Cleaning artifacts is an everyday occurrence here at The Henry Ford’s conservation department, as anyone who has ever looked into the windows of the lab at the back of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation knows. Still, it is not every day that stored paintings can be brought into the lab in view of guests to have detailed cleaning and preservation work done. Thanks to Susan and Henry Fradkin, with additional funds from The American Folk Art Society, that is changing this summer, as we address some of the folk art paintings from our sizeable collection.
The first painting to be selected for this project was an oil painting dating from the 1830s–1840s. The artist is unknown, but an inscription on the back of the painting notes that this is a portrait of “Sarah ... at age 4.” This painting was very dirty and yellowed with age. The paint layers were also unstable with some losses in the background. “Sarah” had been conserved in the late 1960s but needed more attention.
After examining the painting, the first steps in the conservation plan were to remove it from its frame and take the canvas off its stretcher, due to distortions from a previous wax-lining.
Removing the staples to take the painting off the stretcher.
Several areas of the painting had flaking and paint losses. To safely move forward with the rest of the conservation, it was necessary to consolidate those areas to ensure no further loss of paint. This was done by removing some of the excess wax on the reverse used to line the painting to a supporting piece of fabric. Wax-lining of paintings was previously used to preserve paintings, but is no longer the accepted technique due to the tendency of the wax to physically change the properties of the paint layers. Therefore, the wax on the back of the canvas was heated and carefully scraped off. These bits of wax were then reheated and placed into areas on the painted side of the canvas that had unstable paint layers.
Once the flaking paint was resecured, it was time to start cleaning. Over time, the natural resin varnish on the paint surface had yellowed, which is common with paintings. To reveal the original paint colors, the varnish layer was removed. To better understand what material is being removed from the surface, ultraviolet (UV) light is useful.
UV light to aid in cleaning.
With the use of UV light, varnish has a fluorescence that is different than the matte appearance of the original paint. The UV light tells conservators how thick a layer of varnish is and when we have successfully removed the varnish and exposed the original paint. UV light also shows distinctions between the original paint used by the artist and paint that was applied later, which appears black. In this case, we found that an area of the dress had been previously fixed after the canvas had torn.
Detail shot showing varnish removed from half of the painting.
Detail shot of varnish and dirt removal from the floor.
After testing several small areas with various cleaning solvents, we chose the best one for cleaning this painting. During cleaning, the details of the floor popped out, along with “Sarah” appearing much brighter. As the varnish was removed, it also revealed more areas of paint loss that would need inpainting. Before inpainting, we added fills to several areas where there was paint and gesso loss to create an even level when the new paint was applied.
Before and after adding fills to the areas of paint loss.
With the level fills in place, the painting could be re-stretched onto the stretcher before inpainting. Due to short tacking edges on the original canvas and wax-lining, we added new fabric with an adhesive film on all four edges. This process is called strip lining and the use of this extra material (we used sail cloth) helped strengthen the canvas during the re-stretching process.
Sail cloth added to edges of original canvas.
After adding the sail cloth, the material was wrapped around the stretcher, pulled taut with pliers, and heated to stay in place. After securing it to the back of the stretcher, extra sail cloth was cut away.
Re-stretching the canvas.
Canvas is re-stretched and extra sail cloth removed.
Over time, paint canvas stretches and tightens on its stretcher as humidity levels change. Some paintings can become too loose, and with the weight of an extra piece of fabric and excess wax, this painting was beginning to sag. Re-stretching the canvas helps to evenly disperse the tension of the canvas to the stretcher.
With the canvas re-stretched, it was time to inpaint. This is the process of adding new paint to areas that have previously lost paint. Paint colors are carefully mixed to match the existing paint.
Getting set up to inpaint.
Once the inpainting was dry, a new coat of varnish was brush-applied. New varnishes have been created that will filter out harmful UV rays, create a barrier layer to protect the paint from dust that can scratch the surface over time, and should no longer yellow with age. After letting the varnish cure, the last thing to do was return the painting to its frame, which had also been cleaned and inpainted.
The completed painting after conservation.
What’s next? Because of philanthropic support from Susan and Henry Fradkin and The American Folk Art Society, we can continue conservation work on another painting. Here is a sneak peek at an 1850s oil painting attributed to Fredrick E. Cohen: “King Strang and His Harem on Beaver Island.” If you are visiting the museum this summer, stop by the back of the museum and peek into the conservation lab to see its progress.
Now that we are getting close to wrapping up our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant to conserve, photograph, catalog, and rehouse artifacts from our collection, some of the staff who have worked on this grant would like to share interesting objects they’ve encountered over the course of the grant.
Marlene Gray, IMLS Project Conservator, has three objects she would like to share.
Dodge & Zuill Easy Model C Washing Machine, circa 1912 / THF186088
As the IMLS Project Conservator for the last year of the grant, clearing space for larger objects in storage was our main priority. However, there were chances to conserve some interesting objects, one of which was a copper electric washing machine from the early 20th century. The dazzling copper tub was a sight to behold while in the conservation lab. While cleaning it, I remember thinking how grateful I am that technology has come such a long way in making tasks simpler!
Next is this footwarmer from the mid-19th century:
This footwarmer was a cute object to conserve because of the decorative elements in the wood frame and pierced tin stove box. One of the wooden columns had separated from the rest of the object. The opportunity to completely reassemble the object and give it a thorough cleaning made it feel as though the little stove could still be heated for the approaching cold months.
The great thing about conservation is that you are always learning about history through ordinary objects. While the conservation treatment of this object involved relatively simple metal polishing and glass repair, learning about the inventor of the lubricator cup, Elijah McCoy, and his connection to Detroit was fascinating. I highly recommend exploring his story, like I did!
Next up are Susan Bartholomew and me, Laura Myles, Collections Specialists in the Registrars’ Office. We have worked closely cataloging and researching the objects that have been selected for the grant. It was hard to narrow down our favorite objects, or at least the ones we think are the most interesting, but here is a brief overview of some of the objects we enjoyed working with the most.
My name is Susan Bartholomew. I am a Collections Documentation Specialist and simply put, my role in this project was to update or revise catalog records for objects selected for the grant. This included identifying and applying accession numbers, which allow us to track an object both physically and digitally using our database, as well as conducting provenance research, and creating or modifying existing records in our database using cataloguing standards.
My personal highlights for this grant include the following.
Model of a Hook and Ladder Truck, circa 1900 / THF170406
This incredibly detailed handmade model of a turn-of-the-century fire truck is complete with removable ladders, firemen’s tools, and what are possibly the world’s tiniest leather fire buckets.
From the tiny to the huge, this is a shop sign in the form of a giant gold-painted tin teapot. It stands over three feet tall and four feet long from spout tip to handle. For more information about this unique giant teapot, check out this blog post Senior Conservator Louise Beck wrote about its surprising discovery.
A very early example of a type of telephone that had no batteries, this device operated on the same principle as two tin cans connected by a string, an idea that had been around for centuries. They were used in pairs and were connected over a short distance by a tightly stretched wire. With no dependence on electricity, they were advertised as being more reliable than battery-operated telephones. This unit was one of a pair used by the father of the donor to connect the flour mill he operated to the boats he used to ship his flour. One set would be at the mill and the other was placed on the wharf boat half a mile away.
And now, Laura Myles shares her favorites.
Like Susan, I have assisted with cataloging, but I also research objects more in depth to uncover missing dates and/or manufacturers, as well as approving records to go online into our Digital Collections. Working on the grant over the last three years has been a wonderful learning experience, as the objects are so varied you really have no idea what to expect.
Megalethoscope Slide, "St. Mark's Square," lit up / THF179346
Perhaps my most favorite object is the megalethoscope and its slides. One of the best parts of my job is rediscovering hidden treasures in the collection. While we knew this was something special by looking at it, it was not until we were working on the slides that we knew how truly special it was.
At first glance, it looks like the megalethoscope is a fancy magic lantern device—merely projecting the images on slides. The megalethoscope was designed by Charles Ponti while he was living in Venice, Italy circa 1862. Ponti photographed his travels through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, and it was these photographs that he turned into transparencies for his megalethoscope, costing five francs each at the time. These transparencies look like normal slides until they are inserted into the megalethoscope and manipulated to show night views painted onto the backs of the images but hidden by a dustcover. One of the 22 slides can be seen above. For even more information about the megalethoscope, here is a blog post written about its conservation and photography.
Another object that I enjoyed researching was this naval cannon. While we know this cannon was accessioned in 1929, we do not have information about who made it or where it was used. Based on its estimated manufacture date, circa 1780, and similar design to British artillery, I reached out to the Royal Armouries, which helped eliminate the possibility of it being British in origin. Unfortunately, we do not know its history, but at least we know it was very likely made in the United States to be used on a merchant marine vessel.
This sign advertising the O. H. Perry Inne is one of my favorites just for its connection to the War of 1812 and Oliver Hazard Perry. On the front of the sign is a portrait of Perry, there is an eagle with seventeen stars above (although there were eighteen states by 1813, further adding to the mystery), and the words “Lake Erie” below on the reverse. Perry was regarded as a hero after defeating a British squadron in Lake Erie, which led to Detroit being freed from British control. Unfortunately, this sign’s history has been lost to time, although there are similar signs that have come up for auction. It seems likely that some local establishment capitalized on Perry’s name, probably along Lake Erie. We can only imagine the building it adorned.
One of the more recent objects to make my short list, and Susan’s as well, is this turtle spittoon. We think it is one of the cutest objects to have come through the IMLS pipeline, especially since spittoons themselves are not the most elegant of objects. Apparently turtle designs for spittoons were quite popular in their time, as well as remaining popular among collectors. The one in our collection is functional: pressing the turtle’s head flips open the shell to reveal the bowl.
If you would like to know more about the cataloging process, you can read more about that here (and see a few more interesting objects we have worked on as a result of this and a previous IMLS grant), and if you would like to know more about the provenance research Susan refers to, check out Associate Registrar Aimee Burpee’s blog post.
This is but a small sampling of some of our favorite objects from this grant. Over the course of the grant so far, we've digitized nearly 3,000 objects, and cataloged and conserved over 4,300 total objects. Unfortunately, this means that we had to be a little bit picky in what we shared here, but hopefully you will discover more of the treasures from our Collections Storage Building yourself while searching our Digital Collections.
Marlene Gray is IMLS Project Conservator, Susan Bartholomew is Collections Documentation Specialist, and Laura Myles is Collections Specialist, all at The Henry Ford.
For decades, Sir John Bennett's shop—with its figures of mythological giants Gog and Magog—has intrigued and enthralled Greenfield Village's visitors. Prior to 1930, the jewelry and clock shop was a popular presence many thousands of miles away in London, where its animated giants chimed the quarter-hours above the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside.
While London and Dearborn would seem to have little in common, Gog and Magog—if they could talk, as well as chime—might disagree. Exposure to the weather has been a continuous element in their over 125 years of timekeeping in both England and America. Climate has taken its toll on the figures. So, during the winter of 2005–2006, The Henry Ford undertook an extensive restoration of the Sir John Bennett figures.
This was not the first time that the figures, or "jacks," as they are known in the world of clocks, had been given a thorough restoration. When Henry Ford originally brought them to the United States in 1931, he had them repaired and repainted. A second restoration and repainting took place in the 1970s.
Pre-restoration deterioration on the feet of one of the carved wooden figures.
The 2005–2006 restoration, in addition to reversing damage and safeguarding Gog and Magog for future generations, also offered an opportunity to attempt to determine what the wooden figures originally looked like. Deeply carved recesses were carefully excavated in order to discover clues to the original color scheme. Conservators also studied a similar set of Gog and Magog figures in London's Guildhall; a set in Melbourne, Australia; and many historical prints and illustrations to compare our paint analysis with other known examples.
One finding was that the giants' chain mail had, at some point, been painted the color of their clothing. The chain mail is now painted to look like metal rather than cloth. Areas of the giants' armor were found to have traces of gold leaf in the recesses. Also, successive paint layers and weathering had obscured a number of decorative elements in the giants' armor. Previous restorations had used gold-colored paint on the armor, which eventually oxidized and turned brown. In 2005–2006, all the decorative armor components were coated with gold leaf.
The figures themselves were in poor structural condition, with many breaks and numerous large cracks. With a view to preserving as much of the original figures as possible, the decision was made to inject a deep penetrating resin into the porous wood, rather than cut out and replace damaged sections.
Newly restored Gog and Magog await their return to the Sir John Bennett shop.
Of course, Gog and Magog are not the only figures in the facade of the building—Father Time and a Muse are also in attendance to assist in the job of chiming. Made of plaster rather than wood, these figures were given structural repairs and then gilded with 1,400 sheets of gold leaf. During the repair work on the Muse, decorative elements were discovered on the harp under layers of paint and filler. The decoration was carefully restored, and can be seen on the front vertical post of the harp. A maker's name, "Brogiotti," was also revealed during the restoration.
Finally, the internal mechanisms for all four figures were repaired, and additional lubrication points were added to help minimize future wear.
Father Time and the Muse show off their new coats of gold leaf.
The clock mechanism was in need of a complete overhaul. Many of the bronze bearings—separate components fitted into the clock movement's large cast iron frame—had become worn and needed to be "re-bushed" to bring the mechanism back to its original operating specifications. During cleaning, conservators discovered that all of the cast iron framing was originally painted a blue-green with white pin striping. All of this original paint was carefully cleaned and preserved.
Conservator Malcolm Collum reassembles the restored Sir John Bennett clock movement.
During the 1931 reconstruction of the building and clock in Greenfield Village, a number of components were replaced. Cleaning the mechanism helped us gain a better understanding of the extent of Henry Ford's restoration: the modern steel components lack the dark graining found in the original wrought iron pieces. These dark lines are called "slag inclusions," remnants of a glass-like material that gets worked into the iron during the smelting and production processes.
Gog and Magog receive the most attention from visitors—understandably, given their size, character, and animation—but higher up, fully exposed to everything the Michigan climate has to offer, is one of the most vivid elements of Sir John Bennett's shop: the dragon weathervane. The dragon—made of hammered copper and detailed with sharp claws, taut bat-like wings and a fiery tongue—is a quiet masterpiece of design, craftsmanship, and balance. Its swept-back wings and extended tail are designed to catch even the slightest breeze; its head is weighted with lead in order to balance the body and allow for free pivoting.
The dragon weathervane is readied for removal from its perch.
When the dragon was removed from its perch in late 2005, it was found to be in stable condition. Structural repairs were followed by a thorough cleaning to remove corrosion and degraded metallic paint. Finally, rather than simply repaint the dragon, we returned it to its original splendor with a coat of gold leaf.
Dragon weathervane during gilding.
Repaired and resplendent, silhouetted against a Dearborn rather than a London sky, the dragon once again watches over the visitors who gather to watch Gog and Magog.
Malcolm Collum is former Conservator at The Henry Ford and Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Vice President, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series in May 2006.
McCormick-Deering Farmall Tractor, circa 1925 / THF179719
International Harvester introduced the first commercially successful row-crop tractor, the McCormick-Deering Farmall, in 1924. It represented a whole new approach to farming. Today we think of corn, cotton, soybeans, and other crops as being planted and harvested in long rows, but before the 1920s, farmers often planted crops in a grid pattern on smaller fields, which they cultivated using draft animals and a shovel plow.
As tractor usage increased, farmers were able to reduce the amount of land dedicated to housing and feeding draft animals. On average, farmers could re-purpose five acres of land for every horse that was no longer needed. This increase in usable land for farming provided a powerful incentive for farmers to own a tractor.
The McCormick-Deering Farmall was the first tractor to incorporate small, closely spaced front wheels that could travel between rows, and a high rear axle clearance to straddle the plants. It also included a power “take-off” unit to run machinery like the New Idea corn picker. International Harvester, with its Farmall tractor, overtook Ford Motor Company to lead the nation in tractor sales.
Before (above) conservation and after (below) 2019 conservation work, with the addition of the Farmall Cultivator No. HM-229 add-on kit and set of metal wheels.
In 2003, a team of volunteers, under the direction of a conservator, began the process of returning the tractor to its 1926 appearance. During this process, most of the newer Farmall red restoration paint layer was removed, as were F-20 parts that were not appropriate to the “Regular” model.
Most recently, we made the decision to retain the 1926 appearance and re-introduce the 1930s Farmall Cultivator No. HM-229 add-on kit, a compatible addition farmers could purchase. To do this, the tractor would need to be painted in appropriate colors. Luckily, our Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, Debra A. Reid, tracked down the manufacturer’s elusive colors: International Harvester Gray and Harvester Blue varnish enamel paint.
Harvester Gray was fortunately documented by Mark Stephenson at McCormick-Deering.com. The Harvester Blue was matched from residual paint on a gang beam that was hidden behind an installed cultivator part. The paint was compared with a manufacturer’s paint chart from the Wisconsin Historical Society.
The residual Harvester Blue paint on the Cultivator’s gang beam.
To aid in completion of this project, a copy of the manufacturer’s original instruction manual we obtained proved to be an invaluable resource.
Conservation volunteers Doug Beaver, Glen Lysinger, and Jim Yousman put on the cultivator rear track sweep attachment, supported by a high-lift pallet jack.
Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem steers the tractor as it is towed by Exhibits Preparator Bernhard Wilson.
Logistics included towing the tractor to its display location at the museum and completing the rest of the assembly onsite in the museum; for ease of movement, the rubber wheels were used to maneuver the tractor into the museum.
Exhibit Preparators Ken Drogowski on the forklift and Jared Wylie on the floor remove one of the 40” x 6” rubber wheels.
The metal wheel gets mounted by Exhibits Preparators Jared Wylie and Neil Reinalda and Conservation Specialist Andrew Ganem.
The rest of the cultivator assembly, which includes gang beams, two rear spring teeth, and ten gang sweeps, was added after the tractor returned to the exhibit area. A set of 25” x 4” front metal wheels and 40” x 6” rear metal wheels replaced the rubber wheels. This process required a methodic approach to safely complete, using forklifts, straps, a watchful eye for concerns and risks, and general tools. Once removed, the set of rubber wheels were returned to collections storage.
This work could not have been completed without the help of staff from the collections management, conservation, curatorial, and exhibits teams at The Henry Ford, as well as our dedicated volunteers Glenn Lysinger, Doug Beaver, Jim Yousman, Larry Wolfe, Harvey Dean, Neil Pike, Deb Luczkowski, Maria Gramer, and Eric Bergman.
Check out the recently conserved tractor and a variety of other agricultural items in the Agriculture exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
This is the third of a series of blog posts presented in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection. The exhibit, consisting of approximately 60 artifacts, is on view at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation from March 6, 2021, through April 25, 2021. The lamp shown here is from the collections of The Henry Ford and provides background on themes in the exhibition.
In preparing for the Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection exhibit, The Henry Ford’s curatorial department expressed interest in displaying a Tiffany Studios early floor lamp, circa 1900, from our collections. This lamp features a telescopic shaft and a dual wick kerosene burner for extra illumination.
Our Tiffany lamp (THF186213) as compared to images from Tiffany publications.
In Tiffany publications, the lamp rests on an outer cushion-textured base with six ball-shaped feet. However, the outer base from The Henry Ford’s lamp was missing, with no previous record of its existence when it entered our collection in 1966.
Discussions between Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and conservators led to the decision to create a replica lamp base to ensure both historical accuracy and physical stability to the tall, rather top-heavy floor lamp. The completed object would provide viewers with a more accurate interpretation and the opportunity to experience the object whole, as it was originally designed.
It’s All about the Base
We embarked upon an effort to locate a similar base in museums or private collections to serve as a reference or pattern, to inform the creation of a replacement base—only to discover that the lamp is quite rare. So instead, I decided to create a model base using a CAD (computer-aided design) program, with the design based on photographs from Tiffany publications and auctions. The museum’s lamp was used as a physical frame of reference for measurements and comparisons in CAD. I reached out to several 3D-printing shops to determine if they could use my CAD design to generate a three-dimensional plastic base. Ultimately, the base was printed with the help and generosity of the additive manufacturing team at the Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center.
The above images are the CAD model of the base from different angles.
Ford Motor Company and its Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC) offered their additive manufacturing expertise and capabilities. Their team includes Global Chief Engineer Mike Mikula, Rapid Prototype Subject Matter Expert Scott Gafken, Technical Leader in Additive Manufacturing Harold Sears, Additive Manufacturing Engineer Supervisor Jay Haubenstricke, and Supervisor Additive Manufacturing John Phillips.
Collaborative discussions with Scott Gafken revealed that the process would take about 24 hours, which included printing as well as model cooldown for handling. The EOS P770 was employed as an industrial selective laser sintering (SLS) printer and produced the print in Nylon 12 (also known as Polyamide 12 or PA12). The printing material was selected based on its ability to bear the weight of the lamp, and someday be a candidate for an investment casting, for the creation of a metal base.
The white image shows the Polyamide 12 print of the base at the Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center. The image with painter’s tape was taken during the process of painting the base. Achieving a finish that matched the original metal lamp required the application of several layers of paint. The image with only one small white section shows the completed base after gloss varnish was applied.
The bronze surface of the lamp was shades of brown with hints of red, orange, and green. These shades are similar to several paint colors: raw umber, chromium oxide green, sepia, burnt sienna, and yellow oxides. The colors were mixed into several formulations to closely match the patina (aged finish) of the lamp. Diluted paint was applied in layers to allow the variations in the tones to be seen. After discussions with the curator and members of our Experience Design department, we made the decision to leave one section of 3D-printed surface unpainted, to allow visitors to see it in the exhibit.
The replica base was painted with the actual lamp present to ensure a match.
Beyond the base, other aspects of our conservation treatment included the cleaning of the Tiffany lamp with a bristle brush and vacuum. Wet cleaning included a dilute blend of anionic and nonionic detergents in distilled water, applied with cotton rags and cotton swabs. Residual detergent was then removed with a distilled water wipedown.
A protective barrier of wax was introduced via hot wax application. The bronze surface was heated with a hot air gun and microcrystalline wax was applied and left to cool down. A boar-bristle brush and bamboo picks were used to remove excess wax. The brush and cotton rags were then used to buff the wax layer, resulting in a uniform sheen.
Details of the lamp both before cleaning and after cleaning and wax application.
Throughout the month of November 2020, we’ve been celebrating reaching the milestone of 100,000 digitized artifacts by sharing out blog posts and fun facts, hosting Twitter chats with our digitization staff, and counting down the 20 most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. In case you missed any of these great resources, we wanted to share them all here for easy reference.
If you follow us on social media, you might have seen the “top 20” countdown of our most-viewed digitized artifacts of all time, but if you’d like to get a broader look, you can check out the top 100 in this Expert Set. Fans of The Henry Ford will recognize many of the artifacts, but there may be some on the list that surprise you.
The Henry Ford's all-time top 20 most-viewed digitized artifacts. Do any of them surprise you?
Here, also, are all of the fun facts about our digitization program and our Digital Collections that we shared out on social media.
Twenty fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections.
During the first week of November, we provided a general introduction to our Digital Collections, our digitization program, and our workflows.
First was our announcement that we had just digitized our 100,000th artifact, and were kicking off the month-long celebration. You can also read our press release here.
If you’re interested in becoming an expert in using our Digital Collections, or just not sure where to start, this blog post will give you a run-down of the ways you can search, view, and use our digitized artifacts.
Associate Curator, Digital Content Andy Stupperich shared how we add context to artifacts in our Digital Collections in this post.
Like many other people around the world, a lot of our staff have spent time this year working from home. Find out how we continued to digitize artifacts despite the closure of our campus this spring in this post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Herschell-Spellman steam engine (27.139.1) rigged up for moving out of storage.
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.
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.
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.
Quick photographs are often taken at this stage in order to research and find more information about the object.
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.
Here is a Pratt & Whitney Gear Cutter and Lathe, circa 1900, getting set up for photography in storage.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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:
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
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.
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.
The giant teapot after treatment, ready to go back to storage. Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at 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.
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.
Once an artifact is selected, tagged, and inventoried, it is given a preliminary cleaning with a vacuum and transported into the Conservation Lab.
(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.
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.
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.
(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.
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 thePonte 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.
(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.
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!
(Top Left & Right) In "St. Mark's Square” you can see how people appear when light is applied to the image.
Photographing the Megalethoscope
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.
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!
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!
Alicia Halligan is an IMLS Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford