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Conservation Notes: Piecing together the past

November 25th, 2014

Figure 1: Examples of modern (left) and historic glass.

Figure 1: Examples of modern (left) and historic glass.

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs

Picture this: you’re in your grandfather’s ancestral home. Under a stack of dusty photo albums you discover a small book-like box with a tiny metal clasp. You open it and find a photograph of a man with familiar features sitting stiffly before a painted landscape. It dawns upon you that it must be some distant relative, perhaps your great, great grandfather. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the image is in fact printed on a sheet of glass and that glass is cracked in two. What do you do?

As the AGO’s conservator of photographs, I’ve spent the past 10 years facing very similar situations. I have conducted research and taught workshops on a much neglected part of photography: the conservation of photographs on glass. This includes ambrotypes, opaltypes, wet plate Collodion, gelatine silver on glass and a host of other processes, many of which are represented in the AGO’s photography collection.
One of the pressing concerns in photograph conservation is how to deal with broken photographs on glass. Should they be repaired? Can they be repaired? In trying to answer these questions, a conservator must consider a host of factors, including: when the photograph was produced, the nature of the glass used, what photographic process was used and the value (monetary, sentimental or cultural) of the piece.

Imagine you needed to repair a sheet of glass that had broken in two. The logical way to do it would be to lay the two fragments on a flat surface, butt them against each other and glue their edges. However, it’s often not that simple.

Figure 2: A side view of historic non-planar glass.

Figure 2: A side view of historic non-planar glass.

Due to the glass-making processes prior to 1950, the sheets of glass used in photographic processes were not truly flat. This “non-planar” glass poses problems for conservators. Figure 1 is a comparison of modern glass, on the left, and pre-1950 historic glass, on the right. A bank of ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights is reflected in their surfaces. The reflection on the modern glass is undistorted because the glass is flat and the reflection on the historic glass is distorted because the glass is slightly wavy. You may have seen windows of old houses that look wavy and noticed how distorted any reflections look; that effect occurs because the glass is non-planar (Figure 2). This poses problems when repairing broken photographs on glass because when laid flat, the shards cannot be aligned properly. With this in mind, an innovative solution had to be found to accomplish the reassembly of broken historic photographs. The whole point of most photographs is to be decipherable, and if a photograph on glass is not in one piece, it loses its meaning and its full impact on the viewer.

Figure 3: A vertical assembly setup.

Figure 3: A vertical assembly setup.

The solution I determined, in association with the George Eastman House and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, is an adaptation of a method created by Stephen Koob of the Corning Museum. It is the “vertical assembly” method, wherein the broken photograph on glass is assembled vertically, rather than horizontally. In this method, it is essential that the main shard is positioned perfectly aligned with gravity (Figure 3). Because glass is so brittle, it breaks very sharply. This results in a clean break, a shattering effect or a combination of the two. Vertical alignment ensures that the constant of gravity will pull the shards into position. This method of shard assembly is a completely new concept in photograph conservation.

There are many nuances to the repair of broken historic photographs on glass, and it takes a lot of experience and practice to master. If you have a broken photograph on glass it is best to contact the AGO conservation department for a referral to a conservator.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: A return to Betty Goodwin’s studio

October 27th, 2014


This is the third post in a series on the preservation and storage of Betty Goodwin’s notebooks. See the previous posts here and here.


Marianne Williams, Digital Special Collections Assistant in the AGO Library and Archives, has finished her project of creating new preservation enclosures for the 121 sketchbooks and notebooks from the late Montreal-based artist Betty Goodwin. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: What’s (literally) behind Belle Époque posters’ longevity

September 3rd, 2014

Théophile Steinlen, Tournée du Chat Noir, 1896. Colour lithograph, sheet: 142 × 98.1 cm (55 7/8 × 38 5/8 in.). Gift from the Donald R. Muller/ Ross R. Scott. Collection through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2013. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

Théophile Steinlen, Tournée du Chat Noir, 1896. Colour lithograph, sheet: 142 × 98.1 cm (55 7/8 × 38 5/8 in.). Gift from the Donald R. Muller/ Ross R. Scott. Collection through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2013. © 2014 Art Gallery of Ontario

In a post earlier this year we introduced you to Tessa Thomas, Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Paper Conservation at the AGO. Tessa is currently completing research and treatments on a group of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posters from the Ross R. Scott and Donald R. Muller Collection. Here is Tessa’s latest update on the progress of the project: Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Preserving history on nitrate film

August 18th, 2014

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

The Henryk Ross collection of negatives depict the Łódź Ghetto in Poland from 1939 to 1944, composing a valuable record of the conditions Jewish people faced during the Second World War. As with all film negatives from that period, they are on cellulose nitrate stock, a potentially dangerous medium due to the material’s tendency to release harmful gases when it degrades. Steps had to be taken to stop the deterioration of the negatives, and so they were recently digitally copied and put into frozen storage at the AGO.

Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Looking at ephemera in Betty Goodwin’s notebooks

August 11th, 2014


Click arrows to see inside the notebooks.

Betty Goodwin’s notebooks and sketchbooks are both interesting documents of the artist’s process and important objects in their own right, offering insight into her daily life and art practice. The term “ephemera” refers to documents or items that were not necessarily meant to last long and are often made of materials that deteriorate quickly. The ephemera found in Goodwin’s notes comprise a variety of materials, including sticky notes, banana stickers, instant photographs, newspaper articles and pressed flowers. Making sure the sketchbooks are preserved in the exact condition that Goodwin left them, with ephemeral items intact where Goodwin placed them, allows researchers to see the artist’s thoughts on her own works.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Goodwin, with the help of her studio assistant, revisited a number of her sketchbooks from the earlier days of her career, using sticky notes and metal clips to mark key pages, some of which date back to the 1960s. Some sketchbooks have pages that have been removed, with photocopies pasted back in their place, and some of these copied pages even re-appear in later sketchbooks, stuck onto pages or tucked in as loose leaves in agendas or diaries. Maintaining these re-arrangements, along with clips and the sticky notes, lets researchers see which of Goodwin’s own entries, sketches or notes she considered important.

The temporary nature of various ephemeral elements presents some challenges to conservation: the low-tack glue of sticky notes makes them vulnerable to detaching and metal clips will rust. However, each of the individually created enclosures made by Digital Special Collections Assistant Marianne Williams securely contains the ephemera in each volume and ensures no materials or information will be lost. Read about those here.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Artist Betty Goodwin’s thoughts on paper

July 28th, 2014

Marianne at work in the studio

Marianne at work in the studio


As Digital Special Collections Assistant in the AGO Library and Archives this summer, Marianne Williams is building new enclosures to preserve decades’ worth of sketchbooks and notebooks of the late Montreal-based artist Betty Goodwin.

Goodwin bequeathed more than 100 sketchbooks, notebooks, agendas and diaries to the AGO. Many of them were featured in the Gallery’s 2010/2011 exhibition Work Notes, which showcased Goodwin’s artistic practice and process. Once off display, the books were wrapped in acid-free tissue as a temporary storage measure, as seen above.


Click through slideshow to see all the steps

The first step in creating a new enclosure is measuring the dimensions of the notebook to the millimetre and then creating a custom-made box from archival-quality materials to house the book. Using these materials protects the notebook from acid normally found in paper materials that can yellow and deteriorate over time, causing brittleness and increased risk of damage.

The customized box, called an enclosure, is then labelled and tied together with cotton tape in order to secure all of the flaps. This protects the books from shifting around when being handled, prevents scratches or rips and ensures that any loose materials, like pressed flowers or loose leaves of paper, stay snug in their original places.

The individual book enclosures are then placed in larger boxes for storage in the AGO Library and Archives vault.

The re-housed notebooks will be kept in the AGO’s Edward P. Taylor Library and Archives, where curators and other researchers will have access to them to study and examine in the future.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece: Musseled Moore

April 22nd, 2014

In this video AGO conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art Sherry Phillips explains the work she’s doing with U.K. artist Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece: Musseled Moore, part of the AGO’s collection of contemporary art, and the artist discusses how it is aging. For background on Musseled Moore, watch the video below as Starling discusses the creation of this aquacultural work.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Kress Fellow Tessa Thomas and posters of the Belle Époque

March 19th, 2014

Tessa Thomas and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

Tessa Thomas and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

The Samuel H. Kress Foundation provides yearly grants to cultural heritage institutions to support a conservation training fellowship; only nine awards for Kress Conservation Fellowships were presented for the 2013/2014 year and the AGO is pleased that the foundation selected us to receive a grant. Maria Sullivan, manager of Conservation at the AGO, calls the fellowship for emerging conservators — administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation — “a unique opportunity for the AGO and for conservation training in Canada.”

“Having a Kress Fellow here in the AGO Paper Conservation Lab is such a wonderful way to engage with our fabulous collection, with dynamic discussion and sharing of conservation principles and techniques within a large collecting institution,” says Joan Weir, the AGO’s conservator, Works on Paper. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Safety first!

January 24th, 2014

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

By Maria Sullivan, Manager of Conservation

In the AGO Conservation Department, we’re always concerned about the condition of the artwork… but of course we’re very careful about our own health and safety, too.

Visitors to our labs often wonder about the long contraptions that resemble elephant trunks dangling from the ceiling. We do often call them trunks, but they are, in fact, extraction units that we use when working with small amounts of solvents. When the units are on, the trunks suck air away from the working area so that the conservator isn’t exposed to the solvent vapours. We always consult our material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to understand the materials we’re using and what protective measures are needed. We also try to use less toxic materials whenever possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Insider’s look at a prayer bead

December 18th, 2013


Credit: Prayer Bead, The Thomson Collection at the AGO, 29365. Courtesy of The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario, Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario, 2012, and Eric Fournier, Chief Technology Officer, ORS Visual.

In a previous Conservation Notes post we introduced you to work that Lisa Ellis, conservator of sculpture and decorative art, and Sasha Suda, associate curator of European Art, were doing to learn more about prayer beads from the Thomson Collection of European Art here at the AGO. Working with colleagues from the University of Western Ontario, Ellis and Suda used micro tomography (microCT) to better understand prayer beads and how they were constructed.

This time, to create the image above, the Sustainable Archaeology (SA) facility in the Department of Anthropology at Western University, in London, Ont., provided scans using a Nikon Metrology XT 225 microCT scanner.

The video slices through the exterior shell of a 16th-century Northern European wooden microcarving to reveal an intricate interior showing the Last Judgement. The microCT data set has been manipulated with ORS Visual, a program produced by a Montreal-based company. This software transforms the microCT data, which is based on X-ray images, into the comprehensible, animated scenes shown here.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program