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 for 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!
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
This 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.
What 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.
Conservation 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.
A ‘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.
An 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.
One of the main components of The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant is the treatment of electrical objects coming out of storage. This largely involves cleaning the objects to remove dust, dirt, and corrosion products. Even though this may sound mundane, we come across drastic visual changes as well as some really interesting types of corrosion and deterioration, both of which we find really exciting.
An electrical drafting board during treatment (2016.0.1.28)
Conservation specialist Mallory Bower had a great object recently which demonstrates how much dust we are seeing settled on some of the objects. We’re lucky that most of the dust is not terribly greasy, and thus comes off of things like paper with relative ease. That said, it’s still eye-opening how much can accumulate, and it definitely shows how much better off these objects will be in enclosed storage.
Before and after treatment images of a recording & alarm gauge (2016.0.1.46)
The recording and alarm gauge pictured above underwent a great visual transformation after cleaning, which you can see in its before-and-after-treatment photos. As a bonus, we also have an image of the material that likely caused the fogging of the glass in the first place! There are several hard rubber components within this object, which give off sulfurous corrosion products over time. We can see evidence of these in the reaction between the copper alloys nearby the rubber as well as in the fogging of the glass. The picture below shows where a copper screw was corroding within a rubber block – but that cylinder sticking up (see arrow) is all corrosion product, the metal was actually flush with the rubber surface. I saved this little cylinder of corrosion, in case we have the chance to do some testing in the future to determine its precise chemical composition.
Hard rubber in contact with copper alloys, causing corrosion which also fogged the glass (also 2016.0.1.46).
Hard rubber corrosion on part of an object – note the screw heads and the base of the post.
This is another example of an object with hard rubber corrosion. In the photo, you can see it ‘growing’ up from the metal of the screws and the post – look carefully for the screw heads on the inside edges of the circular indentation. We’re encountering quite a lot of this in our day to day work, and though it’s satisfying to remove, but definitely an interesting problem to think about as well.
There are absolutely more types of dirt and corrosion that we remove, these are just two of the most drastic in terms of appearance and the visual changes that happen to the object when it comes through conservation.
We will be back with further updates on the status of our project, so stay tuned.
Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
“Opening the Door” is an unusual and large ( 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide) painting that recently received some much-needed conservation here at The Henry Ford.
Painted in the 1840s by self-trained artist George W. Mark, it depicts a young girl holding a flower. She stands in an elaborately-painted open doorway. Behind the girl a bust and lamp are visible on the table in a very shadowy room. The intent is to present a life-size vision that fools the eye into thinking that we are looking into a real space.
If you have the opportunity to take part in a VIP or Special Access tour of our Benson Ford Research Center storage, you will see this painting. It is greatly admired and it is positioned in a prominent location in the state-of-the-art storage facility here at The Henry Ford.
The painting needed conservation attention because it was not in stable condition after years of storage and many moves. Some of the damages were due to the challenges of handling – the painting is not framed, so corners got crushed when it was set down with too much force. And past attempts to hang it resulted in old patched holes near the top.
Take a look behind the scenes to see some of our work conserving "Opening the Door." This project was made possible by the generous support of The American Folk Art Society and Susan and Henry Fradkin.
Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, Conservator Celina Contreras de Berenfeld, and Senior Conservator Clara Deck examine the work in progress.
This image shows the last old, yellowed varnish as it was removed from the paint surface.
This is a microscopic image of the thick varnish, before and during removal. The cracks (which are actually quite small!) are expected in a painting of this age and type.
Many paintings suffer over time due to the natural aging that darkens the once-clear protective varnish coat. As the varnish darkens, it shifts colors that were originally intense and bright; they become murky and brownish. Varnish removal restores the painting’s original colors. It is not unusual for old varnishes to require renewal, and this was done as part of an extensive conservation treatment completed last year.
Old patches were also redone so that they are invisible from the front and the whole painting was lined with stable backing material to support its large size. The restoration of damaged areas of the paint was done by “in-painting” only the small areas of lost paint. Finally a new, reversible varnish was applied overall.
The final result is a stronger, stable painting that can survive for at least another 171 years in the care of The Henry Ford.
Clara Deck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
If you’ve ever walked by the conservation labs at the back of Henry Ford museum, you’ve probably seen the conservators at work on a variety of objects, of a variety of sizes. With a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we are primarily working on “bench-top” objects – which can be picked up and moved by hand. There are, however, a handful of extra-large objects that we have planned to work on over the course of the grant, including (but not limited to!) historically significant motors, electrostatic producers, and transformers. These objects are important within the electrical scope of the grant, and they need work to be stabilized and preserved for the future. Note that “extra-large” for us is a lot different than extra-large for the rest of the museum – the Allegheny is magnitudes larger than anything we are working with, for example! The “extra-large” objects that we are working on range up to 2 tons in weight, and require specialized equipment such as forklifts to move. We draw the line at artifacts requiring specialist rigging or outside contractors. These sorts of objects do bring their own issues – moving them from one place to another is difficult and requires careful planning, they require a good deal of space in the lab, and the treatments can take a significant length of time. We’re moving at a quick pace with the work on this grant, so taking up two to three weeks just working on one object isn’t a good solution for us.
The first extra-large object we’ve grabbed, viewed top-down – a Sprague streetcar motor.
So how do we balance the amount of time it takes to treat very large objects with the need to keep up a pace in order to achieve completion goals? We’ve tackled this perrenial problem in an interesting way. Since we don’t have an enormous number of extra-large objects to complete, we are allowing three months for the conservation of each. What this means practically is that we can bring the object into the lab, give it a space, and then as we have breaks between work on smaller objects, we can dedicate a few hours to it here and there. Breaking up the conservation work in this way has been very successful so far!
The first object that we’ve treated in this way is a Sprague streetcar motor. This is a really interesting and important object, believed to have been used in Richmond, Virginia on the first major electric street railway system, and dating to the end of the 19th century.
Two of the coils on the motor before treatment.
In the image above are shown two of the coils on the motor before treatment – the textile covering was loose and dirty, and in some places the damage extended to the layer below the outer wrapping as well. The treatment for this object required not only cleaning, but repair to these areas of damage.
Their ‘tails’ have been rewound and reattached, and the dust and dirt have been removed. The area around the coils has also been cleaned and the wire wrappings have been tidied. The engine overall is nearing completion, but does have some areas that still need cleaning. It’s been great to have it as a project we can come back to for small spurts of time, which is exactly what we were hoping for our extra-large object treatment plan.
Louise Stewart Beck is an IMLS Conservator at The Henry Ford.
When should protecting something’s authenticity outweigh our entertainment?
Malcolm Collum has a dream job. He’s the chief conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That means he gets to play (in the serious sense) with historic aircraft and spacecraft every day.
Before that, he was a senior conservator at The Henry Ford, where he was the last lucky person to drive Old 16 — the first American car to win America’s first great international auto race in 1908.
But long before Collum put on his official conservator’s hat, he was a collector. The proud owner of a 1967 MG MGB GT since 1984 — that still resides in his garage — he happily remembers taking it to car shows, often one among many polished and preserved beauties waiting to be admired. Collum’s car, however, was different.
“In high school and college, I always saw the value of the authentic, even if it meant showing a little age,” said Collum. As a result of that conservator- style mindset, Collum never restored his MG to a state of imperfect perfection, as he sees it, preferring to appreciate and preserve the car’s patina and slight blemishes.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, other people were drawn to the car’s authenticity, too. “In these car shows, you would have a line of MGs beautifully restored. They all looked the same,” he said. “People would just seem to gravitate toward me and my MG. They appreciated the subtle details that are often lost when you start replacing parts.”
The phenomenon witnessed by Collum at car shows with his MG isn’t necessarily new news. This trend toward seeing greater value in dings and dents versus shiny and new has been growing exponentially in car collector clubs and car show circuits over the past decade or so. The Concours d’Elegance shows, for example, have long had a Preservation Class as part of their awards, honoring unrestored, historically significant entries with intriguing stories attached to them. At Pebble Beach last year, it was a rare 1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica Coupe that made one of the biggest splashes among the judges, car aficionados and media. Unrestored and as original as the day it left an Italian dealership, the car is one of the only untouched and remaining such Ferraris built with an aluminum-alloy body.
This public pull toward the rare object that shows its age with grace is trickling over to other collectible communities, too, from toys and watches to antique tower clocks. “It’s the beauty of the survivor,” explained Collum. “It gets people’s attention and opens up discussion of their story.”
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW EFFECT Collum’s recollections of his MG allude to bigger questions that fall far outside the realm of collectibles. Questions that conservators such as Mary Fahey, chief conservator at The Henry Ford, and Clara Deck, senior conservator, think about every day. Is it better to restore or conserve? Just because we can fix something — or make it look better — does that mean we should?
Watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS, noted Deck, and you’ll quickly understand the heated debate and the marked difference between the two methodologies and mindsets. So often on the show, appraisers tell hopeful object owners that if only they hadn’t refurbished that chair or made that repair it would be worth thousands more.
“It’s called the Antiques Roadshow Effect,” said Deck. “People are starting to rethink notions about historic objects. Yes, anything can be restored if you throw enough money at it, but do you really want to?
Not to say that the conservator doesn’t appreciate the art or skill behind restoration or understand its place. At The Henry Ford, restoration is a daily practice in Greenfield Village’s T Shed and roundhouse, where talented machinists, mechanics, engineers and expert hobbyists do whatever it takes to maintain the historical integrity of the institution’s Ford Model T’s and steam locomotives, while keeping them operational so they can provide a moving visitor experience. If a part breaks or fails, it must be repaired or replaced so the machine can run. Sometimes historical methods of repair and replacement such as pouring castings make sense, sometimes they don’t.
Where things can get gray between restoration and conservation, said Collum, is when you’re dealing with that rare, special item and what you should do with it. “I understand the innate joy people get in restoring things. When you take something tattered and worn and make it look new again. But what if you took an artifact like Old 16 — original paint, glorious varnish on the wheels — and restored it? It would ruin it. Make it a bad replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
BEHIND THE SCENES The Henry Ford recently faced its own conservation conundrum when one of its prized artifacts, a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, was damaged in transit for an event in England. This was the U.S.-built race car/engine driven by American auto racing legends Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt that won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. An all-American feat yet to be repeated.
While The Henry Ford does most of its conservation, restoration and repair work in-house in its Conservation Lab, a team of curators and conservators decided to send the vehicle to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in Santa Ana, California, for careful inspection and treatment. “The project was the perfect merging of car restoration and conservator ethics,” said Fahey.
The ‘67 Ford GT40 was in Gurney’s shop for nine months. The directive was not to repaint or replace, only to disassemble and catalog damage, and make approved repairs where absolutely necessary.
“If this would have been a restoration, we would have taken parts off the car, replated, repolished, replaced. Made it look better than new,” said Justin Gurney, All American Racers’ CEO and racing icon Dan Gurney’s son. “Conservation is way different. We needed to leave the car just as it was when it came off the track.”
That meant green potted-plantlike foam found under the lower rocker panels was left as is because it was related to modifications made on the fly by the Ford team for better aerodynamics. Panels that had notes on the back — written in black marker by Ford team member Phil Remington — also remain. Cracks in the windshield, fiberglass and paint weren’t repaired either because they occurred during the historic race.
“One specialist at the 1967 Le Mans race had told us they remembered the crack in the windshield,” said Fahey. “It was important to us to keep it as part of the car’s race story.” According to Le Mans racing lore, the crack most likely occurred as the crew jumped on and rode atop the car in celebration after the big win.
Fahey said Gurney’s team went so far as to send her bags of paint chips, which popped off as the team disassembled and repaired the car. In-painting to repair damage to the car’s surface was later painstakingly completed in The Henry Ford’s Conservation Lab by senior conservator Deck.
The one thing Justin Gurney would have loved to do that certainly didn’t fall into the conservation column: Start the engine. He didn’t, of course. “We really wanted to get the motor running. Would have loved to hear that thing fire up,” he said. That would have required extensive restoration and replacement of parts that weren’t part of The Henry Ford’s conservation plan for the car.
“I see both sides of the story now,” said Gurney, who had never participated in a conservation effort of this scale before. “A lot of cars that sit in our museum are better than new. Sometimes it’s better to leave things alone. You can over-restore something.”
RESPONSIBLE UTILIZATION Gurney’s revelation speaks to every museum’s ethical responsibility to its collections and its visitors, and how it determines when an artifact should be preserved and when it should be utilized in some state to entertain or educate.
Conservators would cringe at the idea of restoring the engine of the ‘67 GT40, turning the ignition key and taking it for a 200-mile-per-hour spin on a racetrack purely to entertain a crowd. Then the car quickly becomes more of a replica than an authentic artifact with a compelling history of use worth preserving. “As tempting as it might be to put the pedal to the metal and show off, an artifact is not there for our personal gratification or to massage our egos,” said Collum.
“I call it consumptive adoration. There is lots of pressure to operate mechanical artifacts in the museum communities, but it comes to a point where we can love something to death, where we consume it by using it and the artifact deteriorates and is lost.”
Circling back to Collum’s story of his unrestored MG or the rare Ferrari, it seems that more people might be joining this conservator’s camp. That there is this societal shift happening, where both collectors and observers are beginning to see the value in leaving things alone, keeping them in an original state rather than making them appear better than new.
And, as Collum explained, you know an idea is starting to go mainstream when a rogue group bubbles to the surface and tries to take advantage of what’s popular without actually understanding why it’s popular. “You’ve got people at car shows now that are trying to fake it up or Disney it up,” he said. “They are ‘unrestoring’ what they have already restored because they think it’s more glamorous and likely to win — latching on to an idea without fully understanding its meaning.” By Jennifer LaForce
SAVING A SURFACE Envision a car fender, bumped and bruised, with deep scratches in its paint. Most collision and body shops wouldn’t even bother trying to patch or cover, opting instead to just strip the paint, repair the damage and repaint the entire panel with sophisticated power spray guns for the best results.
Now, imagine those bumps, tears and missing areas of paint on a historic race car that belongs to The Henry Ford. While Dan Gurney’s All American Racers made careful repairs to the body of the 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV after it was damaged in transit, the painting was left to Clara Deck, senior conservator at The Henry Ford. Using a technique called in-painting, which is the same technique art conservators would use to repair a famous painting or print, Deck spent hours color-matching pigments, creating her own custom blend of wax/resin paste. She then applied it over repaired tears, in between cracks, around rivets and in areas missing paint — all by hand with small brushes, heated spatulas, irons and a hot-air tool.
All the work done by Deck is reversible and can be easily removed if required — a statement to the conservator’s pledge to maintain an artifact’s authenticity. Maybe even more interesting, Deck only filled in the cracks and blemishes caused by the transit damage. Cracks known to exist on the car’s surface as collateral damage from its hard-fought win were left as is, each representing its own small chapter in the story of the all-American win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Museum Conservators don’t usually like stripping. But sometimes we need to do it.
I partially stripped a yellowed varnish from select areas of this fabulous table to restore a more period - appropriate contrast between the painted panels.
If you collect antiques or watchAntiques Roadshow on PBS, you already know that “original surfaces” are usually highly valued. Even when it is found in slightly damaged and worn condition, the original varnish on a piece of furniture may help prove the true age of a treasured antique.
However, what happens when the varnish has aged and yellowed, causing a color-shift in the object? This normal yellowing, which happens over time, may make the object hard to “read.”
Many reading this post will remember that in 2013, The Henry Ford was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums for America: Collections Stewardship grant by the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). In this grant, The Henry Ford set out to identify, clean, treat, rehouse, and create digital catalog records for more than 1,000 communications-related artifacts related to photography, data processing, printing, telecommunications, sound communication, and visual communication. We’re pleased to announce that with about a month left to go in the grant period, we have put more than 1,000 objects through almost every step of the process, and expect to finish up a number of additional objects before we run out of time.
Given how close we are to the end of this project, I asked a few of the staff who’ve spent time working with these objects to weigh in with their thoughts on what was interesting, what was challenging, or what they’ve learned through this process.