Conservation: An Interview with Library Conservator Laura Wahl

Monday, January 23, 2017

In this video, and accompanying interview, we go behind the scenes with Hagley's Library Conservator in the conservation lab.

Laura, what is your official job title at the Hagley Museum and Library?

Library Conservator. My title is a little misleading, because if you think “library,” you think “books” but I care for the materials from three different collecting departments within Hagley. This includes papers, manuscripts, books, pamphlets, prints, photographs, ephemera, and architectural plans, to name a few.

How did you become a conservator?

I have a photography degree that focused on studio photography using view cameras and sheet film, and the darkroom, back when digital photography was barely even a consideration. I remember the college I attended purchased the first digital camera with interchangeable lenses and it cost 20,000 back then. As an undergrad I did not feel comfortable with handling something that expensive so I never tried it.

For awhile I did a lot of work in galleries and studios matting and framing art. We always used acid free and lignin free materials and used reversible mounting techniques to prevent damage to the artwork. Unfortunately, framing paper items can cause lots of damage. When acids migrate into the paper from inappropriate matting and backing materials they can stain the paper. Frequently tapes are used to attach paper into the mats and the adhesives yellow and migrate deep into the paper.

I always wondered how it might be possible to repair damage to prints and art on paper, so after a few years I started to think about art conservation as a career, But I was specifically interested in working  to preserve photographs.

What kind of education did you need to become a conservator?

There were, and still are, only three educational institutions in the U.S., and one in Canada, with master’s degree programs in art conservation. All of the programs accept a maximum of 10 students per year and there is a significant application and interview process. The requirements include a set number of credit hours in Studio Art, Art History, and Chemistry, as well as documented experience working or volunteering on conservation projects.

Before graduate school, I had pre-program experience volunteering at the Cincinnati Art Museum. I met some conservators who were willing to give me more experience during their treatment of the Wright Flyer III at Carillon Park in Dayton, Ohio. This was a really great experience!

I was lucky to be accepted into the Winterthur U.D. Program in Art Conservation (just up the road from Hagley) and that is what brought me to Delaware. A large part of Conservation grad school was learning about the techniques and materials from which cultural heritage objects are made. Anther part is studying the chemistry of artifacts and their interaction with the different treatment materials, such as solvents for cleaning or adhesives for mending. And of course we hone skills by developing and performing conservation treatments and comparing different procedures by doing small laboratory studies.

After 3 years of grad school (including a year-long internship) I worked at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia – a private non-profit conservation lab specializing in Books Paper and Photographs. I have been Library Conservator at Hagley since 2008.

Why is conservation work so important at a library?

For the most part, the work of a conservator is completely behind the scenes, unless you happen to work at one with visible conservation labs like the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Our collections storage spaces at Hagley are also behind-the-scenes, and we have an astonishingly large amount of materials under our care.

Part of Hagley’s mission is to keep these collections for as long as the institution exists and make them accessible for research use. Conservators help to make sure all of the collections are stored and used under conditions that prevent damage, and we stabilize materials that are damaged or fragile so that they may be used or exhibited.  Conservators actively treat collections materials to reduce aesthetic issues like stains and distortions as well as correcting damage.

What kind of conservation treatments and techniques do you use the most?

Some of the most common treatments that we do are humidification and flattening to reduce folds and creases in paper, removing grime, mending tears, removing damaging tapes like Scotch tape and masking tape, removing old adhesives, and vacuuming to remove mold spores.

We also do minor interventions to stabilize damaged materials and reduce the risk of future damage. Most importantly our goal is to preserve as much of the original materials as possible, without alteration. This means knowing when to stop, not over-cleaning, or bleaching paper to make it look new, or over-painting faded areas of an image. We don’t want to overdo it!

Sometimes this includes making customized storage boxes or mounts. Conservators are also responsible for monitoring environments to make sure damage isn’t happening in storage areas. We keep and eye out for possible leaks, look for pests, and make sure that the temperature and humidity levels are appropriate for long term preservation. This all means we need to understand the response of different materials to different environmental conditions and to the treatments that we carry out.

This interview was conducted with Laura Wahl, the Library Conservator at Hagley Museum and Library.