Comic book covers from the collections of The Henry Ford. See them in our Digital Collections here.
Comic books, like all things, change as they age and not necessarily for the better. Whether from the golden, silver or modern age, comic books are all printed on paper that is made from wood pulp. Lignin (a substance found in wood) breaks down and causes the paper to become increasingly acidic, discolored and brittle. Those of you who collect comic books have certainly seen and handled extremely brittle and discolored books. Conservators refer to this the inherent instability of wood pulp paper as “inherent vice.”
If you wish to preserve your comics, you need to take measures to combat this inherent vice by minimizing factors that accelerate deterioration. Steps that you can take to fend off inherent vice include:
Limiting exposure to high levels of moisture, either in the form of water or high humidity. Both can damage comics and accelerate degradation.
Avoiding exposure to ultraviolet and visible light, which can cause inks to fade and paper to become yellow.
Using inappropriate non-archival storage or display materials, such as PVC vinyl plastic bags or boxes, inexpensive wood pulp cardboard boxes, wood pulp mat boards, wooden boxes or wooden frames. Contact with these can cause discoloration.
Avoiding frequent handling.
In this video, recorded live in the conservation lab at The Henry Ford, Chief Conservator Mary Fahey demonstrates how to store, display, repair, and preserve your comic books.
What can be done to preserve comic books?
Take measures to limit exposure to moisture by placing books in archival bags or sleeves made from polypropylene, polyethylene or polyethyleneterephalate (Mylar).
Never store comic books directly on the floor.
Avoid storing books in attics, basements or other damp areas. If no alternative is available, use watertight polyethylene or polypropylene boxes and add a few silica gel packets conditioned to 45-50% relative humidity. The packets will need to be changed periodically.
Limit exposure to light including visible and invisible ultraviolet light. If you wish to display your comics, consider display methods that limit light exposure by avoiding display near windows and turning off the lights when you are not in the room. If you choose to display your books in a lighted showcase case, LEDs on a timer are the best option since they emit minimal ultraviolet light and minimal heat. At The Henry Ford, we have noticed that Mylar covers appear to block some of the damaging effects of light, providing some protection from fading.
All books should be bagged and boarded or encapsulated (see image below) for storage, display and handling. This protects them from dirt and moisture, minimizes flexing and stress of the fragile paper, and protects from the oil and salt in people’s hands. The use of archival materials and methods for storage and display can have a big impact on the longevity of your collection.
The use of acid-free, lignin-buffered mat board, boxes and paper inserts are recommended. These products are made from cotton, and generally contain calcium carbonate, which helps to neutralize the acid that is formed in the comic books as they age. They do cost a bit more, but are well worth it. The Henry Ford uses a variety of display and storage methods for comic books. Some examples include:
In 2014 conservation, facilities and exhibit staff members removed two English crystal chandeliers from the museum shop in Henry Ford Museum in preparation for the upcoming renovation. The chandeliers, which were made in Birmingham, England between 1860 and 1880, had been in the shop for many years and were showing signs of age. The silver portions were heavily tarnished and the metal wires that held the crystals were corroded and brittle. We decided to conserve them prior to their move to a new home in a rather dark lounge just outside of the Lovett Hall Ballroom, where their glittering, cut-glass elegance would be appreciated.
In August 2014, the metropolitan Detroit area experienced heavy rains and flooding, and several artifacts in Henry Ford Museum’s furniture display were damaged by water and debris. Two of the artifacts were upholstered, and required extensive conservation treatment to stabilize them and make them suitable for continued exhibit. A generous grant from The Americana Foundation enabled conservators to accomplish this work.
Our “Turkish Settee” is part of a suite of furniture dating from 1885-1895. Its elaborate original fabrics and trimmings are faded and somewhat fragile, but it makes an important statement about the style of the times, so preserving them is important.
In a current TV series celebrities donning white cotton gloves view documents and rare books as they learn about their family history. But is this really the way that professional museum and archives staff handle the hundreds or thousands of artifacts that are entrusted to their care?
What is the logic behind this practice?
The fact is that moisture, salt and dirt on human hands can damage artifacts and embed particles of dirt onto the surface of artifacts, this can permanently harm some artifacts. In the case of uncoated metals the human hand provides the perfect combination of salt and moisture in the form of sweat to cause damage in the form of corrosion. The image below shows a fingerprint on a brass plate.
The Henry Ford, like other older, long-established museums, can only display a very small percentage of its artifacts at any given time. The remainder is kept in storage for future generations. In recent years, The Henry Ford has begun to digitize its collections, and put them online. This effort has helped expand what we can say about what is on exhibit, and importantly, has made it so that people don’t have to wait decades to be able to find out about artifacts that are in storage.
Thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) “Museums for America” program, The Henry Ford has an opportunity to digitize over 1,000 artifacts that tell the story of changing communications technologies from the late 1800s to the late 1990s. The project is focused on communications collections that are stored in a large, tightly-packed warehouse on The Henry Ford campus. Many of these artifacts have been in this building for many decades, with limited cataloging. This project will inventory, catalog, preserve, re-house and digitize for online access these computers, radios, telephones and televisions, cameras, printing presses, teletype and telegraph machines and other artifacts, making them available to The Henry Ford staff and the public to a degree never before possible.
Our computer collections have been the focus of the early work. This work has reminded us of how rapidly technological change has occurred with computers. Check out the (not so mini) DEC PDP-11/20 Minicomputer, 1970 mini-computer.
The challenges presented by this densely-packed storage area has meant that the project staff has really needed to live up to our mission of innovation. Before any work can be done on the artifacts, decades of accumulated dust, dirt and mold needs to be removed. Collections Specialist (and in-house McGyver) Jake Hildebrandt fashioned a downdraft table, complete with HEPA and charcoal filter, out of a portable ventilator, steel shelves and leftover grid for overhead lights. A downdraft table quickly pulls away dust and dirt as the artifact is cleaned, making the cleaning process faster and more effective.
We look forward to highlighting some of our exciting “re-discoveries” as we work on this project; collections digitization projects in museums around the world have led to new “re-discoveries.” We expect to add the tremendous collections of The Henry Ford to this ever-expanding resource of artifacts online.
Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.
Conservators at The Henry Ford have begun to work on the second group of figurines belonging to Polish Mission in Orchard Lake, Mich.
The figurines, which are part of a Panorama created by architect Zbigniew Baran, have educated and entertained audiences, both young and old, for more than 30 years. It’s the only historical Polish Panorama in North America. The 106 characters of the panorama, which dramatizes the history of Poland, are drawn from the struggles of writers, peasants, saints, statesman, soldiers, and artists to remain faithful to the ideals of Christianity and the Polish nation.
Baran, together with THF Head Conservator Mary Fahey and her staff, are working to clean, conserve and restore missing elements of the figures in addition to developing a plan for their long-term care and preservation.
Missing elements such as the sword and crucifix for the Mieszkol I (the first king of Poland) figurine were fabricated using historical images as references. Check out the images (below) of the figurine before and after conservation.
To see the panorama in action, take a look at this video from WDIV Detroit in 2011. To learn more about the efforts to continue the conservation work of the figures, take a look at this site.