The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Mary: Nora, since we’ve worked together at the Archives for several years, you already know that I love Halloween. Come October 1st, I’m bringing out the pumpkins and witches and planning my annual party. I began collecting Halloween memorabilia as a child, at our local dime store—picking up paper decorations for the parties my mother threw for our Brownie Troop. I’ve added to those purchases over the years, finding the antique papier-mâché jack-o-lanterns, holiday postcards, and vintage photographs that document the history of Halloween in America.
Over the past thirty years, collecting Halloween memorabilia has become a pricey hobby. Decorated crepe paper from the 1920s is very much sought after, because of the beautiful graphics, and can be quite expensive. I wanted to have at least a sample for my collection—and found this little snippet on eBay for a few dollars. As you can see, it’s very crumpled—and crepe paper is moisture sensitive. Just storing it in a humid place will result in the fading and running that you can see at the lower left of this piece. Is there anything you can do to flatten the piece?
Nora: EEEK! What could be scarier than humidification and flattening of moisture-sensitive, highly textured, ninety-year-old rare ephemera? We have a couple things to consider here—first of all, the flexibility of the paper in its current rolled state is of immediate concern. Happily, it was rolled with an outer wrapping when it was sent, so it hasn’t actually expanded to the size of the mailing tube and we were able to get it out easily without tugging on the fragile paper, however, it remains severely creased and shrunken. Careful humidification in a humidity chamber will give the paper added flexibility and may help us to bring it back to its original proportions, which we can only estimate.
Before we consider humidification, we usually do solubility tests to check the stability of the dyes and inks, but as you mentioned, Mary, we can already see from some discolored spots from a prior “water event” that the orange dye in the crepe paper is water-sensitive, so we’ll need to be extra careful about controlling condensation in the humidification tank. Lastly, the crepe paper in its original state had and still has a significant crinkly texture to allow for expansion and decorative uses—that’s a characteristic we want to avoid changing, so we will pay careful attention to the texture of materials we lay against it, and to how much weight, pressure, and restraint we use while applying drying techniques.
With these things in mind I started treatment on Mary’s Halloween crepe paper. After the object had been in the humidity chamber for a sufficient period, it was taken out and manipulated, stretching it back into shape, encouraging some expansion and unfolding the tattered edges. Although I had to remain wary of denting the sensitive surface and flattening the crepe texture, I still had to gently restrain the paper as I worked to ensure it would stay in place while I laid down a dry blotter and felts, which would slowly absorb and evaporate moisture in a controlled fashion (this process was repeated twice during the treatment process to remove excess moisture). What you can’t see in the picture is my wicked fast “magician’s tablecloth” technique where I quickly removed the weights as I lay down the absorbent surfaces, trying to beat the clock and avoid losing too much moisture as I worked.
Finally, I do get to say “TAA-DAA!” like a magician, when I reveal the Halloween-themed crepe paper a couple of days later. You can see the dramatic difference from its eerily shrunken state to a banner suitable for the occasional seasonal display. While I wouldn’t fly it from your door anytime soon, due to its fragility, it is certainly suitable for storage and occasional display in a window mat with cover (a mat package with an additional protective cover board that wraps over the window mat), a document wrap, or framing with UV protective glazing. Happy Halloween!
- A Halloween treat from the National Archives: pumpkin carving templates. And if you use one of their templates and upload and tag (use “National Archives pumpkin”) an image of your pumpkin on Flickr, they’ll add it to their set [via Jennifer Wright, SIA].
- Why can’t I read this file? Check out a presentation by the Archives’ Digital Archivist, Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, about the challenges of born-digital collections at the Archives, which she gave recently at this year’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference.
- The Balboa Park Online Collaborative talks about some of the open source software they’ve been developing for the museum community, including an image uploader that helps museums export metadata from their collections and add it automatically to uploads of their collection images on Flickr.
- The National Air and Space Museum archives holds many of former Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley's papers in their collections, since Langley was a pioneer in aeronautics. In honor of Archives Month, they blog about some of the interesting gems in this collection, including Langley's opinion on what it takes to make a good cup of coffee (a man after my own heart, it seems...).
- It seems like a lot of folks (including us!) are using crowdsourcing efforts lately for their collection images. In the most recent effort, the George Eastman House archive teams up with Clickworker, an international crowdsourcing company, to tag more than 400,000 images from their collections [via Jennifer Wright, SIA].
- @AdsofYore: “Charles Forde's Bile Beans for Biliousness. Cures headaches, indigestion, sallow complexions and female weaknesses.” The Birmingham Archives in the UK has a new Twitter feed featuring advertisements found in their collections for products that were offered in local newspapers in the past, illustrating how advertising has changed over the years.
- Mwahhahaa… and finally, some Halloween trivia: is the Smithsonian really haunted? Our historian, Pam Henson, tells all in an interview she did not too long ago with Federal News Radio:
This month, the Smithsonian is celebrating American Archives Month, which highlights the importance of archives across the country. While most people think of dusty shelves of books and manuscripts when the word “archive” is mentioned, there is actually quite a bit more to them than that.
Take, for instance, the archive of data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA mission that is operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chandra has been in orbit around the Earth since it was launched aboard the Space Shuttle in 1999. During its now 12-year run, Chandra has collected X-ray data on all sorts of interesting things in the Universe, ranging from black holes to galaxies to planets. This data is accessible via an archive, which astronomers and interested members of the public can peruse.
Yesterday, seven new images were added to the existing Chandra X-Ray Observatory set on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This Chandra image collection in Flickr represents a small fraction of the total amount of data in the archive. For more on the Chandra archive, see a blog post on the Chandra X-ray Blog, and see more images on the Flickr Commons.
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