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Posts Tagged collections care

Wooden box with lid flipped back, text and images inside lid, packets inside box and some outside box

Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Several million guests have seen a reproduction Sibley seed box, based on an original box in our collections, in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village since 1994, when the box became part of the reinterpreted interior. Commercial seed sales of pre-packaged vegetable and flower seeds began in earnest during the 1860s, and by the mid-1880s, Hiram Sibley & Company advertised itself as the world’s largest seed company. That might be true. Sibley, who made his fortune as executive of the Western Union Telegraph Company, invested in farms and packing houses in several states and engaged in seed trade in several foreign countries. His entrepreneurial bent warranted more exploration, as did the details of the seed packets, all stowed carefully in the box in the General Store.

The reference photograph in our collections database for the original seed box showed a box with seed packets. The accession number, 29.1987.18.1, indicated that this was an early addition to The Henry Ford’s collections—the first number, 29, means that it was acquired in 1929. The second number indicates that it was in the 1,987th lot acquired that year, and the third number indicates that the box was the 18th item in the 29.1987 grouping. In fact, as research ultimately disclosed, our collections included the box, plus 108 original seed packets and a Sibley & Co. Seed catalog.

My need to know more started a chain reaction. First, this object had been in the collection for 90 years. It has known provenance: Accession records indicate that it was purchased with other items from a store in the tiny, rural, upstate New York community of Rock Stream. The Barnes family—Charles W. and then his son, Alonzo S.—operated the store. Alonzo died in 1929, which may have precipitated the sale. Our registrars researched and catalogued all parts of the set. We also acquired archival documents—a map of the town from the time the Barnes family operated the store and two postcards of the town—for our collections to add context around the seed box.

Black-and-white image of houses and trees along dirt road; printed and handwritten text
Main Street, Rock Stream, New York, 1908-1910 / THF146163

Filling in details about seed packets required further reconnaissance. This required removing the seed box from exhibit at the end of the 2019 Greenfield Village season. Our Exhibits team moved the reproduction box and the authentic seed packets it contained to our conservation labs. Conservation staff removed the packets, checked for damage, then cleaned and prepared the packets for digitization. In the meantime, Collections Management staff located the original box in collections storage and moved it to the conservation labs for cleaning.

Once the packets were cleaned, they were moved to our archives, where the packets were imaged. After the box was cleaned, Collections Management staff moved it to the photography studio. The individual seed packets, once imaged, also were moved to the photo studio. There, the packets rejoined the box, fitting into compartments spaced to accommodate “papers” as well as multiple-ounce “packets” of seeds. The final photograph above shows the rejoined box and original seeds – cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pea, rutabaga, tomato, turnip, and other vegetables.

GIF rotating through a number of seed packets with images and text
Some of the individual seed packets that were digitized. See them all in our Digital Collections.

After the photo session, the seeds returned to the reproduction box, the box was sealed with its Plexiglas top to protect them, and Exhibits staff returned the box with its contents to the General Store in Greenfield Village.

It is important to note that the investigation, relocation, cleaning, digitizing, photography, and cataloging all occurred between January and March 2020, before COVID-19 closed the museum and delayed the opening of Greenfield Village. During that closure, between March 15 and July 9, the digitized records became part of numerous blogs written to meet the needs of patrons seeking information about food sources, vegetable gardening, food security—and about tomatoes!

It may seem difficult to justify the amount of time required from so many people to digitize one box and its many seed packets during the process. Each staff member involved in the process had to juggle numerous competing projects to make time to attend to the box and its packets. However, their work created invaluable digital resources that have already enhanced several of our blog posts. We may never know how many people were inspired to plant their own vegetable garden during a year of uncertainty partially, or wholly, because of “How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?,” or who just had to have a BLT after reading “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes.”

This is what digitization can do, and this is the effort that it takes. We all do it in the spirit of life-long learning.

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COVID 19 impact, photography, collections care, research, Greenfield Village buildings, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, by Debra A. Reid, digital collections, digitization

Man in suit and hat slightly leaning over towards a clock and wall with many slots for cards
Thomas Edison Punching the Time Clock at His West Orange, New Jersey Laboratory, August 27, 1912. Read on for more on this provenance research story! / THF108339

As my colleague Laura Lipp discusses in her blog post on cataloging, The Henry Ford’s registrar’s office sometimes “plays detective” by engaging in provenance research to determine the history of the ownership of an artifact – and to deepen our knowledge of the stories behind our artifacts.

First, a little background on our early collecting.

In the 1920s and 1930s, The Henry Ford received thousands upon thousands of artifacts from sources all over the country. Staff at that time attached paper and metal tags to the artifacts, writing their source information (either the donor or the point of purchase) on the tags. They also typically included the geographic location of the source and a date. In the 1950s, staff began to catalog the collection, assigning object identification numbers (“object IDs”) and creating files that held any documentation or correspondence about the artifacts. The object ID is the unique number assigned to an artifact that indicates what year the artifact came in, and links it to its “provenance”—the source it came from and any associated stories.

On occasion over the years, staff encounter artifacts that have lost their tags, or the tags have crumbled or become illegible, so the artifacts have been disassociated with their histories. At this point, the detective work begins, to figure out the artifact’s provenance. We have many internal resources at hand to perform provenance research – our catalog database, our files and correspondence, photographs of artifacts, inventories, original cataloging cards, and more. We also use the Internet, oftentimes turning to online genealogical databases of census and demographic records.

An example of disassociated artifacts came up one day when someone wanted to know what artifacts we had related to Alexander Hamilton (can’t imagine why). Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and I started looking into it. Upon searching our database, we discovered that we had received some silver that descended in the Hamilton family to Alexander and Eliza’s great-great granddaughter, Mary Schuyler Hamilton: a “sugar bowl” and candlesticks. Unfortunately, the lost tags meant we had to work through all our silver records to see what might match.

We looped in Image Services Specialist Jim Orr and he found a photo of these silver artifacts taken around the time they arrived at our museum. Now we at least knew what they looked like! The sugar bowl was not a sugar bowl – with its pierced sides, the sugar would have leaked out. We expanded our search to other silver bowls and dishes, and the curator and I came across a record for a “sweetmeat” dish that sounded promising. The record had a silver project inventory number and a location. After a quick trip to one of our storage rooms, lo and behold, the “sweetmeat dish,” a bit tarnished, matched the artifact in the image! One down, candlesticks to go.

Silver dish with basket-like shape and handle
Sweetmeat Dish, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169541

After an unsuccessful stop in a storage area where there are many candlesticks, I returned to my desk and started going through all our silver candlestick records. Just as I was getting ready to call it a day, I reached a record, took a double-take, and called the curator over from his office to look at it. “OH MY …!” was the exclamation all my co-workers heard, “YOU FOUND THEM!” We reunited the candlesticks with the sweetmeat dish, had them photographed, and they are now viewable online. I can easily state that was one of my proudest days.

Tall thin silver candlesticks with broad square base, many decorative elements
Candlesticks, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169539

Most of the time, we know who donated artifacts, and where the donors lived. When looking to further document these artifacts in our collection, we do research into the donors to fill in information that wasn’t originally captured. While working on a project related to agricultural equipment, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid and I were interested in learning more about some artifacts that were donated by Iva and Ruby Fuerst, such as this potato digger and this hand dibble.

Machinery with wheels, gears, and what appears to be a conveyor belt
Potato Digger Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF97302

Digging into the Internet and genealogical records, I was able to reconstruct a small family tree. Ruby and Iva’s grandparents, Lorenzo and Barbara Fuerst, immigrated from Germany and were farmers in Greenfield Township (now Detroit) starting in the late 1850s. After the passing of Barbara in 1905, Iva and Ruby’s father Jacob, who had an adjacent farm, continued farming in that area until he sold it in 1918 and bought a farm in Novi Township. We now know that some of the equipment was likely used first on the farms in Detroit and later in Novi. Ruby and Iva, with no heirs to pass the land to, sold most of the Novi farm to the city around 1970. It is now known as Fuerst Park, and you can find a photo of young Ruby and Iva in this brochure.

Wooden implement with broad handle and pointed end
Hand Dibble Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF171836

It's not just 3D artifacts that need provenance research, but also some of our archival holdings. One day, staff encountered some timecards in the archives that appeared to have been used by Thomas Edison. Curious to know more and hopeful to verify that exciting association, Registrar Lisa Korzetz investigated the matter and was able to find correspondence with the donor, Miller Reese Hutchinson, chief engineer at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. Hutchinson details in his letter that the four timecards he was donating were the first four cards used by Edison in 1912 after Hutchinson had installed a new time clock at the laboratory. He also donated a photograph of Edison using the timecards at the time clock. Hutchinson was determined for a week to try to capture Edison using the timecards and clock, and finally succeeded on the last day of the week!

Card with printed form filled out with typed, handwritten, and stamped text.
Time Card Punched by Thomas Edison at His West Orange Laboratory, for the Week Ending August 27, 1912 / THF108331

Today, when cataloging new artifacts for the collection, we document the provenance via the background information that the curator gleans from the donor or point of purchase. We do additional research to verify and fill in any historical background. We apply the object ID directly to the artifact in a manner approved by Conservation – different methods on different materials. We also make sure the number is discreet and easily reversible – meaning it can be removed without any adverse effects to the artifact. By using these standard museum practices to document and identify artifacts, we assist our curatorial colleagues in their pursuit to interpret and exhibit our collections to the public.

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digitization, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, research, by Aimee Burpee

For the entire month of November, we at The Henry Ford are celebrating the digitization of over 100,000 artifacts! To reach a goal of 100K artifacts digitized takes many people and departments coordinating and working together. Let’s look at how our conservation department contributed to this momentous achievement. I’ll be highlighting one of the current projects in which digitization is a crucial step.

Graphic with text; "Conservation" is highlighted
This graphic shows the various steps in The Henry Ford's digitization process, and where conservation fits in.

As Project Conservator on a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant awarded to The Henry Ford, I work with other conservation and collections specialists to clean and stabilize 3D objects from our Collections Storage Building. These objects oftentimes have never been on display, let alone photographed. As conservators, it’s our responsibility to make sure the objects are not only camera-ready but are structurally sound for exhibition or museum storage.

logo with green dot pattern on left and text on right

For this IMLS grant, the objects undergo a multi-step process involving many hands in order to get to digitization. First, objects are tagged by collections or conservation staff with a Tyvek label that states the object number (if known), description/identifying name, and location found in storage. This tag stays with the object throughout the various stages and is updated with staff initials as tasks are completed.

Blank printed forms with text rubrics

Objects are then vacuumed to remove surface dirt and/or mold before moving from the storage building to be cleaned thoroughly in the Conservation Lab. If the object is too large to handle, it stays in the building for conservation treatment performed in a section that has been zoned off as a clean room. Outside contractors bring in heavy-duty equipment to lift and move the bigger and heavier objects.

Machinery with large wheel suspended by heavy chains from a board or plank
A Herschell-Spellman steam engine (27.139.1) rigged up for moving out of storage.

Flatbed semi truck loaded with large machinery and person strapping it down
Caravan of large objects being moved out of storage!

If the object is an appropriate size for the IMLS team to handle and move by forklift or box truck, we bring it back to the Conservation Lab for cleaning and stabilization.

Front view of forklift loaded with bundles at large door

Due to the number of objects we conserve, not all get photographed in the lab. That will happen later! However, we do take before, during, and after conservation treatment photos for some objects that have interesting conservation treatments and/or a significant change from start to finish.

GIF rotating through several images
Check out a recent blog on the conservation treatment of this Megalethoscope (32.742.113).

Other staff are also involved in the IMLS grant, including registrars who catalog and attach a unique accession number to each object.

Hand in blue gloves holding brush or pen to corner of trunk

Quick photographs are often taken at this stage in order to research and find more information about the object.

Woman in surgical mask and blue gloves photographing what appears to be a copper tub in front of a washer and dryer

Finally, the object is ready for its close-up! It moves down to our photography studio to be photographed under the proper lighting and with a professional grey backdrop. Sometimes the object is so large that is easier to photograph it in its new storage location. You can find all of these images in our Digital Collections on THF.org.

Tripods with lights pointed at machinery, with more machinery at side
Here is a Pratt & Whitney Gear Cutter and Lathe, circa 1900, getting set up for photography in storage.

Webpage with images, text, and search box
Click here to visit our Digital Collections and search for digitized artifacts!

As we are all facing challenges this year brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to adopt new procedures to keep the process running smoothly! It has not been possible to photograph all objects included in the grant. Before the object leaves the conservation lab and moves to storage, though, it gets quickly photographed, and that image is attached to the record in our collections database.

Person in gloves photographing a wood cabinet with machinery inside

At a later date, our photographer will take the beauty shot for Digital Collections and keep the tally rolling on our digitization numbers! As of today, over 3,500 objects have been pulled from storage, conserved, and rehoused during this three-year grant. Close to 3,000 of those objects have been digitized and are available online.

lights on tripods pointing at glass plate stretched across milk crates; man kneeling nearby
Photographer Rudy Ruzicska taking the perfect image.

The final step for these objects is moving to a new home in storage, going on loan, or display for THF visitors to see up close. We work with collections management staff to box, palletize, and wrap the objects before finding the perfect location in storage or sending them on their next adventure for public viewing. The objects from this IMLS grant are just a small portion of the 100,000 artifacts that have been digitized, but they also include some of the largest objects we have in the collection!

Large black circular machinery/equipment
A couple of generators sitting in front of boxed and palletized objects in storage.

Let’s end with a blast from the past of The Henry Ford’s early digitization days in 2012. Here are a few images of what it took to digitize an abundance of hubcaps! Some of these you may have seen on display in the Driving America exhibit. The rest you can find in Digital Collections.

GIF rotating through several different images
For an in depth look at hubcaps, check out this blog post.

Congratulations to all who have helped over the years to get so many of The Henry Ford’s artifacts digitized and accessible!

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IMLS grant, #digitization100K, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Marlene Gray, collections care, conservation, digitization

Collection management staff play a crucial role in The Henry Ford's digitization process. We not only find and pull objects from their storage locations and move them to the photo studio, we also unpack or assemble objects if needed, assist the photographer with setup, repack the objects, and return them to storage after being photographed. We also track the locations of objects in the collections database as they are moved from place to place.

Graphic with text
This graphic of our digitization process shows where collection management fits in.

Most movements are pretty straightforward and involve only minimal handling, but some objects give us a greater challenge. Sometimes it is the sheer quantity of objects that creates a challenge in coordinating and streamlining the digitization process.

One example of this type of work is our recently acquired Hallmark ornament collection. Over 6,600 ornaments were acquired, and we initially set out to digitize them all, with photography completed by the end of 2020. (Note that this goal has since been disrupted, like so many things, by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.) With this many ornaments, it became clear that a plan was needed to maximize efficiency and that it was way too much work for the present staff to accomplish due to other job duties, so contract employees were hired to work solely on the project.

We streamlined the process as much as possible, but there were still quite a few steps.

GIF showing two views of cardboard boxes shrinkwrapped onto pallets
Pallets of incoming unprocessed ornaments in our storage building.

After the ornaments are catalogued by our registrars, collection management staff move the ornaments from the processing area to the Photo Studio, making sure all items are securely packed so no damage occurs during the journey. Because our campus is so large, this involves moving the objects from one building to another.

Cardboard boxes on shelves
Catalogued ornaments awaiting delivery to the Photo Studio.

Upon arrival in the studio, the ornament product packages are removed from the storage cartons and then the ornaments are unpacked from their product packages. Care is taken in opening the packages, and the items are carefully removed as to not tear the boxes, damage the ornament, or lose any small pieces. The ornaments are then sorted to keep similarly sized ones together, so the photo setup doesn’t need to be changed between each photograph. Glass or shiny ornaments usually require different lighting, so these are kept in their own batch as well.

The ornaments are readied ahead of the photo shoot to easily move through the process, allowing a large number per day to be shot. We don’t want to get slowed down by taking time in between each shot to unpack the next item.

Red boxes and loose ornaments on two-level cart
Ornaments getting prepared to be photographed.

Christmas ornaments and boxes in large, flat, open gray box
Ornaments with their packages and accession number tags ready for photography.

Red boxes lined up, with an ornament (mostly mini football helmets) in front of each
Ornaments lined up on a cart, ready to be photographed.

GIF cycling through two images of a man and woman with boxes of ornaments and camera
Photographing the ornaments.

Assisting with the photography setup is also part of the job: placing the ornaments on the table, removing them after they’re photographed, making sure all parts are included in the shot, and assisting the photographer as needed.

After the photographer is done, we wrap the ornament in clean new tissue paper and carefully place it back into its product package. The product packages are then placed in new, clean archival storage boxes, sorted by year. For permanent storage, the bubble wrap that was included in the original packaging is removed, as it does not contain a stable plastic and may break down and harm the objects.

GIF cycling through three images of small red and green boxes in larger gray boxes
Photographed ornaments being sorted before being boxed up for storage.

Since this a very large collection, it would take up a large amount of shelf space in storage. To save space, we stack the completed cartons on a pallet. When the pallet is full, it is then shrink wrapped to keep all the cartons in place during movement to their storage location.

Gray boxes stacked on pallet and secured with clear plastic wrap
Palletized Boxes shrink wrapped to keep everything in place.

Paper with three diagrams containing squares and text, overlaid with clear plastic
Diagram of location of boxes to easily locate boxes (and the individual ornaments they contain) within the pallet in the future.

Four gray boxes in a stack
Barcoded boxes ready to be palletized.

At each step of the process, from cataloging to the final storage location, the location of each ornament is tracked in our collection management database [Axiell’s EMu]. We update the location field each time we move an artifact. With 6,600 ornaments in the collection, that’s a lot to keep track of—so we streamline this step as well.

A holder location is created in EMu and a barcode is generated for each storage box and pallet used. Each time we move a box to a pallet, we scan its barcode and the one on the pallet, and all ornaments in that box get their location updated automatically in our database. Then when we move the pallet, we scan its barcode and the barcode of its storage location, and all ornaments in all the boxes on the pallet get their locations updated. This saves a lot of time and is much more efficient then updating each object individually each time.

Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our digitization priorities have shifted—but we were still able to digitize more than 2,000 of the Hallmark ornaments before we had to stop. You can check out some curator highlights from the collection in our Expert Set, or browse them all in our Digital Collections.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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COVID 19 impact, by Victoria Morris, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, photography, digitization, collections care

GIF rotating through many comic book covers
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.

Hand sliding comic book onto a board with plastic over top

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:

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popular culture, conservation, comic books, collections care, by Mary Fahey

Sometimes, the objects we find in storage surprise us.

Imagine this: the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) project team is working in the Collections Storage Building, selecting objects to be conserved as part of our grant-funded work. From the top level of pallet racking, about 15 feet above the ground, we remove some pallets of boxes and bring them down to ground level to unpack. We then climb the moveable stairs to take a peek at the area that we have exposed. The sight that greets us is confusing, but intriguing: a giant, golden-toned teapot, sitting in the center of the racking, far enough back that it was not visible from the ground. It was almost like revealing a magic lamp! We test-lifted it and realized that it was very light for its size, and must be hollow, so we carefully moved it off of the racking and to ground level

teapot1
The giant teapot trade sign as we found it in the Collections Storage Building (after we had moved it down from the top shelf).

From the bracket that we found on the handle, it quickly became apparent that this was some sort of a trade sign, likely for a tea shop or coffee house. The body of the teapot occupies a space about three feet on every side – it would have been a very eye-catching sign! A little bit of research led us to some other interesting examples, including one that currently hangs above a Starbucks in Boston and is set up to blow steam out of its spout!

Our teapot has some mysteries, though – the golden paint has some texture to it, as if there were at one point a stripe along the widest part of the teapot’s body, with vertical stripes reaching from that stripe to the lid. Was the teapot originally painted a different color, or with a pattern? We did some minor tests to see if we could isolate different layers of paint, but we were not successful. We might decide in the future to do a more thorough analysis, but that would be after discussion with the curators. We also noted that our giant teapot does not have a hollow spout, and therefore, despite being hollow, probably never had the mechanism to blow steam in the same way as some others.

teapot2
The giant teapot on the table in the lab - you can really get a sense of how large it is!

Ultimately, we don’t know a lot about where the giant teapot was originally used, or where it may be displayed in the future. We treated this object with nothing more than a simple cleaning – it was overall very stable to begin with, just dusty and dirty from being in storage. By minimizing treatment to the point of only stabilizing the object, we are leaving the option open for a future conservator to do more work while still ensuring that it’s going to be safe and sound in storage. It also allows us to treat more objects from storage as we progress through the grant. Maybe someday in the future we’ll see the giant teapot again, but for now it’s safe and sound in the Main Storage Building! You can check it out in our Digital Collections.

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The giant teapot after treatment, ready to go back to storage.

Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.

imls

IMLS grant, conservation, collections care, by Louise Stewart Beck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Over the last two years, if you happened to peek through the windows of The Henry Ford’s conservation lab windows, you might have seen a large, wooden, box-like object on the table. You may have speculated about what it was – a camera, a projector? The answer is that this device is called a “Megalethoscope” – a Victorian photography viewer created optical illusions using light and photographic images.

meg1
The Megalethoscope during treatment in the lab.

The Megalethoscope is one of thousands of objects from The Henry Ford’s Collections Storage Building (CSB) that is being conserved, digitized, and rehoused thanks to a ‘Museums for America Collections Stewardship’ grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), received in October 2017. Heading behind the scenes, this blog will explain the process that an artifact moves through from conservation to photography—and eventually, becoming viewable on Digital Collections.  

Conservation Treatment

Once an artifact is selected, tagged, and inventoried, it is given a preliminary cleaning with a vacuum and transported into the Conservation Lab.

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(Left) Photo of how the Megalethoscope was found in storage; (Center) The instruction panel that shows how the Megalethoscope works; (Right) The Megalethoscope mounted correctly on its stand.

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The top panels on the Megalethoscope before and after it was cleaned and waxed.

Prior to cleaning, a small spot was tested to determine the best method and materials to use.  A mild detergent, diluted in distilled water did the best cleaning job without damaging the wood. The cleaning solution was gently rubbed on the wood surfaces with swabs to remove all of the dirt and grime, and then the surface was cleared with distilled water to remove soap residue. To bring back the shine of the wood finish, furniture wax was applied and buffed.


Years of storage on its end had caused the joints of the Megalethoscope’s viewer to separate (highlighted in red). Damaged areas were repaired removing the old, dried-up glue, and replacing it with fresh glue.

Large shrinkage cracks had developed in the two side panels that serve as light reflectors, and in the back panel that covers a large pane of glass. Shrinkage cracks develop when wood expands and contracts because temperature and humidity levels fluctuate too much.

Since the cracks were big enough to see through (approximately 1/8th inch wide) thin strips of Japanese tissue paper were soaked with a reversible adhesive, then dried, to fill each of the cracks. As each strip of tissue was compacted into the cracks, the adhesive was activated with solvent. This caused the dry paper to adhere to the edges of the crack and create a bridge. This fill was smoothed down flush with the rest of the wood panel, providing an even surface that could be in-painted to match the adjoining wood panels.

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Using Japanese tissue to fill shrinkage cracks.

Watercolor and acrylic paints were used on the paper fills to hide the repairs and to paint in the large scratches and abrasions that covered the body of the Megalethoscope. To give the painted areas the same shine as the wood finish, a topcoat of acrylic gloss medium was applied.

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(Left) In-painting the paper filled cracks; (Right) Paper fills after they were painted (in green).

To finish the treatment, the glass and mirror pieces of the Megalethoscope were cleaned with a solution of ethanol and distilled water, then wiped with microfiber cloths to prevent streaking. Any metal parts were cleaned with a mild solvent to remove small areas of corrosion and then waxed and buffed them to bring back their shine.

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The Megalethoscope (Left) before and (Right) after conservation treatment.

Investigating Megalethoscope Slides
During treatment, an original photographic slide left inside of the Megalethoscope was discovered. This led to additional investigation. The slide depicted is of the Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice (the Bridge of Sighs). We wondered if there were more of these slides in the collection and after checking our collections database, found a box labeled “Megalethoscope Slides” in the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC). The contents of the box were not catalogued, so we decided we needed to go to the Archives to see for ourselves!

When the box was brought to the Reading Room at the BFRC, we opened the box and found 21 slides, all in good condition! Many of the slides were photographs of Italy and Paris, plus a handful depicting interiors.

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(Top) The Ponte dei Sospiri slide with handwritten inscription (Bottom) inside the Megalethoscope after it was taken out of storage.

Megalethoscope slides are large, multi-layered assemblies. Each slide consists of an albumen photographic image with pin pricks matching the areas where there is a light source or reflection (ex. an illuminated cityscape). Behind it are layers of colored tissue or cellophane and sometimes extra imagery when lit from behind; finally, there is a backing of a thinner, translucent canvas. All of this is stretched over a curved wooden frame. The curve creates a stereo view of the image which encompasses the viewer’s sight lines when they place their head into the Megalethoscope, much the way today’s virtual reality goggles work. Light is directed onto the slide to create different effects.

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Cross section of a Megalethoscope slide. (Image courtesy of The American Institute for Conservation & Artistic Works, Photographic Materials Group Journal, Topics in Photographic Preservation 1999, Vol. 8, Art.5 (pp.23-30).

The slide that was found with the Megalethoscope in storage did not have any color effects, so we were excited to find that the majority of the slides in our archives had variations in color and optical illusions. The slides were moved to the conservation lab, where their surfaces were gently vacuumed. A smoke sponge removed any remaining dust and dirt. A few of the slides had small punctures or tears to the canvas, but since they were stable, we decided to not repair them at the present. We were thrilled to be able to reunite the slides with the Megalethoscope and have a fully functioning artifact!

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(Top Left & Right) In "St. Mark's Square” you can see how people appear when light is applied to the image.

Photographing the Megalethoscope

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The Megalethoscope on a cart for ease of movement during photography.

There are many steps that artifacts go through to be digitized and made available online, especially for objects as complex as the Megalethoscope. After the slides were conserved and cataloged, they were brought to the photography studio. For 3-D artifacts like the Megalethoscope, photography typically includes an image of the front, the back, and each side, if necessary. Photos serve as a reference material for historical researchers, and they document the condition of the artifact at that time.

The slides needed to be photographed in two ways: as they appeared in normal light, and as they would be seen through the Megalethoscope.  Our senior photographer Rudy Ruzicska came up with a very clever arrangement to recreate this effect by placing two sets of milk crates with a sheet of Plexiglas suspended between them. He placed lights directly under and at an acute angle above the Plexiglas. The slides were placed in the middle of the Plexiglas with black paper border around the edges to prevent any light glare.

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Light arrangement for photography of Megalethoscope slides. (Left) Rudy shooting with his custom set-up during the dark shot of the “St. Mark’s Square” slide; (Right) A closer view of the set-up.

The Megalethoscope images were then photographed under normal (“daytime”) light to document their appearance, and with their “nighttime” illumination effect by turning off the studio lights. The first time we saw the images illuminated in the dark, we all gasped – they became so vibrant and magical! 

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A selection of the final images, with color and effects as they would have been seen inside the Megalethoscope.

The Megalethoscope was re-housed in a specially designed box which will store the unit and its base together safely, along with all of the slides. It was then moved to permanent storage in the Main Storage Building (MSB), as have most of the artifacts that we have worked on during the IMLS grant.

Thank you for joining me on this behind-the-scenes journey of an artifact from storage, to conservation, and through to digitization. I hope you enjoyed the ride!


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Alicia Halligan is an IMLS Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford


IMLS grant, digitization, conservation, collections care, by Alicia Halligan, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about storage relocation and improvements that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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A typical aisle in the Collections Storage Building before object removal.

Autumn of this year marks the end of a three-year IMLS-funded grant project to conserve, house, relocate and create a fully digital catalogue record for over 2,500 objects from The Henry Ford’s industrial collections storage building. This is the third grant THF has received from IMLS to work on this project. As part of this IMLS blog series, we have shown some of the treatments, digitization processes and discoveries of interest over the course of the project. Now, we’d like to showcase the transformation happening in the Collections Storage Building (CSB).

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A view of the aisle and southwest wall before dismantling to create a Clean Room.

Objects were removed from shelves allowing an area in the storage building to be used as a clean space for vacuuming and quickly assessing the condition of these objects before heading to the conservation lab. Since the start of the grant in October 2017, 3,604 objects have been pulled from CSB shelves along with approximately 1,000 electrical artifacts and 1,100 communications objects from the previous two grants. As of mid-March 2020, 3,491 of those objects came from one aisle of the building. As a result, we were finally at a point of taking down the pallet racking in this area.

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Pallets of dismantled decking and beams. A bit of cleaning before racking removal.

While it has taken multiple years to move these objects from the shelves, it took only three days to disassemble the racking! Members of the IMLS team first removed the remaining orange decking. On average, there were four levels of decking, separated in three sections per level. Next, we unhinged the short steel beams that attach the decking to the racking. Then was the difficult part of Tetris-style detachment of the long steel beams directly by the wall from the end section of height-extended, green pallet racking. As you can see this pallet racking almost touches the ceiling! After that, the long beams could be completely removed before taking down the next bay. Nine bays were disassembled this time to reveal the concrete wall and ample floor space. Just as the objects needed cleaning to remove years of dust and dirt, so did the floor!

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The aisle in 2018. An open wall and floor!

What’s next? We will methodically continue pulling objects and taking down racking until no shelf is left behind! We are grateful to the IMLS for their continued support of this project and will be back for future updates.

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Marlene Gray is the project conservator for The Henry Ford's IMLS storage improvement grant.

IMLS grant, collections care, by Marlene Gray, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

imlsThis blog post is part of a series about storage relocation and improvements that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In the course of our work as conservators, we get some very exciting opportunities. Thanks to a partnership with Hitachi High Technologies, for the past few months the conservation lab here at The Henry Ford has had a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with an energy-dispersive x-ray (EDX) spectroscopy attachment in our lab.

hitachi-usWhat does this mean? It means that not only have we been able to look at samples at huge magnifications, but we have had the ability to do elemental analysis of materials on-demand. Scanning electron microscopy uses a beam of electrons, rather than light as in optical microscopes, to investigate the surface of sample. A tungsten filament generates electrons, which are accelerated, condensed, and focused on the sample in a chamber under vacuum. There are three kinds of interactions between the beam and that sample that provide us with the information we are interested in. First, there are secondary electrons – the electron beam hits an electron in the sample, causing it to “bounce back” at the detector. These give us a 3D topographical map of the surface of the sample. Second, there are back-scattered electrons – the electron beam misses any electrons in the sample and is drawn towards a positively-charged nucleus instead. The electrons essentially orbit the nucleus, entering and then leaving the sample quickly. The heavier the nucleus, the higher that element is on the periodic table, the more electrons will be attracted to it. From this, we get a qualitative elemental map of the surface, with heavier elements appearing brighter, and lighter elements appearing darker.

microsope-scanConservation Specialist Ellen Seidell demonstrates the SEM with Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation volunteer Pete Caldwell.

The EDX attachment to the SEM allows us to go one step further, to a third source of information. When the secondary electrons leave the sample, they leave a hole in the element’s valence shell that must be filled. An electron from a higher valence shell falls to fill it, releasing a characteristic x-ray as it does so – the detector then uses these to create a quantitative elemental map of the surface.

scanA ‘K’ from a stamp block, as viewed in the scanning electron microscope.

The understanding of materials is fundamental to conservation. Before we begin working on any treatment, we use our knowledge, experience, and analytical tools such as microscopy or chemical tests to make determinations about what artifacts are made of, and from there decide on the best methods of treatment. Sometimes, materials such as metal can be difficult to positively identify, especially when they are degrading, and that is where the SEM-EDX shines. Take for example the stamp-block letter shown here. The letter was only about a quarter inch tall, and from visual inspection, it was difficult to tell if the block was made of lead (with minor corrosion) or from heavily-degraded rubber. By putting this into the SEM, it was possible a good image of the surface and also to run an elemental analysis that confirmed that it was made of lead. Knowing this, it was coated to prevent future corrosion and to make it safe to handle.

Elemental analysis is also useful when it comes to traces of chemicals left on artifacts. We recently came across a number of early pesticide applicators, which if unused would be harmless. However, early pesticides frequently contained arsenic, so our immediate concern was that they were contaminated. We were able to take a sample of surface dirt from one of the applicators and analyze it in the SEM.

scan2An SEM image of a dirt sample from an artifact (left) and a map of arsenic within that sample (right).

The image on the left is the SEM image of the dirt particles, and the image on the right is the EDX map of the locations of arsenic within the sample. Now that we know they are contaminated, we can treat them in a way that protects us as well as making the objects safe for future handling.

We have also used the SEM-EDX to analyze corrosion products, to look at metal structures, and even to analyze some of the products that we use to clean and repair artifacts. It has been a great experience for us, and we’re very thankful to Hitachi for the opportunity and to the IMLS as always for their continued support.

Louise Stewart Beck is the project conservator for The Henry Ford's IMLS storage improvement grant.

technology, collections care, by Louise Stewart Beck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, conservation, IMLS grant

Have you ever wondered how we photograph quilts at The Henry Ford? While the answer is probably no, you might be surprised to find out that it is quite a process. Most quilts are quite large, ranging from 7ft x 4ft to even 9ft x 5ft. With that being said, our photo studio in the museum only has a ceiling that is 10ft tall, but to get an accurate picture of the quilt we would need the camera to be pointing at the quilt at a 90-degree angle. How do we accomplish that in a room that’s only 10 ft tall? We find higher ground!

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Since our studio is on the back wall of the museum, we need to be somewhere elevated, but relatively nearby so we aren’t hauling our equipment all over the place. So, the Highland Park Engine is our answer. We mount the camera on the top railing of the stairs closest to the entrance to Conservation.


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Then, with the help of 2-3 people, we lay the quilts on a large 10 x 10 wooden board that has a layer of muslin cloth on it (to protect the quilts and stop them from sliding down the board), We hoist the quilt board up onto stands to hold it in place at about a 60-degree angle which allows us to angle the camera to shoot straight at the quilt, giving us the correct perspective as if it were lying flat.

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Here are a few examples of the finished images that go online on our Digital Collections website.

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Looking at them, you wouldn’t think that they were photographed any other way than lying down, right? That’s the magic of photography - with a little bit of resourcefulness and ingenuity added in.

You can view all the quilts from our collection that we’ve photographed on our Digital Collections here.

Jillian Ferraiuolo is Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford.

collections care, photography, quilts, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, digitization, by Jillian Ferraiuolo