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Conservation Notes: Displaying Henryk Ross’s powerful Łódź Ghetto photos

April 30th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944,  35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944, 35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

The exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is rather unique for the AGO in that many different mounting methods are used to represent the powerful imagery of the photographs. It depicts the life in the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland: a work camp for Jewish and Romani people before they were sent to the Auschwitz and Chelmno concentration camps. We used a variety of display methods in the exhibition—pins, frames, magnets and custom-designed display cases—that work together to create a seamless display of period and modern prints.

New prints made from Ross's negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

New prints made from Ross’s negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

Unlike most exhibitions at the AGO, Memory Unearthed includes many modern prints because most of the original images are only available in negative form. The negatives are nitrate-based and cannot be put on display for health and safety reasons. We put them into frozen storage, but before that we scanned them into a database and made new prints for the exhibition. To avoid detracting from the image, we opted to pin them to the walls of the gallery without frames (as above).

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas.

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas, with Japanese paper tabs.

This exhibition also includes period gelatin silver photographs, such as a folio of contact prints, identification cards, candid shots and wedding photographs. One of the more complicated mounting challenges we faced was how to minimally present Ross’s folio of contact negative prints safely and gracefully. The goal was to give the impression that the pages were almost floating in the case. To accomplish this, we:

  • affixed the folio pages to clear Plexiglas frames, which were then sandwiched in long sheets of additional Plexiglas;
  • attached Japanese paper tabs along the top edge, connecting the pages to Plexiglas frames;
  • used dry wheat-starch paste, a fully reversible adhesive, to attach the tabs to the folio pages;
  • and used archival double-stick tape to attach the tabs to the Plexiglas frames.

This method was successful, but to give visitors another way to view these important images, they are also projected on the wall near the presentation case in a film format (as in the photo below).

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Learn more about the exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross here.


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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.


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Conservation Notes: Print on this

February 18th, 2015

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By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake’s The Natural Way to Draw and other interesting photograph supports

Until the relatively recent advent of digital photography, in which many photographs exist solely as pixels on a screen, every photograph was printed. By far, the most common support on which to print has been paper. However, even since the early days of photography, they have also been printed on paper, fabric, metal, glass, ceramic and a host of other surfaces.

And now, with the advent of digital printing technologies, we can print photographs on almost any substrate. They can be ink-jet printed on to canvas, plastic, vinyl or paper: the possibilities are endless. As photograph conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m fascinated by the wide array of other materials on which photographers and artists have printed their images. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Plastering The Grange

February 18th, 2015

By Claire Molgat-Laurin, AGO Conservation intern

Conserving the AGO’s largest artifact

The AGO’s largest artifact isn’t a monumental painting, or even a sculpture. Think even bigger.

Built in 1817, The Grange was the first building to serve as the home of the AGO, then known as the Art Museum of Toronto, and it is the oldest remaining brick house in Toronto — an important piece of history both for Toronto and for the AGO.

But over the course of the past few years, Jennifer Rieger, the historic site coordinator for The Grange, noticed that paint on one of the basement scullery walls was becoming powdery and blistered. This was a worrying symptom, one that indicated water was trapped in the walls and was damaging the plaster underneath the paint.

Henry Bowyer Lane British, 1817 - 1878, The Grange, c. 1840, overall: 28.6 x 44.1 cm (11 1/4 x 17 3/8 in.), watercolour on paper, Gift of Mrs. Seawell Emerson, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1972, transferred from the Grange, 2008. © Art Gallery of Ontario

Henry Bowyer Lane
British, 1817 – 1878, The Grange, c. 1840, overall: 28.6 x 44.1 cm (11 1/4 x 17 3/8 in.), watercolour on paper,
Gift of Mrs. Seawell Emerson, Marblehead, Massachusetts, 1972, transferred from the Grange, 2008. © Art Gallery of Ontario.

A house like The Grange is like a living organism, with each part of its construction supported by another. If one component of the house is out of balance, it can affect the rest of the building too. The plaster covering the walls of The Grange should function as its skin, protecting the walls of the house and wicking dampness away from them.

Finding the root of this problem took some serious digging through the archives of the AGO to find records of previous repairs, sending samples of the materials in the wall to be analyzed by conservation scientists and consulting with a preservation architect to assess the exterior of the house. As we learned more about older repairs and the materials used, the situation started becoming clear: one of the problems with this wall originated during a restoration treatment that undertaken in the 1970s.

One of the most important principles in conserving artifacts and art is to use compatible materials that will react to the surrounding environment in the same way as the original components. The old restoration of the plaster in The Grange had been executed with materials that were thought to be compatible at the time. However, in more recent years, it has now been found that these newer, more mainstream materials definitely don’t combine well with traditional materials like those used in the original construction of the house.

Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

The Portland cement and bonding agent used underneath the repaired plaster didn’t react to moisture in the same way as the original lime plaster layers. Instead of allowing moisture to dissipate through its surface, the bonding agent blocked the movement of moisture, causing the plaster to deteriorate and any attempted repairs to fail. The analysis of the materials also suggested that the wall was retaining moisture because the plaster hadn’t been left to cure long enough before the paint was applied, which didn’t allow the plaster to breathe.

To repair the plaster, we called in the services of specialists in heritage plastering — Ben Scott and James Sloan from the Lime Plaster Company. Both have a lot of experience working with historic buildings and know lime plaster inside and out.

According to Scott, working with historic houses like The Grange is complicated, but there’s one simple approach: every historic building is going to be different, and you can’t treat them all the same way.

Most of the time, going back to tried-and-true traditional methods is best. This is a new repair, but the materials have been used in construction all over the world for thousands of years: slaked limes, non-hydraulic or hydraulic limes, animal hair and assorted natural aggregates. The plaster used by Scott and Sloan is their own mix of aged lime putty plaster, unadulterated by any other materials that could be in ready-made mixes.

A closer look: Exposed structural wall in The Grange.

A closer look: Exposed structural wall in The Grange.


It’s a process that takes skill and experience and, most of all, time. Before starting the new treatment, they completely removed the old repairs, paring the wall down to its granite rocks to get a good surface for the plaster. They then applied several layers of plaster over the course of several weeks, starting with a strong “pricking-up” coat that prepared the surface for other layers, then gradually building up to the smooth outer finishing coat. Finally, the plaster needed time to cure as the lime react with carbon dioxide in the air and hardens, forming a strong bond.

The new lime plaster will allow The Grange’s wall to breathe again by effectively drawing moisture away from the walls to help protect the house. A well-executed plastering job like this will last a lifetime, like the original walls of The Grange.

“They don’t make them like this anymore,” Scott said, patting the wall of The Grange.

All the more reason to keep it breathing.


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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.


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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.


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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