much as possible.


Filling the Gaps

Localized treatment of staining was followed by washing, mending, and the creation of fills. Mends and fills were done with Japanese tissue, which comes in a range of weights, and is quite strong due to the long paper fibers. Some tissues are thin enough to read through, and others are more appropriate for overall stabilization of paper objects. They can be toned either before or after application, torn in strips for mending, or perforated in specific shapes for fills.


Another large poster had extensive insect damage, which was inappropriately repaired by adhering large swaths of copy paper to the reverse. After removing the repairs using heat, and reducing the adhesives as much as possible, the poster was washed and the reverse was lined overall with Japanese tissue. A detail of the loss after backing removal and prior to lining is seen below.


When part of the art is missing, we often inpaint to fill in what is gone using watercolors, colored pencils, and/or pastels, after applying an isolating layer (again, for reversibility). With the Nixon broadside seen below, I went between inpainting under the microscope with a tiny brush and inpainting with naked eyes using colored pencils. New media was applied in small dots to match the original printing pattern.



This is just a sample of the work done by my team to ensure the amazing pieces that you’ll see in A Time For Greatness are as close as they can be to what they looked like back in 1960. To learn more about the exhibit, visit JFK.org/ATimeForGreatness.

Guest blogger Tish Brewer is a paper conservator at The Center for Art Conservation in Dallas, TX.